update: how do I choose a career path?

Remember the letter-writer back in March who felt aimless and unsure about how to figure out a career path? Here’s the update.

I know it’s been a while since my post was published, but I thought I’d give everyone an update about my life.

First, thank you so much for your advice and for the advice of everyone who commented. It feels a little silly to me now, but I didn’t know that this angst was a common thing for so many people! Most of my friends are the sort who knew exactly what they wanted to do with their lives since they were in utero, and it was so refreshing to hear that not everyone has it all figured out, and that it’s OKAY not to have everything figured out. I have spent the last six months mostly trying to chill out.

As for my job, I took your advice and started asking people in my department if they needed assistance on projects or teams. No surprise here, they did! In the time since you posted my question I have learned so many different facets of library work from my regular admin duties, including things like library marketing, library instruction, patron services, cataloging, etc. and I decided that…I really like it. I also started talking to a few senior staff members about what made them decide to be librarians, what they think makes a good one, what they think of the field (the list goes on). I had some time to mull this all over while we waited for my fiances job offer to finalize, and I realized that I might actually already be on my career path (something about hindsight being 20/20).

So, I’ve found another paraprofessional job at a library in our new town and I’m putting my feelers out towards a MLIS program nearby (I’m considering Fall 2017). However, I’m still leaving my possibilities open, should some other job come along and sweep me off my feet.

Thanks again for the support and great advice! I felt much better about the whole situation after I read your post and all the comments.

{ 52 comments… read them below }

  1. Venus Supreme*

    Ah, I’m glad that you’re in a better headspace! I work in theatre, which is the area I know I want to work in, but I still struggle to know where I’m best suited. For others having mini existential crises like me, I recommend the TEDxBroadway Talk with Emily Simoness titled “Following your life’s path, not your life’s plan.” (Link attached in comments.)

    1. Venus Supreme*

      Wellp, looks like I can’t post it. Anyway, it’s on YouTube. Her name is Emily Simoness. It was part of the 2015 TEDxBroadway talks.

  2. TeacherNerd*

    Yay for better headspace and clarity! You are DEFINITELY not alone here. It took me until I was about 30 to figure out what kind of career I wanted, too. I went to college later (although “later” is always relative; in my case, I graduated with a B.A. when I was 31), partly because I was burned out mentally in terms of being a student (irony: I became a high school and college English teacher), but I also had no clear idea of what I wanted to do, what I liked, or even what I was good at. Having some really crappy jobs helped me figure out what I liked and what I was willing to put up with, but sometimes serendipity – as in your case – can make things clearer. (I had been fired from a job after working there for three months because – among other reasons – I was told that I “couldn’t write,” so second semester in college, I wandered into my university’s writing center, and everything just fell into place.) Space, maturity, and a better sense of self all help.

    (FWIW, I suspect that there are also quite a few folks, like the ones I know, who immediately go to college at age 18, graduate at 22, and are offered a full-time job in their field at graduation in the field in which they got a degree, but don’t necessarily stay with that field. Sometimes the bumpiness comes later, and that can almost be worse.)

  3. Rosamond*

    That’s great! OP, you’ll decide if it’s right for you, but the library field has been good to me. As you’ve probably gathered from your colleagues, most of us don’t exactly get rich doing it, but it’s rewarding in many ways. Work experience in a library will give you a big advantage – both while you’re in school, and once you’re on the job market with a newly-minted MLIS. And even if you ultimately decide to do something else, the skills transfer well into many other fields.

    1. just another librarian*

      Agree, there’s a lot of opportunity out there. And I’d consider the MLS for sure, particularly if you are able to snag a full-time job before you go. It’s still really the only way to move up into the better paying jobs, especially if you have ambitions for higher level work.

    2. Jessica (tc)*

      I just finished my MLIS in May, and I’ll be starting my “dream job” (a job in the LIS field that I’m interested in) in just a couple of weeks now. Although I finished my undergrad in 2002, I needed to wait for stability and finances to be able to get my master’s degree–and the online choices available these days definitely helped.

