Advice to Archives Grad Students

Last night, I was invited to be one of three guest speakers for the Intro to Public History graduate class at Wright State University. The three of us, all archivists at different types of institutions, were asked to talk a bit about our educational and career backgrounds, our job duties, and any advice we wanted to share with the graduate students.

I’ll spare you the details of what I told the students about my background and job duties, as most of that can be found elsewhere on this blog. But I thought it might be worth writing about what I told them in the way of advice. (Please note, I will probably elaborate a bit more here than I did in the class last night. I was trying to keep my little spiel to a reasonable amount of time. But here at the blog, I can go on as long as I want…and you know I do.)

#1: Get experience.

All the job ads want you to have “experience” in something. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a professional archivist job posting that said “no experience necessary.” They don’t all necessarily require you to have “a lot” of experience, but…you’ve got to have something to offer them.

They do get some real experience just from the nature of the WSU program: hands-on activities in many of the courses, an entire (required) class on arrangement & description, a required internship, and a required project. This is probably similar in most archives programs, though – so the more you can do to set yourself apart, and the more (and varied) experience you can get, the better chance you have at being hired somewhere after graduation.

So, back to the basic advice snippet: Get experience. How? I want to say “any way you can” but the infinite nature of that statement leads me to think that someone will do something bizarre and nefarious and then say “but she said ‘any way you can’.” Okay…any legitimate way you can: volunteering, extra internships, extra projects on the side, etc.

In a lot of cases, this experience-getting is probably going to involve working for free. Because in case you haven’t noticed (and if you haven’t, I’m telling you now, so take notice): most cultural organizations are not rolling in cash these days (were they ever?). Sure, there are some well-funded organizations, but in the grand scheme of all the archives/museums/historical societies/educational institutions/local governments/libraries out there, the vast majority of them do not have a heck of a lot of money to spare (or none at all). Some have no paid employees at all. [On that side note, pay attention to the credentials of anyone you want to work for/with. If they the organization is not well-thought-of in archives circles, the experience may not help you. On the flip side, you may know more than anyone there and have an opportunity to bring a new professionalism to the organization in some way, which would look pretty awesome on your resume.]

Bottom line is — you may have to work for free to beef up your resume. I realize that is not ideal. Okay, I admit, “not ideal” is a gross understatement. It’s more like “downright crappy,” actually. But consider it an investment. Just like all those dollars you’re paying to the grad school or those hours and hours (and houuuuuurs) you’re spending on studying (right?!). You may have to give more (and more and more) now, but if you play your cards right, it should be well worth it in the end.

I have done grad school two times. I worked 40 hours/week both times (most of which was paid, luckily) and graduated in 2 years both times. And okay, I didn’t get as much sleep as I would have liked, didn’t spend as much time playing as I would have liked, and probably spent more time crying than was strictly necessary (usually at the start of the term when I first got all my syllabuses together and was staring down the barrel of all the work I had for the next 10 weeks)…but I made it. And I consider myself rewarded. I got a full-time archivist job the summer after graduation; meanwhile I have friends who had to wait for years (and some who are still waiting).

Hard work will be rewarded. Eventually. I can’t promise you a job right after graduation, but I believe that if you are hardworking, dedicated, and genuinely like what you’re doing, good things will come your way.

On a related note: as a graduate student, some organizations may think of you as a “special case” and let you do cool projects that they would not normally let a “volunteer” or “temporary employee” do, because they want to help you with your education. So just keep that in mind and make sure you take advantage of the idea that while you’re still a student, it makes more sense when you go around asking for an “internship”.

And finally, not to get your hopes up too high, but you never know when something temporary/voluntary/unpaid may turn into something paid and permanent. That organization just might become convinced that they simply cannot survive without your awesomeness, and they might find a way to keep you. So that temporary gig might turn into something more permanent. It happened to one of the other speakers from last night, and it happened to a friend of mine. It’s not just a total myth.

#2: Get experience…in the type of institution where (you think) you want to work.

This one doesn’t require as much explaining, because quite frankly, it’s just good sense. If at all possible, in the course of attempting to fulfill my Advice #1 (“get experience”), you really should try hard to get that experience in the type of institution or archives where you think you would like to work after you graduate.

