Gearing Up for My Third Career

November 01, 2007

After months of hard work and meticulous planning, I've finished my graduate degree and am definitively on the market.

Like most academic job seekers, I had hoped to have something lined up for the fall, a new position to accompany the changing seasons. Now, with no plans beyond continuing my search (and freelancing to encourage a positive cash flow), I find myself settling in for the wait.

My most recent degree is a master's in library science, though like many librarians, I am a bit of a shape-shifter.

In my first career as an archaeologist, I earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from a research university in New York. The early years in my program flew by; I loved digging and doing my course work. But when the time came to start my dissertation research, I stumbled. The excavation I had joined didn't live up to my expectations or interests, and I found the lab analysis required to produce the data for my dissertation to be lonely, dusty, and dull work.

And there were all the usual graduate-student worries: mounting loan debt, tight job market, endless workload.

Feeling unmoored, I took a leave of absence from my program to try to figure things out. My timing was perfect: New York was in the midst of the Internet boom, and the HTML I had taught myself in my department's computer lab helped me secure a job with a large online media corporation. I bounced around between publishers and interactive agencies in typical Internet-nomad style for more than a year, savoring each paycheck and its seemingly magical ability to cover all of my necessary expenses and even leave a little left over for the occasional meal at a restaurant with cloth napkins.

But by the end of my leave, I felt the pull of my unfinished degree. I made myself a deal: I would give myself two years to find a local excavation to join and write my dissertation. Lucky for me, I found a dig pretty quickly, and an interesting one at that. Even luckier: My partner's gainful employment allowed me to freelance part-time while doing my research and to quit work entirely while writing up the diss. Even my defense, which had been the source of many a nightmare, went smoothly.

Suddenly I had a Ph.D. Of course, I still had my original doubts about archaeology as a career, so once again I turned to online media companies for work.

I landed a position as a project manager at a publishing company and settled in to the corporate world. I enjoyed the people I worked with and was happy to be paying off my student loans, but it soon became clear that this wasn't the perfect fit. For a while, I considered moving to the development side of the Internet world and learned a few programming languages to boost my technical skills, but I'm not a programmer at heart, either.

As time went on, I realized I missed academic life. Sure, I hadn't loved spending long hours in a dingy lab on the minutiae of my specialty, but hadn't I been fond of doing research? Even writing and teaching, though sometimes daunting, were rewarding.

Clearly I was ready for another career change, but to what? I wasn't interested in becoming a professor of archaeology and, frankly, didn't have the qualifications. Many former academics find a place in higher-education administration, but I had no relevant experience and wasn't certain that would be a good fit.

What I really wanted was a job in which having a Ph.D. was an asset, not a curiosity. I was still interested in archaeology and anthropology, but not to the exclusion of everything else. And wouldn't it be great if I could use my Internet skills, too?

In my spare time, I began to read up on nonacademic jobs for Ph.D.'s and I came across the columns written in The Chronicle by Todd Gilman, an academic librarian. He described his transformation from a miserable Ph.D. taking yet another ride on the faculty-job-market merry-go-round to a fulfilled English-literature librarian at a major university.

I must admit that the need for (and cost of) yet another graduate degree made me hesitate. But the more I read and thought about librarianship, the more interested I became.

There are as many paths to librarianship as there are librarians. I weighed the pros and cons of each approach while deciding on my strategy. Should I go to library school part time or full time? Should I work in a library while in school, keep my Internet job, or quit working altogether (much to the chagrin of my ever-industrious partner)? Since I was gearing up for my third career, I wanted to move things along as quickly as possible. And though I had exactly no experience working in a library, part-time library jobs don't usually pay enough to make them economically viable for my household.

I decided on the following combination: Quit my job, go to school full time, take on more student loans (groan), and try to secure as many internships as possible (in my case, three). All of that had to add up to success, right?

I enjoyed both library school and my internships tremendously, and can't believe it took me this long to realize what a great career that field would be for me. I'm searching for a reference-and-instruction position at an academic library, which seems like the perfect combination of teaching, research, and public service. Everyone I speak with is optimistic about my employment potential.

With a master's in library science, a Ph.D., and a lot of Internet experience, I should have no trouble getting a position, they all say.

So far I've applied for four tenure-track positions at academic libraries, as well as six temporary positions. I'm letting myself be picky at first and not applying for every job out there, though, as time goes on, I've begun widening my net. I would be happy to land an adjunct position while I search for something permanent. And I'm still going to an internship once a week, to keep my head in a library place.

Part of the issue for me is location: As with all academic jobs, if I were open to moving, the potential job base would grow larger. But for a variety of reasons (both serious and frivolous), I don't want to leave New York or even move to another neighborhood. I also don't want to commute longer than an hour (each way) on mass transit, which further limits my options. New York is a popular place, and since I'm only one of many future librarians who want to stay here, the potential applicant pool is large.

On the plus side, there are lots of library job openings, though not as many as there seemed to be back when I was applying to library schools. The much-publicized (and, in my library-school cohort, much-anticipated) shortage of librarians has yet to be fully realized. In addition, many positions I've seen are at the level of director or head, and thus inaccessible to those of us just finishing school.

So as I wait for that elusive perfect job (or even a close fit), I hope that, in my case, the optimists are right.

Maura A. Smale is chronicling her first search for a tenure-track position in an academic library.