      I agree completely with the statement that the skills are transferable. No matter what direction you take with your LIS, I think the skills will be helpful in almost any field. (A lot of people I met in my program were getting the MLIS to supplement a previous master’s degree actually, although there were just as many who were focused on a specific aspect of librarianship or information science.) I focused on the tech side of things, and I’ve discovered through my job search that librarians are about potential. If you don’t have 100% of the skills that you need for a specific position, very few positions outside of LIS are probably willing to take you on and give you that education, but many in the LIS field are definitely open to cultivating growth.

      That said, it is definitely helpful to have a specific career path within LIS in mind and the ability and willingness to move to get a good job. I’ve met many who were disappointed with the lack of jobs in their area, but who weren’t willing or able to move, which definitely can make a difference in the ability to find a job in the field.

    3. Roz*

      Off-topic but if your username is your first name, as another Rosamond myself, I couldn’t resist saying hi!

  4. ConantheLibrarian*

    I’m glad you found something that appeals to you. I love being a librarian, and I agree that it’s very rewarding. Librarian culture is awesome too (at least where I live). They’re a smart and quirky bunch with diverse interests and crazy stories.

    I don’t know if someone mentioned this in your previous post, but if you’re in the U.S., make sure to look for a school that is ALA-accredited. It absolutely makes a difference.

    1. Librarian of the North*

      Yes! Librarians are among the coolest people I know. Quirky, super intelligent and generally just all around interesting people.

      In my area, however, jobs requiring an MLIS are few and far between and very competitive. Techs seem to do essentially as well and have more job opportunities (except when Librarians flood the market). It’s most beneficial if you have your eyes set on the top.

      1. PlainJane*

        I’ll second the comment about the scarcity of jobs. That’s been true in librarianship since dinosaurs roamed the earth, and I first got my MLS. The newly-minted librarians I’ve known who have had the most trouble finding work were the ones who are place-bound. If you can–and are willing–to live anywhere for your first job, you should be able to find work. BTW, I’m not sure if Alison has time to connect posters with commenters, but if so, I’d be glad to talk shop with you or answer any questions you have about the field. I’m an academic librarian specializing in technology and administration with lots of experience in medical libraries too.

        1. 20-something or other*

          Hi! I’m the LW/OP.

          It’s come up a few times in talking with my co-workers that the field is pretty competitive. I feel like the background in library work puts me at an advantage, if not for the experience then for the networking/connections (for example, the library director at the previous library was a faculty member at the school I am considering for my program). Plus, in my case, being young with no kids means that I am okay with moving again once I have my degree in hand.

          But! I would love to connect sometime (if Alison has time to connect us). I’m considering academic librarianship and digital content management. I would love to pick your brain and learn about your experiences!

  5. Engineer Girl*

    This is also a good example of loving what you do VS doing what you love. You took the time to embed yourself in the job. You took the time to master the skill sets. Then you found out you liked it.
    This is true for many jobs – when we decide to master it we start to enjoy it. This attitude opens up career paths that we hadn’t considered.
    And I am saying this as someone that always knew from age four that I wanted to be involved in space exploration.
    There are a lot of enjoyable jobs out there.

    1. The Grammarian*

      I like this comment. It’s possible to find joy in the work, and in doing it well, even if it’s not what you thought would be fun .

      1. 20-something or other*

        Thank you! :) It definitely made my life more bearable to just throw myself into the position!

    2. Blossom*

      YES – I came here to say this, but you have phrased it so much better. To the OP – it’s really great news that you’ve got a new outlook and focus, and indeed librarianship might just be a wonderful choice for you. Equally, you might find that when you read job ads now, you’re better able to visualise what they might look like in practice, and how you might be able to apply the skills and experience you’ve picked up by being so proactive at your current job. (I only say this because I think I’ve read a few comments here about librarianship becoming a crowded and competitive field; I may be off-base and you may have opportunity a-plenty in the field, but if not, I’ll also say that I’ve had a lot of job – and life – satisfaction from gaining really in-demand skills. Life feels very different when you know that, for you, it’s a candidate’s market.)