You might just find that it’s not what you thought it was — which could be good or bad. You might find that it’s way more awesome than you imagined! Or, you might suddenly realize that it’s not what you want to do with the rest of your life. Either way, the sooner you find out, the better, because then you can start adjusting your career plans as necessary.

#3: A few skills I’ve found really helpful

In my work as an archivist — and this may not be the case for every archivist, depending on what the job actually entails — I have found the following skills really useful (in addition to all the other obvious ones):

  • Understand the fact that archives users do not always know what they want. The question they ask you initially may not be the real question but a request to access what they think they need in order to answer their real question. Read up on the “reference interview” and how to drag the real question out of people, so that you can get down to the business of helping them find their answers.
  • Learn about digitization and electronic records. All things digital are here to stay.
  • Learn about databases. At the very least, learn some basics about how they are usually structured and how to tease the info you need out of them. Learn some common applications for databases in archives. Learn how to (properly) design one to store the data you need to store. And, I know not everyone is “techy,” but if you can learn how to actually design and create & implement them, that would be better.

#4: Be aware of your online presence. Don’t just groom it; cultivate it.

If you have any sort of indiviudal Internet presence (Facebook, blog, etc.) and an impending job search, listen up: pay attention to how you portray yourself online. You have probably already heard this spiel repackaged in a variety of ways, so I won’t harp on it too much, because it is the same for getting an archives job as any other job:

Potential employers are going to Google you.

So, before you start applying for things, you better do some reconn. work and possibly damage control if you need it:

  • Google yourself. If you find anything bad, do what you can to make it disappear.
  • From this point forward, pay special attention to what you put online about yourself. (For instance, if you don’t post racist slurs on Facebook, you don’t have to clean them up; if you don’t post a picture of you smoking pot on Facebook, you don’t have to remove it. Better yet, don’t be racist and don’t smoke pot! If you don’t do/say questionable–or downright illegal–things in the first place, then you have no problem.
  • Pay attention to what your friends put online about you. (Okay, so you’re 22 and you did shots at New Year’s. Fine. But you may want to think twice about being tagged in those pictures or even letting your friend post them. You know who’s never late for work because of a hangover? People who don’t drink. Just sayin’…)

This is all common sense, I think. If it’s not, well…I probably can’t help you much.

But I don’t need to harp about all the negative stuff you should look for and eliminate, or, like I said, not do in the first place–or at least not post online!–which makes it a whole lot easier. Although, I want to emphasize: I’m not necessarily telling you to change who you are. I’m just saying, think twice about how who you are might look to a potential employer, many of whom can have their pick of a zillion applicants these days.

The flip side of this, after you eliminate the negative, don’t forget the other half of that old song lyric: accentuate the positive. You know they are going to Google you. Don’t you want to make sure they find something good? And that is completely within your power to do. Give them something good to find.

Get your credentials out there. Get a LinkedIn account — and start networking with people on there. Create an online CV.

Get a blog. There are lots of free ones (just search for “free blogs”). (Make sure it comes up on Google and other search engines when you search for your name.) Write about topics related to your field of interest, perhaps your internships or work experiences.

This should also go without saying, but make sure anything you put on your blog is OK to share: watch out for confidentiality or privacy snafus, and it would be a pretty dumb idea to badmouth your boss, co-workers, or organization on the blog. Try to write only positive things! Things that highlight your knowledge and enthusiasm. Things that are both true and that make you look awesome. That’s the sweet spot.

Not a writer? Don’t want a blog? Okay, you could always use Twitter to share little snippets. You don’t need to be a writer to use Twitter because you’ve only got 140 characters; if you’re like me, you have trouble keeping it that short. Twitter is a great way to interact with others in the profession, share interesting articles, etc.

I could probably go on for a while about different ways to promote yourself on the Internet, but you get the idea. The bottom line of Advice #4 is to put positive things “out there” about yourself (and make sure they come up when you search for your name), because you can only put so much in a resume and cover letter.

And there’s more to you than two pages.


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