2 May 2016

D’odyssey: A Library Students experience of the jobs market.

Guest post by Michael O'Sullivan, a recent MLIS graduate of UCD Information and Communication Studies. His interests  include history, education and the role of LIS in both.
This post is also available on his own blog Library Muses.

Last August, I completed my Masters in Library and Information studies in University College Dublin. Since that time, I have been on the jobs market hunting down any and all types of LIS work. Recently, just this week, I received a bit of good news. I was offered and accepted a librarian position in the Chengdu Campus of Beanstalk International Bilingual School in the People’s Republic of China. Given the rigors of the past few months, it was suggested to me that I write a blog on my experiences of the modern LIS job market. Whether you are nearing the end of your LIS course or considering a career move, I hope there is something to be gained from my own experience.

Recently, I found a laconic description of the central theme of James Joyce’s Ulysses: “A single day in the life of a modern man is as exciting and dangerous as the whole of The Odyssey”. It is certainly difficult to argue with that point. While mulling that point over, I realised that whenever the process of job hunting is discussed, the notion of the modern, technological, digital world is often brought up. As if there has been a tipping point, before which the conduct of job seekers and employers differs from the behaviours exhibited after. This notion of modernity, created a link in my mind between my own job seeking, and Leopold Blooms trip around Dublin. If a simple stroll can capture the essence of the Odyssey, then imagine the adventures of a job seeker navigating the choppy waters of other candidates, employer expectations, concerns of family and friends, balancing reality and the promises of politicians and Universities, economic malaise and networking. In other words every job seeker encounter thrills, dangers and obstacles as multifarious and fascinating as Calypso, Circe, Charybdis and Scylla.

Like Odysseus at the beginning of the poem, recent jobseekers are departing from a scene of triumph; the completion of their education, with the wind at their back and all the world ahead of them. At least, that was how I felt. I was optimistic, surrounded by people also driven to succeed in the LIS world. During the closing months of the Masters in Library and Information Studies course, I sent out dozens of applications to Libraries and Information institutions in Ireland, UK and USA. An evening was not complete without hours of answering inflexible online forms for jobs in UK, trying to determine corresponding grades, and informing the employer that “yes I am white Irish”.  Then came the rejections, the “try again at another time” messages, the silences. Moreover, once the course was finished, I had to return from Dublin to the family home in Cork and work out my plan for the immediate future. Throughout, this whole process, I must thank the advice and support of Martin O'Connor and Jane Burns, both pillars of the Irish library community for their advice, proof reading and general support, without which this process would have been unbearable.

My zeal for working in Libraries remained intact, but I was beginning to realise that the direct route was not working. During this time, the thought of a Jobbridge was abhorrent. Six months on social welfare, was not on the cards, and then working for a pittance while broke was too much to bear. Although more LIS jobs were available the competition from the backlog of older more experienced candidates and the fact that many positions were centred in Dublin (in my biased opinion) hamstrung my prospects. So, I got a job in Wetherspoons - that pub chain from the UK - recently branching into Ireland.  Needless to say this was an experience. My customer service was impeccable, my pint pulling ability dreadful. However, I learned a great deal from my brief time there, exposed to customers, the differing personalities of my co-workers, the reality that workplaces do not run like clockwork, long hours (seriously eleven hour shifts with only an hour break) etc. One could say the experience compounded lessons acquired from the Masters course in UCD.

Desperate, not to give up on the library dream, I remembered volunteering as a reading mentor at Terence McSwiney Community College a DEIS secondary school in Knocknaheeny Co. Cork. For any non-Irish readers this meant essentially that, the Irish government recognised that the high school provided services in a severely disadvantaged area and provided extra funding and schemes to help the student body. It is not an exaggeration to say that the reading mentor experience was developmentally a defining one.

Firstly, it revealed first-hand the importance of education and information for people, especially those in difficult social circumstances and secondly how important library services are in that role. In my opinion, Anne Masterson the JCSP librarian at TCM embodies what I believe a librarian should be in a school setting. While, I was a reading mentor she hosted the sessions in the school library and was constantly involved in encouraging the students to read, learn and develop their skills. Witnessing this type of work was what made me want to become a school librarian. Therefore, rather than work at Wetherspoons and rely solely on making enough money for a TEFL course, I made contact with Anne and Ms Phil O Flynn the school principal and volunteered as a library assistant at the school for three months. I cannot deny that those were three excellent months, I gained experience providing a library service in an educational setting, and I met Mr. Alan Kennedy, a tutor employed by the Irish Department of Education to work one on one with students outside a classroom setting. I was asked to help Mr. Kennedy with a reading program for students from the Irish Travelling community, an essential and enlightening experience which I gained a great deal from. Towards the close of 2015 I also applied for a vacancy advertised on Library jobs.ie for a school in Kuwait. Part of this process entailed meeting the fantastic Loretta Jennings the schools HR manager, who was based in Ireland. I cannot stress how fortunate a meeting this was, given Ms. Jennings long experience in career advice. At around the same time, I decided to leave Wetherspoons, as I was becoming extremely unhappy with the type of work I was doing. Fortunately, I picked up Christmas work in retail which kept me occupied for a few weeks.