      1. Blossom*

        Another thought: Get a LinkedIn account of your don’t already have one, switch your settings to anonymous profile viewing (if you want), and get browsing. Look at the profiles of people who work at places you’d like to work, or places you like to visit, etc. See how they got to where they are now. Absolutely let yourself get distracted by the sidebar showing you “people similar to” the profile you’re viewing; this will help you get a sense of how organisations are structured and how different jobs relate to each other, as well as leading you down some potentially fascinating rabbit holes. LinkedIn also allows you to search for people who *used to* have a certain job title or work at a certain organisation, so you can see the diverse ways a career can develop from the same starting point. Or, presumably, you could also search for graduates of the MLIS programs you’re looking at.

  6. mskyle*

    I’m a *former* librarian, so obviously I did not find librarianship as rewarding as the commenters above… even with several years of full-time library job experience, an MLS, and a specialty in a theoretically in-demand type of librarianship (health sciences) I wasn’t able to find a job I really wanted. After seven years as a paraprofessional and three years as a librarian at a job that didn’t challenge me (or pay well) in a place I didn’t want to live, I moved on, and now I’m a software developer.

    So on the one hand I’m a bit of a killjoy about LW’s specific plan to go to library school… but on the other hand, I’m living proof that you don’t have to get it right the first time! Life is full of second chances and your career path can take you all kinds of interesting places.

    1. MissGirl*

      I appreciate this comment. I’m on my second career as well. I actually did love my first job but grew tired of low pay and no chance to advance. I realized my priorities included being able to own my own home and not live with roommates and buy a car that had fewer than 200,000 miles on it. Sometimes loving what you do isn’t enough.

    2. Sprechen Sie Talk?*

      A little off topic, but I think it could be interesting to have an Ask the Readers thread to find out about how people switched careers. I am getting into a place where it would make more sense to switch paths, but I am unsure how to go about it, how long it would take, common pitfalls, etc. Its scary, but obviously doable!

  7. Whats In A Name*

    I remember your post and am so glad you were able to find fulfillment in your current role. Asking never hurts and often does wonders! Congratulations and good luck with your MLIS

  8. ANONforthis*

    I’ve been working in libraries for a long time. Please, potential librarians, heed this advice – examine your situation and your preferences before committing to this path. If you like to do the actual day-to-day, hands-on work (direct interaction with patrons or material), you may find a position that’s rewarding, but it will not pay enough to support you. Post-MLS, if you move up the organizational ladder, you will almost always have to manage others in order to command a liveable wage, and it’s often true that the greater your supervisory responsibility you have, the less hands-on work you get to do. Even as a division director, 15+ years in, I still earn only barely enough to make basic ends meet (I’m single.) No vacations, no cable, no restaurants – you get the picture. If you are counting on affording a lower-paying job because your spouse earns a good salary, this is a terrible plan. If the relationship ends you will have chosen a very unwise path indeed, especially if you’ve taken on student loans to get yourself there. I wish every day that I could go back and choose a different career. Obviously, if you’re independently wealthy none of this would apply, but for those who must consider the financial ramifications of a library career along with personal fulfillment, my advice is DON’T. A more IT-focused option would be better.

    1. Hannah*

      I appreciate you sharing your perspective. I wouldn’t want to be too negative but I worry than an MLS degree would be another degree that doesn’t translate into a career for the OP.

    2. Another Academic Librarian*

      That is true for many librarians, yes, but not for all. I am an academic librarian at a university where librarians are faculty and union, and none of this applies to me or my workplace.

    3. anonymouse*

      Sadly, this is very true.

      There is also a glut of MLIS graduates out there too; it’s not really a great job market out there, because there are a ton of people who’re scrambling to get any librarian job they can find + few openings + many (if not most) of the jobs are low-paid.

      These are things to consider, OP.

    4. Librarian of the North*

      I think this is really area dependent. MLIS graduates in my area do very well. The issue here is the size of the job market, which is quite small and there are more techs and librarians graduating every year. In some places (Newfoundland -_-) the field is dying and in others we’re seeing great investment. I think it’s really about knowing the market in your area and being realistic in your expectations.

      1. quika*

        I just wanted to say we just came back from a trip and one of highlights was a stop at the library in corner brook newfoundland.. stopped to use restrooms, stayed for the exhibit which was up , info from librarians and bought some books at their used book sale.

