career development

Be okay with not knowing the way

This semester, as part of a unit called Professional Practice, I’m aiming to guide a new bunch of new recruits into this profession by being a facilitator of conversation and source of encouragement (and hopefully wisdom). There is something I feel I need to share at this point. If I’ve learnt anything about my career in the last five or so years, it’s to be okay with not knowing exactly where I want to go, where I’ll end up or how I might contribute to this profession over my career and the organisation of which I am (or will be) a part.

The winding and somewhat rocky path

When I first started my LIS Masters back in 2010, all I wanted to be was an academic librarian. Liaison or discipline librarian. As it turned out, there was a line up a mile long or more just to get in the bottom of the food chain in the academic sector. Well, I wasn’t going to wait or rely on anyone to launch my career. So I sought other avenues to gain skills, knowledge and experience.

What's the next step? CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Sacha Fernandez via Flickr
What’s the next step?
Sacha Fernandez via Flickr

My first library job was in a special library in the aviation industry. I then progressed to being inspired by the cultural heritage sector working in archives and government information management. I now finally have a job in the academic sector, giving it a crack to see if, really, this is where I want to be. You see, the experiences I never thought I’d have are the ones that are guiding the future of my career. Had I only focused on the academic sector from the start, I may or may not have developed the skills and knowledge I now possess and place me in a position to add value in my current roles.

Upon reflection, I had merely an idea of where I wanted to be. And when I had this idea, it was before I caught a glimpse of the endless possibilities in this profession. The point I’m making here is to those starting out or perhaps in those uncertain, early years, please know that it’s okay to have only an idea. Pathways in this profession are not set in stone from the minute you step into a LIS classroom.

Have a skills focus, rather than a specific job focus

An idea is good. It’s a place to begin. Know that it is a starting point, and not the destination. It’s something to work towards. Let the skills development guide professional development planning, especially in the beginning. Not a job or job title. Chances are the job you really want hasn’t been thought of yet.

When I seek out new opportunities, the skills and experience I can gain from the role as well as where I can add value, are what guide me in making decisions. To do this, I need a well-developed understanding of the skills I possess ….and the gaps. I also need to have an idea of the kind of information professional I want to be and where I can potentially fulfil my career mission.

Tip: Collect position descriptions. Forget the titles, focus on the duties and responsibilities of the role (Is this what you can see yourself doing? Will you enjoy the tasks this role involves?). Then take a look at the skills you need. When you build up a bit of a collection of position descriptions, you may find common themes of the kinds of roles you might enjoy, as well as the skills and experience you’ll need to land yourself something like it.

Skills and experience are gained in a job. Knowledge can be acquired either here…..or elsewhere.

Explore and participate

Explore your interests. Participate in relevant groups. Read. Blog. Present. Do a training course or a MOOC. There is no harm in exploring and trying out different things. Jump in, you never know what opportunities will arise or what you might learn about yourself.

Working in a special library, I was also a solo librarian. I had no immediate access to like-minded people and other information professionals. No one ‘got’ me. I felt lonely and isolated at my workplace. Enter Twitter and ALIA New Graduates Group. These were just the beginning of a string of activities I launched myself into. I wasn’t working exactly where I thought I fit, but I was gaining valuable experience in managing information and providing an information service. So I indulged my professional interests elsewhere and connected with others.

Tip: Find resources that will help build your knowledge in areas of interest. Subscribe to elists. Dive in.

The problem with goal setting

Goal setting can be incredibly difficult to do in these early years. At times, both the process in setting them and the working towards has felt like doing so with moving goal posts. This profession changes so much and frequently. And because you’re learning more and more about the profession and yourself in these early years, something shiny is always just around the corner where you haven’t explored or discovered yet. I’ve personally found it hard sometimes to have the confidence in making informed decisions. Either I’m super diligent, or I lack focus and patience.

My advice here is to prepare for the opportunities and allow your more broader career mission and values guide the way. This is where exploring and taking a skills-based approach to professional development comes in. By developing the building blocks for the skills and experience you want, you’ll either more easily spot the opportunities or create them yourself.

From my experience, landing the first few jobs in the information profession can feel a bit uncertain and since you’re only just learning the possibilities out there, the best you can do is to be informed about yourself – the information professional you strive to be; the skills and knowledge you have and the skills and knowledge you need.

Be okay with not knowing. Ask yourself, what’s the next step?

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  1. THANK YOU so very much Alisa, this just hit the spot perfectly for me today.

    Three things in particular resonate with where I am at currently. This Im sure means that others may well also be in the same place.

    So the concept of
    1/. have an IDEA of where I want to be –
    2/. having a skills focus and
    3/. making informed decisions

    Are what I feel most muddled about …. so THANK YOU for the blog today.

    1. Not a worry, Lesley. Glad you gained something from my thoughts. It took me a long while to be okay with not knowing. Though nowadays I have more of an idea and am progressing with a grand plan of sorts. Start with the skills you have and the skills you need for the role you want, then come up with ways through which you can develop them.

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