Q4. Are there any particular skills or qualities that are attractive to employers today? In terms of recent graduates, are there any skills gaps in the sector that the universities are not addressing?
VS If I was recruiting for an archivist today, qualifications are very important, and we would be looking for somebody who was a qualified archivist. I would be looking for somebody who has digital experience. Talking from my own organization’s perspective, even though the railway has a huge history we are a very young company having only been established since 2002. The archive of the railway before that date was held and managed somewhere else, so really the business archive that I look after is from 2002 onwards. This is all digital. We don’t print anything. The actual medium of the record is primarily digital. So, the canny archivist of today is making themselves very well informed about digital archives and their management.
I like it when people have a bit of records management experience because, in my company, we deal with records management, and archives are the end product of that. This isn’t a dealmaker, however. I think if I was recruiting somebody today I would need somebody who can come in and do digital archives because that’s where our focus is. We have a lot of parchment and paper and which has been dealt with by and large, but the digital stuff needs to be managed properly.
Q5. What would you say is the value in focusing on whether you want to be in a specific area, such as business or religious archives? Is there a need to focus on this as a new professional, or should you be open to any kind of job?
VS I think it depends on who you are as a person. For me, I just really wanted to be an archivist and I didn’t really mind if it was a business archives. I seem to have veered towards railway archives but when I graduated from the archives course at Liverpool I didn’t specifically aim for being a railway archivist. There was a job that appeared at the National Railway Museum, saw the advert and had a gut feeling thinking, “that’s my job”. There were two rounds of interviews, but I had a feeling that this was the job I was going to get. I ended up working with railway archives for my career. I started out with local government, and then got a job with an oil company, and then a university. It really depends on what you find interesting. I never had a focus on business or railway archives.
CS People tend to specialize in their careers the more experience they get. People tend to take the opportunities as they see them and then over time they begin to move in a certain direction either because that’s what they find most interesting, it pays better, or it suits their particular interests. But if you have a particular specialist interest and that’s what you really want to do, then go for it. You might struggle at certain points in your career to find certain opportunities but then you could become a consultant and be highly sought after because you’re the only one who knows loads about that particular subject.
VS This is the great thing about working in archives and records management – that the skills and theory is transferable around so many different sectors, i.e., railways, airways, shipping, supermarkets, clothes, retail, etc. You name it, there will likely be an archive associated around it somewhere. That’s what brought it home to me. I’d started at the National Railway Museum, hadn’t been there that long and they started a massive reorganization. They’d made a lot of the curators redundant at that time that included my senior line manager who had a really rare specialism. Therefore, you have to keep yourself alive to many different opportunities. It made me grateful not to be a museum curator!
MM – At the moment, similar to what VS was saying, as long as I’m doing archiving I’m happy. If that’s in somewhere the size of the Bodleian then that’s great; if it’s somewhere smaller, I’m thinking it will give me a new skill set. For me, as long as I’m archiving I’m happy.
Q6. Finding a job isn’t straightforward. What’s the one tip you would give to someone who’s struggling to find work in archives?
VS Just keep going. Although you don’t have the job that you might have expected the second you graduate, the right job will come up for you. You have to have confidence and faith that this will happen. Persevere, don’t give up on it. All the things that you are doing until you get the job you really want, such as working in a library, coffee shop, etc., these are all transferrable skills. Any experience and skills that you can develop and build on and take with both hands will all contribute to who you are as a marketable person. These will make you the person that somebody is looking for.
CS All professions are linked to the economy in some way and when economies go through recession you get periods where it’s very difficult to find work. Repeating what VS said, don’t give up. If you want to do something and be that type of professional, then you’ve got to start looking at opportunities that are going to get you as close as you can, and if that means working in a library, a museum or working even more further away from that in that sense, as long as it’s giving you transferrable skills and helping you get to where you want to be. You have to stick with it and make a plan because that will help you mentally and help give you the confidence in knowing that you are making the most of all the opportunities that are out there. Not many people have an easy journey into the world of work.
Q7 I’ve just finished the archives course and am applying for jobs. For some of the jobs I’m applying for I feel somewhat underqualified in terms of practical experience and that’s making it a struggle to get interviews; whereas some of the other jobs I’d like to apply for require a lower level of archives experience and would give me the experience that I need. However, because they don’t require a degree, I feel I’m overqualified. How can I reconcile the two together because in some aspects I’m underqualified but also overqualified in others? It’s a weird limbo.
