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Career Strategies for Librarians
Flying Off the Inside Track: Survival Strategies for the Internal Candidate
by Doreen Sullivan

Imagine a Wednesday or Thursday morning. Management sends an email around, a heads-up that a
job will be advertised this weekend. Your heart thuds. The email may as well have Job of your Dreams
emblazoned across it. It’s you. It’s so you. But what if you’re not the only person in the library interested in
it? And what about the rest of the world, as management is being so foolhardy as to advertise it far and
wide? Surely you’re a shoo-in, though? After all, you’re the internal applicant.

Job Application Preparation

You might have seen how the job played out before it became vacant. You might have watched as Lisa
prepared and dressed up for all of her storytime sessions. Or you might have noticed how Jim tracked
all the reference queries on software he developed himself. Hey, you have dress-up clothes! You know
how to develop software! You tell yourself, I know what the job entails. I know what it’s all about. I’ve seen
the incumbent in action!

Take a step back, take a breath, and pause. No doubt management was thrilled with Lisa and Jim … but
often when a position falls vacant it gives bosses a chance to reconsider the role. Just because you
already work for the library does not necessarily mean that you know what is required. So talk with a
relevant staff member. Ask. Treat an internal application just as you would a job outside the organization.
Ask. Ask what goals management wants to be achieved in the first three months and beyond. Who will
you report to?  And so on. Research. Ask.  

Should You Apply in the First Place?

So you’ve checked out what the position entails. Should you apply for the job? Yes, if you want the job
and you’re qualified. (How else will the position fall into your lap?) However, know that life as an internal
candidate can be weird.  And the oddness will not cease when the job search process ends. Can you
cope with the embarrassment if you are unsuccessful in your quest? Can you deal with possible
strained relations with colleagues if your application is successful? Are you able to be gracious in defeat
or triumph? In essence your entire work life—every day past and present—becomes your showcase.

If you work for a large organization, vacancies will probably be advertised on a regular basis. Consider
whether you want the position and are qualified for it. Being a discerning applicant will work in your favor.
If you bombard the human resources department with resumes for every position around, chances are
you will diminish your reputation each time. At the very least you will come off as desperate and
unfocused. Chances are you will not be hired just because you are there and you’re available. If the job
requires fluency in the Cantonese language but you only speak English, being an internal candidate won’
t help at all.

Sometimes a boss or mentor will urge you to apply for an upcoming vacancy. Be prepared to know your
own mind—do I want this job or not?—and be honest with him or her about your intentions.  

To Tell or Not to Tell?

You have decided to go for it. You have the qualifications, and you acted in the role for two months last
spring, so you think your chances are good. You have the inside edge. So—do you place an
advertisement in the staff newsletter announcing your intention to get the job? Do you start to campaign
for the position? Do you tell each and every colleague your application plans in the same way one
makes an engagement or graduation announcement? Do you send out “Save the Date” emails to
coworkers before you have an interview?

I would urge caution. Your life is of the utmost interest to you and perhaps a loved one or two. Your
colleagues don’t care. Really, they don’t.  And while I prefer not to rain on anyone’s parade … what
happens if the unthinkable occurs and you don’t get the job? Sure, embarrassment never killed anyone,
but it can make for an uncomfortable moment or three as your ego attempts to recover from its bruising.
Ouch.

The exception to this is that you should consider informing your supervisor. She or he will probably find
out anyway and it would be best coming from you. Bosses do not like to be kept in the dark.  

The Internal Competition

If you find out that your supervisor has also applied for the position, what do you do? Panic? Withdraw
your application? Run around like a headless chicken? What if your competition is not only your
supervisor, but also Jennifer Jones, Golden Girl, and your shine, you feel, is a tad tarnished? Do you
smack your forehead and telephone HR to withdraw your application?

Job-hunting is a competition, whether or not you have inside information. Only one person will get the
job. It could be you, regardless of whether your supervisor or any other colleague has applied. But it will
never be you if you yank your resume out of contention. What’s worse, you will be seen as a flake of the
highest order. Even if you have insider status, no one wants to hire an indecisive (or even a decisive)
flake.

Face facts: the world of librarianship is small. Often you will compete for positions against people you
know: people that you work with, people you studied with, the new librarian you mentored two years ago,
a former boss. Once I had an interview for a position as a hospital librarian. As I waited in the corridor for
the interview to start I ran into my competition—we were both quasi-insiders as each of us had worked
for the hospital library at different times. We knew each other. We had a small chat. Yes, it can be
unsettling. However, there is no need to roll over and die. You get through it. I comforted myself that my
competition was of such a high caliber.

