Thursday, 4 August 2011

Thing 10 - Graduate traineeships, Masters Degrees, Chartership, Accreditation

Having read a few other posts on this topic, and from what I know of other acquaintances, it is amazing how so many of us didn't set out to work in the information profession right from the start of their working careers, but rather found out about it further down the line. Others, of course, studied information or library studies at university, or at least did their library qualification straight after university, and had a clear idea of the type of library/information role they would like.

I fall into the former category - after graduating with a modern languages degree, I had no clear career path, other than that I did NOT want a job involving languages - the last 4 years had well and truly seen to that! What had been a joy at school had ground me down somewhat, and so I had no inclination to study further at that time and get, say, my translating postgrad qual, nor did I have any desire to move abroad and find work there. (I'm something of a home body!) So my first job was actually working as a trainee claims adjuster for a small - and dare I say - somewhat...unethical medical insurance company. Yes, the salary was utterly pitiful and some of the small print of their policies made me cringe on many occasions, but I was working on the iconic (at least to me!) Baker Street and living in London for the first time, so I was deliriously happy nonetheless. I was lucky enough to start this job on the same day as a girl in exactly the same boat as me (21, just graduated, new to London etc) and to my delight we became close friends, and remain as such to this day.

In spite of this, however, my enthusiasm for the insurance world started to dwindle rapidly, and so my roles for the next couple of years took me out of the claims adjusting field and into simply more general admin roles: team secretary, office administrator and PA to a Customer Relationship Manager to name but a few. I grew accustomed to the corporate world, but I still wasn't 100% happy or fulfilled in my roles.

Librarianship was actually a career my dad suggested I would enjoy many, many years ago, mostly because as a child I loved reading and spent hours in the library with my like-minded father. But as I got into my teenage years and my longing for the bright lights of London grew stronger, somehow becoming a librarian quite frankly didn't seem glamourous or exciting enough. Furthermore, I had no idea that librarianship as a profession existed out of public libraries and academia. Working in a law library is just not something the careers officer would ever suggest where I come from!

While at university I did work for a year in my college library after winning a library scholarship to assist me with my studies. I really enjoyed this work, but have to admit I was teased mercilessly by my friends about it, proving yet again the bad press and stereotypes that are given to our profession. This certainly didn't encourage me to look into this field as a potential career - in fact, if anything, it made me shy away from it even more.

In all honesty I don't know if I would ever have gone down the road of librarianship had it not been for the sudden loss of my beloved father, which - and I know this sounds cliched - did make me stop and think about where I was going in terms of my career. So I started doing some investigating, and via the CILIP website, came across a graduate library admin assistant post in a city law firm. It sounded perfect for me, as I had by then a lot of solid admin experience, plus a genuine desire to learn more about what a law librarian role actually entailed.

I must be honest here and admit that it was not an easy decision to make purely on a practical level - the reason being that although I was bored in my admin roles, I had moved up the ladder pretty quickly and so was earning not bad money for a 23 year old. Accepting the role of library admin assistant meant a pay cut of £5500 - not exactly a negligible amount.

Anyway, the upshot is I took the job, and that was the beginning of my career as a law librarian. I spent 3 years at that first law firm - when I started, unlike many trainee positions in law firms, there was no fixed term contract or expectation to study for the Masters degree in librarianship. The role was really open ended, which to be honest was a double edged sword. On the plus side, it meant it was a flexible role - my manager at the time was very good about letting me try and answer basic enquiries - but on the down side, it meant that there was no real focus or goal in sight - and after a year or so, I began to feel restless - I couldn't stay as an admin assistant forever, even if I was getting more legal research experience than many of my counterparts at other law firms. There was simply nowhere for me to aim, and nice as my manager was, she had never bothered to create an official training programme, for example, therefore my learning was very much on the job. In fact if it hadn't been for an older, more experienced colleague who started at the same time as me, I would never have had any training in the fundamentals of legal research - case law, legislation etc. (I shall talk more about this lady in Thing 11 - suffice to say she was my unofficial mentor all the years I worked in that firm, and in many ways remains a role model today)

After being in the job for about 1.5 years,  I decided to ask if I could apply to do my MSc in Library and Information Studies part time. An arrangement was made that my employer would pay for half of my tuition fees, plus let me have day release to attend lectures once per week in term time. A clause was added to my contract that said if I left within so many months of obtaining my qualification, I would be obliged to pay back all or a proportion of the fees they had paid for me. As luck (not sure if that's the right word!) would have it, for a number of reasons, none of which I shall go into right now, things changed very quickly within our team - and not in a good way; and so at the end of my first year of studies, I decided to leave the firm for a new role as a fully fledged Information Officer in another law firm library.