CS Never take the view that you’re underqualified or overqualified. You can argue that when you get to a certain age and with a certain level of experience, then you might; but, if it’s a job that will give you the experience that you want, then go for it. I think it’s fair to say that in recent years most people I’ve interviewed have been overqualified because of so many people having Masters-level qualifications that aren’t necessary for that particular role. But I think one of the difficulties is for graduates that have Masters-level qualifications, maybe more when it’s a more generic qualification than a specialized one, is that there is maybe an expectation that they’re going to have a certain entry level with a certain type of salary and that’s very often not the case. There can be quite a bit of disappointment.
But the reality is that you make the most of what you’ve got: qualification, experience – just go for all those jobs. Never think you’re underqualified. If you think you have a chance in going for a with a job, just go for it. The worst that will happen is that you won’t get an interview. I know that’s depressing but, in reality, this happens all the time. Thinking about what experience it will give you might help reconcile with this.
VS Completely agree. At the end of the day, you go to work to get money to pay bills. If you’re getting anxious and thinking that your dream job isn’t going to arrive, in the meantime you need to get a job to pay the bills. Just go for jobs. Everything you do adds up, whether it’s in the world of ARM or outside of it, it all adds up to who you are, what your experience is, and you bring all of that to play in any situation.
MM When I finished my PhD and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, prior to working at the Bodleian I worked at Wetherspoon’s (British pub chain). This was post PhD and I got the weirdest looks from people because they were wondering “you’ve got a PhD, what are you doing here?” But then, in hindsight, when I had my interview at the Bodleian I used quite a lot of examples from working at Wetherspoon’s about dealing with tricky customers. In the end, it all worked out and those skills are transferable. I also worked in a warehouse at one point.
CS This shows you’re prepared to work and you’re prepared to earn money. Working in Wetherspoon’s is a perfectly noble job to do, you do develop some useful skills in dealing with the public and certain professions. As an employer I’d never look down on anyone who has down this. It just shows you’re prepared to work, which is what employers want.
VS A lot of the interviews we do at Network Rail are competency-based interviews and so it’s not necessarily about your qualifications or education, it’s “tell me about a time when you have handled a difficult situation,” or “you’ve embarked on a project and it hasn’t worked out”, or “tell us how you’ve worked as part of a team”. It couldn’t be more removed from archives in terms of theory and practice. People have huge amounts of experience and stories to tell that show the interviewer the kind of person, the kind of skills. In a way, this says more about you than your knowledge of archival theory and practice.
CS This is the type of question these days, “tell me an example of how you’ve reacted to a situation”, and the more experience you’ve got to draw upon the better your answer is going to be, and it doesn’t matter where you’ve got that experience. It doesn’t matter if it was a voluntary role or nothing to do with this particular sector.
MM Both times I applied at the Bodleian they didn’t want a CV, it was competency-based questions. This kind of levels the playing field. They had an extra round where they asked us a question, they gave us a scenario and we had to pretend we were an archivist and what would you do? I thought having no archives experience I might struggle, but if you can show that enthusiasm, it wasn’t so much pass or failure, it was more do you have that way of thinking, or have you looked into how these things can be done?
SB If you have just finished the course and are applying for jobs, don’t panic. Don’t worry about getting the experience to show on your CV as you’ll get something. Ask for feedback from employers if you haven’t been successful at interview.
The SfNP’s Peer Pals programme would also be useful for people starting out and applying for jobs. You can get matched with someone who can provide specific advice and have a chat/email conversation. We’ve had quite a few of our mentees get onto the course and get jobs through using Peer pals. It gives you that little boost if you don’t have that network. If you are just starting out and haven’t yet got a job you wouldn’t likely have a professional network of ex-work colleagues to rely on, this is why Peer Pals will help.
Q8 What’s your top tip for new professionals in ARM today?
CS Think competitively. When you’re looking at applying for jobs, think about what you need to do, what skills you need to use; think about professional development plan, and think about what the ARA’s Professional Development Programme can offer you in terms of foundation or professional membership. These are all things that recognize the experience you are getting. Many people don’t do this, but it’s a competitive industry and these can help you improve and make the most of all the experience you’re going to gain throughout your career. This will give you the advantage over others who don’t have these kind of qualifications. You’re going to be doing CPD anyway because you’re learning all the time, you’ve just got to remember to reflect and think about what went wrong, what went right and think about improvement. Use the ARA to your advantage. It can help you build professional networks, can provide you with lots of information, you can better yourself through it.
VS Get yourself out there and make sure that you keep in touch with the people you’ve had contacts with, really build up that network of people. Keep in touch with fellow students. Later in your career they can be not only friends but also go-to people in terms of professional advice. Get more involved with the issues that are happening in archives today. It’s a great career and that network can really help support you professionally and personally.
Sue Halwa, Publicity Officer, SfNP