Also consider this: If you got the job simply because you were the sole applicant, would you really want
it?  

Perceptions

You think you know your interviewers; you don’t have to explain your strengths to them. They think they
know you; haven’t they seen you in action over the past four years?  

Perhaps you think that the Chief Librarian will remember that time two years ago when you worked that
extra night shift and put out that real fire in the archives—that saved the library big bucks and
irreplaceable material, right? Meanwhile, the Chief remembers that time you were a newbie and had a
meltdown and wept over the Picasso books because a student who took exception to the fine on his
card had threatened you. She may recall this one because action from her was required. And because
water-damaged Picasso books are expensive to replace.

One of my former bosses often said, “Perception is reality.” What you perceive to be true is real.
Managing other people’s perceptions is hard, if not impossible. Be aware of how people perceive you,
and recognize that you may need to jog coworkers’ memories.

At the interview—just as at any external interview—show your strengths. Tell the interviewers relevant
information about yourself. Tie your experience in to what is required. Assume the interviewer does not
know much about you, and assume that some of their perceptions are flawed.

In addition to interviewers’ perceptions, you will also face colleagues’ opinions.  Some of your coworkers
will have their own thoughts about the fact you have applied—whether you’re capable of doing the job,
whether management should just give you the job, and many other variations. (This is why I prefer to
keep quiet about any internal application I pursue, if I can.) When I left one library I was surprised when a
work friend said that she thought I had been snubbed because I didn’t get job X—I hadn’t applied for that
job, so it was no wonder I wasn’t offered it!

As an internal applicant you will also need to consider the ramifications of not pursuing a vacancy for
which you are qualified. Does this indicate a grievous lack of ambition? If you don’t step up to the plate
this time, will you be overlooked in the future? Then again, do you just want to look good on paper
regardless of natural inclination or personal satisfaction?  

Cockiness or Casualness

An inside applicant may trip up during the application process by being either too confident or too casual.
Just because you have lunch with the boss and lead interviewer on Wednesdays does not mean that
you will get the job. Just because you know that staff and students are almost indistinguishable in their
casual dress doesn’t mean that you should turn up to the interview in your beachwear. Dress
professionally; better to be overdressed than underdressed.

In job searches where both internal and external people are being interviewed, the interview panel will
often include at least one “outsider.” Dress and act for him or her if that makes it easier for you to
approach the interview professionally.

Sometimes you may need to be prepared for an interview going off course in a way that would not
happen if you were an external candidate. At one interview I was thrown by a very common question
about customer service philosophy. The interview panel consisted of three internal interviewers and an
external one. One of the internal interviewers saw that I had blanked and started to throw me hints. Big
hints. I remained panic-stricken. I was mortified that the rest of the panel might think I had colluded with
one member to prompt me. Another internal interviewer managed to get things back on track. Be aware
that unusual experiences may happen because some interviewers know you and your capabilities.

The New Blood Factor

In most cases it is far tougher to present yourself as an internal candidate than as an external candidate,
the perfect stranger. One way to circumvent the “fresh blood” factor is to repackage yourself—that is,
present yourself as new, fresh, vibrant.

Hold ‘em or Fold ‘em?

What if you apply for a few internal positions, and you have the chops, but each attempt has been
unsuccessful? Others have your coveted jobs. Do you continue to pursue opportunities within the library,
or is the writing on the wall and do you need to get out? The decision is yours; you need to determine
your value to the library and whether you remain satisfied in your current role.

Congratulations or Commiserations?

If you got the job … wonderful! Congratulations. Go celebrate with your non-work friends. Then start
work.  

If you didn’t get the job … I’m sorry, but there can only be one successful applicant. If you competed
against a colleague, be gracious and congratulate him or her. If you need to get your disappointment off
your chest, schedule a catch-up with non-work friends. Be brave and ask an interviewer how you could
be successful next time. Do you need to develop further skills? Sometimes, however, an applicant just
stands out; perhaps you were very good, but the one they hired was brilliant.

A good boss will let you know if there is room for improvement. He or she will often help you to plan an
internal job search out. A good supervisor will also never interview you in the first place if he or she
doesn’t think you’re ready for this role, but instead he or she will let you know that.  

Good luck!

About the Author:

Doreen Sullivan currently works in Melbourne, Australia, as a contract cataloger for a book vendor. She
has had a 50 percent success rate getting a job as an internal candidate.

Article published Mar 2007

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