    5. Stephanie*

      I think this is very location dependent. I work in one of the largest cities in the US, am in a union, and make a very good salary. It’s definitely worth investigating what the library jobs are like where you are before pursuing the degree, though. If you live near a library school, there may be a glut of graduates competing for a few jobs. Or, if you are in an area that doesn’t appreciate it’s libraries, the pay and benefits may not be worth it.
      I’ve been a public librarian for about 15 years now (11 as a manager), and have loved almost all of it, but it’s definitely got its challenges.

    6. PlainJane*

      I’ll second the comments about this being location-dependent. It’s also specialty-dependent. I’ve worked in two of the higher-paying specialties (technology and health sciences) and have always been able to make a living. I’ll never get rich doing this, but I do get to take (not lavish) vacations and own a home.

    7. Lolly Scrambler*

      Thank you for your real talk. I feel like nobody in libraries is telling the truth: that to have a long term career you either have to be very, very lucky or have a higher earning partner. And having a higher earning partner also often means you aren’t mobile, and we’re constantly being told you HAVE to be mobile, and if you haven’t got a job it’s only because you are fussy about location. If you leave your library job to move for your partner’s work it can be very hard as once you’ve left libraries it’s very hard to get back in, but holding out for a library job is also very hard. It IS a dying profession and although I am doing okay at the moment I feel like there is very little future for me in libraries, and it’s scary. Everyone think they have the dedication and work ethic to beat the odds and some people do but others don’t and the consequences can be brutal (psychologically as well as financially) so I do try to talk younger people out of library school if everything doesn’t look rosy for them.

      1. Stephanie*

        Librarianship is very much NOT a dying profession. It’s a changing profession, for sure, but not dying. Public libraries are still hugely popular and well-used, I think in part because of our ability to adapt to the changing needs of our communities. I think it’s possible that we won’t need as many librarians as we used to have, but I don’t see libraries or librarians going away anytime soon. As long as there is information, there will need to be people to organize and provide access to it.

        And, quite frankly, most Americans have absolutely atrocious information literacy skills. They could all benefit from a few lessons from a librarian.

  9. FCJ*

    Yay, libraries! FWIW, and definitely check with your bosses and other people you trust about this, I work in an academic library, and both the director and the lead cataloging librarian have degrees from from online programs (of accredited, non-profit, well-regarded schools, of course). I know other librarians who went through great residential programs, so I’m not saying either one is better. Just that you might have more options if you don’t necessarily limit yourself to “nearby.”

    1. Candi*

      I think if it’s a zero-tolerance policy, it shows why they’re ridiculous. I hope it wasn’t the same style my dad got as a gift several years ago; that looked like a real, specific type, bullet.

      I also think she should talk to another lawyer. That’s a gut reaction; it says the upfront fee is ridiculous. But not a lawyer, so can be wrong. I do think there’s no harm in shopping around.

  10. insert witty name here*

    I have a MLIS and I’m going to echo a few other posters who said the field is very, very competitive. Letter writer, I’m not sure if you realize it, but working as a paraprofessional puts you at an advantage. Almost everyone I graduated with who didn’t have library experience never found work in a library. If I may offer some unsolicited advice: do not quite your library job. It may be tempting to leave so you can focus on your studies, but you need that job for experience and networking. I’ll also add that you shouldn’t assume you will automatically be promoted in your system. This varies. Once you graduate you may find you have to outside your system to work as a librarian.

    Finally, in my experience, I found that many employers did NOT see transferrable skills from the MLIS. Perhaps it was the jobs I was applying for as they were all corporate, but employers are interested in me because of my bachelor’s and work experience. None have cared about the MLIS or known its advantages without me having to tell them first. In fact, I was even asked once during a job interview, “how can a librarian possibly be qualified to work as a business researcher?”

    1. MelvilDewey*

      I second the advice that you shouldn’t quit your library job. I would also qualify it by saying that you should also investigate internships if your MLS focus is different from your current position. I didn’t think an internship would be valuable, and then could not find a position as a librarian. I was already a circulation department supervisor, and ended up becoming a manager – not really using my degree since most circ manager positions don’t require the degree.

