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Career Strategies for Librarians
Panel Interviews: “Everything’s Gonna Be All Right”

by Chrissie Anderson Peters

In January 2003, an interesting question was posed to the email discussion list, NEWLIB-L (a
discussion list for New Librarians and those about to enter the field – for more information, see http:
//www.lahacal.org/newlib/), about how to best prepare for a “Panel Interview.” The common perception of
the panel interview scenario is that the interviewee enters a room full of strangers who smile politely,
then proceed to evaluate your answers to whatever questions they feel are pertinent to your qualifications
for the position(s) being offered by their institution. Sometimes, interviewing just one-on-one can be a
harrowing experience, so you can imagine (if you are unfamiliar with it firsthand!), the anxiety that
interviewing in such a situation may cause even the most fearless interviewees. Remember, they’re not
a firing squad!

Be Prepared

Having described the scenario in just this way, however, I want to emphasize that this is the common
perception of what a panel interview is. Like any experience in life, it can present itself as daunting,
dooming, or dumbfounding, but preparing for it mentally can ease the interviewee’s trepidations
considerably. Perhaps the most important thing to bear in mind is that, despite how many people you
face as you enter the room, you are still an active participant in an interview. Certainly, one-on-one is
sometimes less frightful, but this group setting can offer certain advantages, as well. Being prepared for
an interview is being prepared for an interview, despite how many people are there to ask you questions.
And if one person’s questions seem especially dogged, there is a very good chance that someone else
on the panel will ask questions that are less pointed and that put you more at ease. However, if you go
into an interview situation just trying to “wing it” or without having credentials and experiences
commensurate with those necessary for the position at stake, chances are that the interview will not
have the outcome that you hope for, regardless of how many people are involved with the interviewing
process. And you may find that it is even more difficult to convince a group of people if you are unqualified
than it would be to fool just one person.

Tried to Be True

My first panel interview was for a Circulation Assistant position in a public library in Virginia, almost ten
years ago. I remember walking into the room to see four or five people looking up at me. Most of them
were from that particular library, the same library that I had used religiously since I was in elementary
school. On that particular day, it felt like sitting down with old friends to chat about “great” books,
“popular” books, the “cool” things that I had learned in college (this was just after graduating with my BA
in English), and how things were going in my hometown. Four years later, when I landed my first
professional-level interview at another public library in Virginia, this one not where I grew up and not
among old “friends” who just wanted to chat about books, I was led up a back stairwell to face three
people other than the one who had walked up the stairs with me, all waiting with expressionless faces in
the Director’s Conference Room. My first instinct was to run far and run fast. How on earth could I
possibly convince four people of my worthiness for this Reference Assistant position?

But I took a deep breath and sat down instead of running. I smiled politely and answered their questions,
whether asked individually or tacked on at the end of another person’s question. As we talked more, I
noticed that they all started to loosen up more – just as I did. And even though they told me at the end of
the interview that there were in-house applicants for the position, I still left feeling like I had engaged in
an excellent interview. When I got my “rejection” letter for that Reference Assistant position, I actually
saved it. It was not the rejection part that excited me, but the fact that it was the nicest rejection letter I
ever received and that it encouraged me to apply for another position opening in their system, a position
that fit more with my background and experience in the field. When I faced that same panel again for that
position, we still were not old friends, but I knew what was expected of me and I delivered them the
honesty and creativity that I felt necessary to prove that I should be the one that they hired. I began as
Youth Services Librarian a few weeks later. During my almost-three years there, I witnessed several
more panel interviews, but always tried to remember to smile when the interviewees came in. (As a side
note, I learned that most of the folks who interviewed me did not care much for panel interviews and
were actually nervous themselves!)

Step By Step

Having been involved with a panel interview in a public library from both sides of the table (as an
interviewee and an interviewer) then, my first suggestion to an interviewee in this scenario would be to
make contact throughout with all members of the panel. Some of them will likely ask you more questions
than others, but don’t forget to acknowledge all of them with smiles, courtesy, and eye contact. Answer
the one who asks you a question. For example, if the Youth Services Librarian asks something, don’t
blow him/her off and turn to the Director to proceed with your answer.

Second of all, don’t be intimidated. Panel interviews are typically done in order to give a group of people
the opportunity to check you out. Use it to your advantage and make it an opportunity for you to check out
all of them, too. You may be able to find out a lot about the library’s political environment just from
listening to them or seeing how they interact with each other. This is a wonderful opportunity for you as a
potential new employee in this library! If the air is thick and people never relax, this may be a big indicator
to you that there is friction in the workplace or that your would-be colleagues don’t loosen-up well.

Just as you would be professional and courteous in a one-on-one interview, extend that to the panel.
Just because you may not care for Technical Services if you’re more into Public Services doesn’t mean
that you won’t be working to some extent with the Tech Services Librarian who sits in on this interview. It’
s okay to admit that you don’t know a great deal about cataloging, but don’t say something like, “Tech
Services people have got to be the biggest bores in the world!” (Likewise, you wouldn’t tell a Youth
Services Librarian that you hate children – you get the picture!)

If they’re all interviewing you, chances are that they’ll all talk about your interview at some point in time.
Leaving them with a positive impression of your charm and grace during the interview will be one way of
giving them something positive to say once you’ve left the room. Just as proper etiquette for a one-on-
one interview is to follow-up with a thank you note, it’s perfectly acceptable (and a very nice gesture), to
send a note of thanks to the group after a panel interview. If you manage to remember everyone’s name,
you just might impress some folks even further than you did in your super-duper-successful interview.

Wrap It Up

Panel interviews are not typically the stuff of horror films. Disasters are more prone to occur when people
are unprepared. Do your research about the position and/or the institution. Spend extra time polishing
your already stellar résumé. Practice answering questions in your head – or aloud – that you think you
might be asked. Ask some friends to sit down with you and ask you those sorts of questions to allow
yourself the “practice” of answering more than one interviewer. Remember that you can only perfect the
interview from your side of the table; some things are out of your hands. But for the things that you can
control, present the best possible “you” so that your interviewers can’t help but be impressed. Relax,
make eye contact, answer the person asking you the question, always be polite, and check them out
while you’re being checked out.  

About the Author:

Chrissie Anderson Peters is a Fall 2002 graduate of the School of Information Sciences at the University
of Tennessee, a program that she participated in as a Distance Education student. A member of the
Tennessee Library Association, the Virginia Library Association, ALSC, NMRT, and YALSA, she is a
Librarian for Northeast State Technical Community College in Blountville, TN. Her passions include
writing, music, reading, traveling, her "children" Mel and Reid (the feline kind), and spending as much
time as possible with her husband Russell Peters, who makes her life a joy each day.

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