How to present yourself at a conference while still figuring out your career path

By Stefanie Ramsay
Images courtesy of Lydia Bello

Vancouver Conference CentreMy first year in the iSchool was full of uncertainty about where I fit within the vast field of librarianship. I felt very fortunate to find a niche in special libraries by the end of the year, and luckily enough, the Special Libraries Association annual conference was being held in nearby Vancouver, BC this last June. This was my first professional conference and I enjoyed so many events, from the First Years and Fellows meeting to a session on geofencing to a discussion of working in museum librarianship. But one of the biggest challenges I faced was how to answer the inevitable question: “So, what do you want to do when you graduate?”

As students, we have to strike the tricky balance between keeping an open mind about potential career trajectories while also working towards narrowing our focus, and honing particular skills that complement this intended career path. Juggling this in our own minds is difficult enough, however, when those in the field, whom we are hoping to impress, ask where we see ourselves in a year (or three, or five), this question becomes particularly challenging to answer. I didn’t want to box myself in by mentioning a specific organization I was interested iSLA Badgen working for, but I also didn’t want to be perceived as indecisive if I rattled off a few areas of interest (e.g. “Well, I like working with rare materials and enjoy interacting directly with users. But I also want to know how to build systems that house information. And I see myself special libraries, like a museum, or historical society, or special collections. Oh and I like American history too! But I am still open!”) I also didn’t want to be left out of an interesting conversation about, say, taxonomies just because I didn’t mention it as a particular career goal. What if it is and I just never knew it?? These thoughts filled my mind during and after the conference, so I began to reflect on what I could do at the next conference to present myself in a way that felt authentic while also avoiding painting myself into a corner.

While I do not necessarily have the perfect answer to this question (this was only my first conference, my friends!), I did draw upon a lesson from the Special Librarianship course I took this last spring quarter. In this course, we were tasked with writing an “elevator speech” to describe our fictionalized role in a particular library as part of a larger assignment. An elevator speech is designed to be a succinct but memorable way of discussing your role and responsibilities to colleagues, administrative staff, or future employers (here’s a great link that describes this further: http://oedb.org/ilibrarian/a-librarians-guide-to-the-elevator-pitch/). Using this concept, spend some time before your next conference (or meeting, or interview, or family gathering) and write down a list of areas in which you are interested, particular classes you’ve enjoyed, past job experience, or a defined path you’ve already discovered. Maybe you see some common themes you can combine or notice a pattern you didn’t see before. Then write your elevator speech! This is a great way of collecting your thoughts before presenting them to others. Keep your speech in your back pocket if you need a refresher or to make some edits. It’s also a good exercise in reminding yourself what you are passionate about—and, really, that is what people want to hear from you.

SLA Vendor HallI would also advise that you ask many questions when you find yourself in conversation with others at conferences. The people I met at SLA were warm, friendly, and all too eager to discuss their careers with me, while also inquiring about my interests. Though I took time to answer their questions, I concentrated on inquiring about their career paths or past experiences. Not only did this give me insight into a colleague’s background and potentially a new facet of librarianship, but I also paid attention to how they presented themselves in a professional setting. This gave me a better sense of what topics to cover and how best to present myself going forward (and in some cases, what to avoid talking about, too!).

Lastly, whenever I doubt myself or feel uncertain about where I’m headed in this field, I remind myself that I am hardly the only one who has felt this way. I brought this particular topic up with several classmates after the conference and found that many others empathized. It helped me to hear how my colleagues have handled this situation. Of course, most people respond differently to issues and not every solution will be right for you, but knowing you are not alone is helpful on its own, isn’t it?

Anyone else have tips to share on how to answer this question? How do you present yourself while still in school or after graduating? Any other lessons learned from your conference experiences?

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