In an additional turn of fortune, a friend of mine was able to offer me two weeks volunteer work at the Library and Media centre at St. Johns Central College in Cork city. As an institute of further education, it was an excellent opportunity to deal with a range of students, from those who recently sat the Leaving Certificate, to adults returning to education. Under the excellent management of Deidre Eccles, I was able to practice my chosen profession and help students with technological and educational queries.

In true modernist style, it has become essential at this point in the narrative to backtrack a bit. For several years I have wanted to live and work abroad. Before, beginning the Masters course in UCD, I stumbled across a blog post describing the benefits of becoming a librarian in an international school. After reading the piece the deal was sealed, I had a plan so cunning, I could brush my teeth with it. However, I had no idea how to break into the international school circuit. Remembering the advice of Jane Burns, Martin O Connor and another cornerstone of the LIS profession Michelle Dalton to network I decided to do just that. I met Michelle one evening, and she put me in contact with Laura “Missy” Cahill a school Librarian in China. The rest as they say was history, Missy is a wonderful contact and friend, offering invaluable advice and encouraged my joining an agency called “Search Associates” which specialised in International educators. Calling upon all my previous experiences, I was accepted by the agency, and travelled to London for a jobs fair.

I cannot stress how invaluable the fair was. Despite only being there for two days, I met several international school teachers, principals, and librarians. Interestingly, the latter group only made up thirteen attendees out of two hundred. This illustrated the importance of trained librarians, and that a demand exists on an international level. Furthermore, what was wonderful about the fair was how helpful everyone was. One teacher would pipe up “does anyone know anything about Egypt?” and more often than not, someone would come over and offer their help. One such informal chat is what ultimately netted me the job with BIBS. An acquaintance I made, mentioned that a school was being set up, and put me in touch with the principal. On the whole the fair was a fascinating experience, it introduced me to others working in the international field, and boosted my confidence as I received several interviews and a job offer (which I rejected).

The weeks since the jobs fair were made up of waiting, with several schools considering my candidacy. Rather than remain passive, I followed the advice of a friend, a decision which resulted in my current employment as a clerical officer in Cork University Hospital. Where I remain until it is time to leave for China. There was a brief flirtation with attending an interview for a part time vacancy in Trinity College Dublin. Despite, the allure of the position, the attendant risk and the cost of living in Dublin, ensured that decision to remain there I was.

So, what moral lessons, do my experience have to offer? If I am being honest, I am not sure. I could say it illustrates how convoluted the post recessionary job market is, perhaps it elucidates how millennials must be flexible and undertake actions they necessarily do not want, or ultimately the role that fate or luck plays in such affairs. Personally, I think it says how no man is an island. I could not have made it through the last few months alone. I had a great deal of help and encouragement. Which brings me to the expressions of gratitude. I cannot convey my thanks enough to my family and friends for helping me, during this time. In no particular order this extends to Martin O Connor, Jane Burns, Michelle Dalton, Elaine Harrington, Lai Ma, Claire Nolan, Amber Cushing, all the staff members of the Boole Library UCC, James Joyce Library UCD and the school the UCD School of Library and Information studies for all their support. To Loretta for all the advice and great conversations. To Julie, Helena, and Missy for all the tips advice, tirades, chats and aid offered to navigate the world of education and travel. To Anne Masterson. Ms. Flynn, Alan Kennedy and the staff of TMC, along with Deidre Eccles of St. Johns for the encouragement and opportunity to practice my trade. Last but not least I must thank Mr. David Cope of Search Associates for taking me on and guiding through the jobs fair, and to Karl Hanratty and Claire for putting me in touch with my current employer. For anyone I have not mentioned I apologise, but thank you for all your assistance.

In short, having the support of colleagues, friends and family makes all the difference in the world for job seekers. Unlike Odysseus, you cannot successfully blind the Cyclops, or visit the underworld alone, relying only your wits and strength of character A strong network, or crew to continue the analogy is required for success. And in that regard I have been most fortunate indeed.

 For anyone interested in getting in touch my Blog is librarymuses@wordpress.com and my twitter handle is @OMichaelos


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