    2. Fortitude Jones*

      Perhaps it was the jobs I was applying for as they were all corporate, but employers are interested in me because of my bachelor’s and work experience. None have cared about the MLIS or known its advantages without me having to tell them first. In fact, I was even asked once during a job interview, “how can a librarian possibly be qualified to work as a business researcher?”

      I find this interesting, and yes, it may be the jobs you were applying for. I work in a corporate setting doing risk management/insurance claims type stuff, and my nearly three years of library work was seen as a boon by the hiring manager who originally brought me in the door.

    3. Candi*

      “how can a librarian possibly be qualified to work as a business researcher?”


      On the promotion note: my mother had the title library technician, not librarian. The difference was less education -which became more and more relevant as the years passed. The union meant it took something pretty drastic to fire her, but for the over twenty years before that, promotion and raises were restricted as much by her lack of degree as her performance.

      (You’ll be fine as long as you don’t toast half the database. Especially if the backup was found to be improperly set up.)

  11. Frumpy*

    It is so true that sometimes you just need to chill the heck out to get perspective.

    I was in a tail spin last year thinking I had picked the wrong career (only 2 years out of school) and I somehow instantly needed to decide what career path would give me a fulfilling life. I would literally cry when I got home from work and had an immense amount of attitude. I was almost caught a few times job searching and writing blog posts about how I hated my job and need a change.

    I ended up going to therapy and was told that I need to just see my job as a job. It wasn’t supposed to be my purpose in this world, it wasn’t supposed to emotionally fulfill me, and it wasn’t my identity – it was just a job. I was also told to stop expecting to go from 0 to 100 as soon as I started working. I am only 24 and most people don’t really hit their groove until their 30s. Many people my age are stuck working in jobs they don’t want to do because they can’t find anything better – so I had it pretty lucky to be sitting at a desk all day when others are on their feet and being paid less.

    When I started telling myself it was just a job and it was better than my old grocery store job – things really brightened up. I actually started enjoying many aspects of my job and forbid myself from constantly job searching. I told myself that I need to be in this role for at least 2 years before I can start looking for a new job… with how things are going now I am not even sure I will start looking after 2 years. I know the longer that I stay, the better it will look on my resume and will open up opportunities for me.

    1. Weekend Warrior*

      This is a great post and I think your insight will help a lot of others. The twenties are stressful for a lot of people as it’s a time you have to start grappling with big questions: will I find a fulfilling career or even just a good paying job; will I find a life partner; where will I put down roots; etc, etc.!! The thing is that you don’t have to ANSWER all these questions in your twenties. The exploring and uncertainty you go through is not wasted; it will help you answer these eventually. For many people, the early 30’s is when things seem to fall more into place. tl;dr I felt like a hot mess in my twenties but can now see I was laying down the experiences that have enriched my life, including sticking at not great jobs, developing side interests, etc. Good luck ck!

    2. Elfie*

      Frumpy, your therapist was absolutely right! I saw the other side of it – my dad defined himself by his job his entire working career. He’d studied to be an engineer, and he’d worked as an engineer until he retired at age 63. Basically, he wasn’t just an engineer, he was An Engineer!! Then he retired. Then he didn’t know what (and by extension, who) he was anymore. I swear, it took him years (and a move of country, because that’s how he deals with things!) to figure out who he was. Now he’s A Pilot/HAM Radio Operator. He’s substituted one fake identity for another, and by now, I’m pretty sure he’s never going to be comfortable in his own skin, and it makes me really sad for him.
      But you’ve done the right thing, which means that you’re adaptable and you’ve learned. Hey, I’m in my 40s, and I still don’t know what I really want to do that will also pay me. So I’ve settled for the paycheck, and doing the fulfilling stuff outside of work hours, and it works for me.

  12. Tom*

    As someone who just completed the MLIS (switching careers to be a subject specialist librarian at a university library), I just had a comment on finding a MLIS program.

    You don’t necessarily need to find one nearby and local to where you are. There are a large number of completely on-line MLIS degree programs available that are ALA accredited. Be sure to include those in your searches. Many of the librarians here at my library were professionals in their field first and got the MLIS after being hired (it’s required for tenure) and so had to pursue it outside of normal work hours while working full time as a librarian. The on-line programs can be very flexible and many are quite broad allowing you to specialize any way you want.

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