Academic Librarian, University College Birmingham
PhD English Literature, 2020
Please describe your current role. How did you get into the role?
As an academic librarian, my role consists of two main parts. The first is providing students with academic support through 1-1 appointments and workshops about research and referencing. Professors can also book me to come and give lessons to their classes about using the library's resources. The second part of my job is resource management. This involves liaising with teaching staff to ensure that the library is ordering books and other resources that are relevant to the subjects being taught and that existing resources are easily accessed and continually updated.
Typically, library positions require having a library qualification or experience of working in a library. I had previously applied for many library-based jobs, but I had always been beaten out by someone with library experience. I was fortunate that this particular role was seeking someone with teaching experience who could be trained in the library side of things once in post. During my PhD, I'd worked part-time and had a variety of teaching experience, which turned out to be ideal for the position I currently hold. In my interview, I showed that I was ready to teach, and I was able to start having 1-1s with students within a few days of starting my job, which significantly eased the workload on my new team. I was lucky in this case because my teaching experience was prioritised over the fact that I didn’t have any library experience. However, this wasn’t an isolated occurrence: at the same time that I was offered my current position, I was offered another library role with a different university. That role was also teaching-focussed, and they cared much more about the fact that I could teach than the fact that I didn’t have a library qualification.
What motivated you to do your postgraduate research course?
My master’s dissertation was about an early 20th-century literary magazine that I’d never heard of before writing my dissertation, but it was readily available in the Cadbury Research Library, so I chose it as my subject. Entering the world of magazine publishing and editorship was lifechanging; when the feedback on my dissertation recommended that I carry the research on at PhD level, it was a no-brainer. I was lucky to get funding for my PhD from the college, and the research I’d conducted as part of my MA ended up forming part of a chapter of my finished thesis.
What do you enjoy most and what do you find challenging about your role?
I can't imagine a better job than helping students to improve their academic confidence. I love the fact that I get to interact with students from a huge range of courses and at all levels of study, and I enjoy that my job is different day to day and week to week. At the busiest times of the academic year, when students are just starting their courses or are submitting work, my days are filled with teaching workshops, inductions, 1-1s, and other bespoke lessons. At other times, such as over the summer, I am able to focus more on maintaining and updating our library resources. The biggest challenge of my role is helping students who have unrealistic expectations of the sort of support I can offer them. Sometimes, students attend their appointments expecting someone to explain their assignment to them and tell them exactly how to complete it. It can be challenging trying to encourage a frustrated student to approach their assignment in a positive way, but that’s the goal – and when the student leaves their appointment feeling more empowered to complete their assignment independently, it’s all worth it!
Have you faced any barriers during your career journey, if so, how did you overcome them?
Being an international student was one massive barrier I encountered while applying for full-time jobs after my PhD. Not having any library work experience was another. As an international student (I'm from the U.S.), I had to apply for jobs that would provide me with a work visa. At the height of Covid budget cuts, that proved to be an impossible task. I applied for dozens of HE jobs and was invited to several interviews, but I never got the job. Most frequently, the feedback I was given referred to the fact that I didn’t have any experience working in a library. I got so discouraged by my many job rejections that I switched tactics and started applying for positions in schools, thinking that I might complete a teaching qualification in the future. I worked as a teaching assistant in a primary school for a year before getting back to the HE job search. By then, I’d decided that I wanted to apply for jobs in library services. Most library positions are advertised as requiring ‘a library qualification or relevant experience’, and at that time I had never worked in a library. However, lots of academic librarian positions looked very teaching-focussed, and I had lots of teaching experience from my part-time work during my PhD. After a series of interviews for jobs in libraries, I was offered two positions even though I didn’t have library experience – but I did have lots of teaching experience. During interviews, I made sure to emphasise my passion for teaching as well as my willingness to learn the library side of things, and it paid off.
How did your time at Birmingham help you prepare for this role?
The opportunity to work part-time alongside my PhD was fundamental in allowing me to build my CV to apply for full-time work after I finished my thesis. During my time as a postgrad at UoB, I was a Postgraduate Teaching Assistant in the English department, a writing tutor for the Academic Writing Advisory Service, an editorial assistant for an academic journal, a research assistant for the REF, and a teaching assistant at the Birmingham International Academy. I was fortunate to have a good relationship with my supervisor, who pointed me towards lots of these positions, but it also helped that I was clear to him about my career goals and my desire to work in a range of positions to broaden my experience. I also had a lot of help from the PGR Careers Adviser, from learning how to search for jobs to organising my CV to practising interview skills. I’d encourage all students to take advantage of the careers advice available to them through Careers Network.
What are your career plans for the future?
I’m quite happy where I am right now! In time, I’ll look to move into a library management position, and it would be great to continue to research and publish in my PhD field, but I don’t see myself moving from working in academic student support anytime soon.
What advice do you have for people interested in further study?
If you love what you’re proposing to study, go for it! Doing my PhD was one of the best choices I’ve ever made, but I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t really, really, really enjoyed what I was researching. I loved that my PhD gave me the opportunity to work flexibly, attend conferences, sit in archives, publish, collaborate with other postgrads and university staff, and experience a huge range of different part-time jobs. I found that working alongside my PhD helped me to focus better when I sat down to write my thesis, but it also taught me my limits and made me feel more confident about refusing work when I simply didn’t have the time to comfortably fit everything in. My PhD was a great experience for me, but it can very easily take over your life, so my number one piece of advice is to study something you’re really passionate about and choose a path that works for you. Consider whether you want to work alongside your studies, and then think about whether full-time or part-time study will allow you to pursue the work and/or the experiences you want from your course.
What advice do you have for people interested in getting into your industry or role?
Having experience working in a library is hugely beneficial for applying for any library-based role, but at the end of the day, being able to confidently talk about your experiences and showing how they’re relevant to the role you’re applying for is key. It’s helpful to talk to people in the field, as well. I reached out to several librarians at different universities before applying for jobs so that I had a decent idea of what a day as a librarian actually looks like. This helped me to make sure that I was actually pursuing a job I would enjoy, and it was also a great networking opportunity.