Are you experienced? (Part 2)

In my last blog post I was about to finish university.

As I mentioned in my final year of my BA study I gained a position at a museum in their learning team on a casual zero hours basis. After I handed in my dissertation in April I started applying for every job that appealed to me. Anything art based, anything that seemed interesting. I got a lot of rejections and barely any invites to interviews. The position I did get though (and the one I really wanted) was a Library Traineeship at an art gallery. This was a 2 day a week part time position contracted for 2 years. I worked a lot of other jobs around the traineeship so I could still pay my rent and bills (and council tax!).

It’s too hard to plot these in any kind of table or time line so the basics are:

– 2 days per week as a library trainee in an art gallery
– zero hours contract as an invigilator in the same gallery
– zero hours job in the learning team at a museum
– zero hours job as a Box Office Supervisor at a club/music venue
– 2 day a week 6 month contract at a university archives as an assistant
– freelanced in an art gallery doing education work with kids

None of these were full time/permanent. Some things lasted a year, less than a year, a few months.

Volunteering included:

-A week at an archive
-A month at an archive
– transcriber and editorial assistant for a website

I had never really considered working in a library before my traineeship. I’d done a small voluntary stint at my university’s special collections area in their library. I’d worked in archives, which though very different from libraries are usually, even just spatially, close together. I was so excited when I got this position to be able to use parts of what I’d learnt in my degree in a real job. I enjoyed my traineeship. I enjoyed the work a lot and helping our users, but I wish I’d looked around more for traineeships. There are full time ones, ones that pay better, ones where I could have learnt more. There are loads in London (which probably don’t pay that well really), but there are great ones in the north too– so keep your eyes peeled!

I did all those different jobs for about a year and a half. I was getting tired. I wouldn’t really advise this and I wish I hadn’t been so naive to say to myself ‘I can do this, I’m a graduate and I’ll do anything to work in the arts.’ Part of me is glad I did it. I could see how resilient I could be and how many days in a row I could work before I collapsed, but it wasn’t good, it didn’t make me happy and despite all these jobs I didn’t earn all that much. I finally realised even if I worked a 65 hour week one week it didn’t equate to a great pay cheque at the end of the month.

Luckily, during my traineeship, a full time job came up as a library assistant in a college. I applied and got it. It was a full time permanent job; a rare combination of job security, basic liveable wage and a job I was really interested in that may go somewhere.

I worked at the college for a year and realised very quickly there was no opportunity for progression or any kind of support in terms of studying for a Masters. I couldn’t understand how you were supposed to start as a library assistant on a very basic wage, paying rent, have money for food and save enough money for a Masters degree to progress in this area. There weren’t any middle roles or any higher paid roles to progress to. My traineeship had been £15,496, but pro rata so £558.41 a month then anything additional I earned from my zero hours work (I’d earn roughly between £700 to £1,000 a month). My full time permanent position was £15,356, which equated to £1079.44 a month and an improvement on before. I moved out of a crappy student shared house into a flat with a friend. With this obviously my rent increased. I spent half my wage every month on rent and bills. I could have found cheaper accommodation, but I was really happy to not be living in another mouldy house with a broken boiler (I’m looking at you estate agents of Leeds). It was better than before; I knew I’d have that amount of money every month, but it was funny that I didn’t really earn much more than before. I did love having weekends back though!

After a year working as a library assistant I had to think about what I wanted to do next; the lack of progression and some other factors I won’t mention here were getting me down. It scared me that I could still be doing this job in 5 years time and nothing would change. I looked around for other jobs, but nothing showed up. I couldn’t, and no longer wanted to, do any of the part time roles, 3 month contracts, 9 month contracts. I didn’t have any kind of financial safety net and after balancing a number of jobs before and knowing how hard it is I didn’t want to go back to that life. I felt like giving up on libraries and I also felt libraries weren’t for me. They weren’t somewhere where someone like me could progress.

I went and got a job in student administration instead. It paid better and allowed me to move on with my life the way I wanted to. I felt like a quitter. However, I learnt so much more than I would have staying in that library role. I used Microsoft office more, I was looking at budgets and buying equipment and supplies for courses, I had to minute meetings and put together agendas, I dealt with student grades, attendance and got to see the students a lot more. I really expanded my skill set in this role. I worked here for a year then moved to another college to a similar better paid role. Both these roles had their minus points, which again I won’t go into here, but I felt like I kept hitting brick walls. I was moving up a bit, side-ways and up a bit, but not to where I wanted to be.

It all changed with the government loans for postgraduates coming in. I didn’t want to jump into a Librarianship Masters the first year the loans were available. This was my one and only chance to do a Masters so I decided I better make sure I know what I’m doing. I’ve never wanted to do a Masters really. I always hoped I’d work my way up, but as most of us know it’s pretty difficult (impossible?) to be a librarian, at least in this country, without a Masters degree.

I applied late last year for a Masters in Librarianship and got accepted. Also a few months later a position came up at an institution I’d worked at before. I applied and was successful (I also applied for a different job at the same institution before applying for my Masters, but didn’t get it – so my advice is keep applying!), which is the job I’m in now as a Library Assistant working in acquisitions with print books and e-books.

What I would like someone to take away from this post is it is not easy sailing and just because you leave something doesn’t mean you have to give it up forever (like I thought). And just because you haven’t always had jobs in libraries or a smooth curve of progression doesn’t mean all your past experiences count for nothing. I’m glad I went and got different experiences, I’m glad I went and expanded my skill set. I’m glad I didn’t put my life on hold because of the money I earned. If you’re not working in libraries now, don’t beat yourself up about it, give it time, see what’s out there and don’t get yourself into a crappy situation where you’re living off 15p noodles because you’ve picked that 2 day a week job that has shifts completely immovable to allow you to get any other part time job – also with completely immovable shifts. There might be sacrifices (I’m earning a little less now than I was doing student administration and paying a small fortune for transport, but that’s okay as I have a plan now!), it isn’t easy and it might be tough and it takes time, but it will be worth it to do something that you want to do.

(I recently saw this on the HEFCE website so for further reading:
How varied work experience improves graduate prospects)

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