Thursday 30 June 2011

Tips for applying for library jobs in the public service

I don’t purport to be any sort of expert when it comes to applying for jobs, but I’ve had some recent experience with this - both as a job seeker and a recruiter. The focus of this post is particularly on permanent Commonwealth public service jobs, although many of these tips will be applicable for state public sector jobs as well as jobs at universities.  That said, not all of the Commonwealth agencies will follow the practices which I’m describing here.
This post looks at the first half of the process: finding jobs to apply for and the written application. There are some things I have to say about the second half of the process: the interview, referees, the order of merit, but that will have to wait for another post.

Monitoring the job market

The first step is finding a suitable position to apply for. I’d really recommend only one place for the Commonwealth public service jobs: There is no requirement (and usually no budget) for Commonwealth jobs to advertised anywhere else, so if you’re at all serious about considering the public service as a potential place to work, then make a profile and alert on this site as soon as you can. If you don’t want to do that, than at least search the site every Thursday afternoon. The new jobs are advertised then - and that way you have the full two weeks to write your application.

You can often find out about new positions from ALIA or other professional associations. That’s convenient and may be enough for the casual observer, but not all library-type positions from APSjobs end up on the association-related lists and websites. That’s why it’s best to do your own monitoring – if you find a position that has gone under the radar, you may have a real advantage in your application.

If you’re looking for work, you’ve probably signed up with one of the library placement agencies. That’s a wise move, but it would be a mistake to do only that and expect that the agency is going to do the rest of work for you. This is particularly true if you’re looking for a permanent position in the public service. In most Commonwealth departments, there is only one way of applying for a position. It involves using that department’s online recruitment system - completing the various online forms, uploading your resume and statement addressing the selection criteria etc. For permanent positions, there is no shortcut for recruitment agencies. Even if you’re with an agency, the formal application has to be completed by you. This process is often relaxed when it comes to temporary positions and that’s when the placement agencies can be particularly helpful for you.

Be in it to win it

I’m the first to admit that applying for public service jobs is a chore. I’m not exaggerating when I say I could write at least five private sector job applications in the time it takes to write one good public service application. I’ve known some people, really good librarians who would be ideal candidates, who rarely apply for public service positions because they hear about positions too late and never have the time to complete a good application before the deadline.
The difficulty of applying for public service jobs is not all bad news for job seekers. It means that if you can satisfy the requirements and write a credible application, then you are at a comparative advantage because so many other potential candidates did not even reach that point.

Selection criteria

If you don’t have much experience or confidence with responding to selection criteria, this is what you need to do: Stop reading this post and get a hold of one of Ann D. Villiers books on the topic. Sometimes they’re difficult to buy in print, but most public and university libraries should have good holdings.

When a recruitment panel member is wading through a large number of applications, needing to make that crucial (and sometimes mean) first cut, applications which fail to address the selection criteria are a gift - because that’s an automatic fail. Sometimes it’s a bittersweet gift, because the candidate may have had some potential.

All selection criteria need to be addressed. It’s not good enough to address five out of six. The following are not ways of addressing selection criteria: “Refer what I wrote about criteria x”, describing the criteria in a different way, writing an essay about the why the criteria is important, stating that you meet the criteria without providing evidence from your education or work experience.

Selection criteria are the main reason why public service jobs are so difficult to apply for. As a job seeker you will see some criteria again and again. Some of them may be standard for that particular agency. In different agencies you may see a slightly different version of a criteria. Do not fall into the trap of recycling your public service job applications without extensive customisation! There are two reasons for this. First, selection panel members get annoyed if they sense that that the applicant is writing for a different job’s criteria. Those applications go straight to the reject pile. Second, writing the selection criteria is your only opportunity in the written application to state why you’d be good at this job and why you’re interested in working for that particular agency. Responses to criteria which have been copied and pasted from application to application end up sounding generic and passionless.

Selection criteria are the key to public service jobs - and not just for the written application. It’s common for interview questions to correlate directly with one of the selection criteria. You can’t anticipate the specific questions which you may be asked, but if you’re comfortable with expounding on aspects of the selection criteria, you should be able to handle any question.

- Morgan Wilson

Morgan has worked in several law libraries and business libraries in Sydney and Minneapolis - St. Paul in the USA. He is currently working as a librarian for the Australian Public Service in Canberra. He blogs and tweets occasionally at and @explodedlibrary


  1. Another tip - always call the contact officer in the ad and find out more about the position - that way you can really focus your written application and your interview responses.

  2. Totally true! My previous manager thought that if people didn't phone about the job beforehand then they mustn't be too serious