Despite a period of almost crippling financial hardship thanks to the tuition fees debacle with my previous employer, making the move was definitely the right decision for me. I needed a new challenge desperately, and I was very fortunate that this employer was willing to take into account my experience over the last 3 years, and offer me the job - despite only being at that point semi-qualified in an official sense. They were also very accommodating in terms of letting me continue my studies - although without any financial support, admittedly.

I truly reaped the rewards of that role, and I believe this is mostly because it was actually a solo librarian role - the head office of the firm was based up north, and so I ran the London library myself - although with much support from my bosses in the other office, and with whom I was in very regular contact. But I think when you are thrown into a situation like that, you just HAVE to learn, somehow, to cope, and I gained so much more enquiry experience - yes, it was frightening and very stressful at times, but I was also allowed to really get involved with the acquisitions side of things for the London office. I had made some contacts with regard to the main sellers of legal publications, and so I was able to use these contacts to overhaul the book buying process in London. Within a year of being in the role, I could look back on how I was when I first joined the firm and feel quite amazed at the experience I had acquired in such a short time.

For the most part, I was happy in this role, particularly as I took it just as the full force of the recession hit - redundancies were being made in law firms across the board, and I just thanked my lucky stars I got out of my old firm when I did. There was, however, a 'summer of discontent' when we all had to take a period of unpaid leave, as the partners tried desperately to cut costs - but we all went along with it because it was still better than being put out of a job. That having been said, the morale did drop a bit in London, certainly, and so by the time my 12 month anniversary had been and gone, I was feeling a little disgruntled with it all, but nothing major.

However, fate or whatever other forces are at work out there led me to change jobs once again, just shortly after I had submitted my dissertation and so finally finished the MSc studies. It so happened that a recruitment agent I had used previously let me know of a vacancy that had arisen, and thought I would be suitable for. To cut a long story short (although looking at the length of this post thus far, it could be a little late for that!!) I put myself forward, got the job, and that's where I am today, working as the senior analyst in the information centre AKA library of yet another City law firm.

At the start of the year, I made the decision that I would like to at least try and Charter. Prior to this, I had always been of the mindset that after spending 2.5 years working on my MSc, whilst holding down full time work, I would never, EVER do anything remotely connected to workplace study again....but whatever, here I am in the middle of it!

I have to admit that Chartership does seem to be something of a controversial issue amongst law librarians. Some are very enthusiastic about it and say that it is definitely worth doing; others, like some of my former bosses, say that it means absolutely nothing to them and would not recommend it at all to someone in our profession. My current employers are supportive of me doing it, but at the same time, are not going to be giving me a pay rise or any other bonus if I do manage to attain this qualification.

Although I am hoping to be able to submit a portfolio to CILIP at the end of the year, if I am perfectly honest, I think the most important thing to be able to advance in the law library world is the Masters degree. When I was interviewing for my second job, when I was halfway through the MSc, there were SO MANY firms who wouldn't even deign to interview me, despite me having as good as - if not more - experience than the average graduate trainee. All they were interested in in the first instance was me being qualified. I realise that many would agree this is important - I am just looking at it from a different perspective, and think it's a shame when good experience and a person's cultural fit is overlooked because of a lack of one qualification.

Furthermore - and I do realise this may not be the case for librarians in other sectors - but for the most part, my MSc was just a means to an end - it has advanced me up the career ladder, and I had to get it in order to do so - but I would say only a very small part of all I had to learn actually has any bearing in my day-to-day role.

Finally, I studied part time at City University, which basically involved day release every week during term time for 2 years, then I had 6 months in which to complete my dissertation. City was recommended to me by my boss in my first law firm - she felt that the course there was contemporary and more relevant to what we do in a law firm from a technology point of view.

I won't lie and pretend it was a cinch - those 2 years of attending uni once a week and working full time the rest of the week were damned hardgoing! But if you're in that position, stick with it, because it will be worth it later on.

This is surely a record for the longest blog post year! I'll let you have a break before I do my next one on mentoring!

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