My Graduate Trainee Experience: Caitlin McCulloch

This week Caitlin McCulloch tells us about her Graduate Trainee experience, and shares some tips for the new cohort of trainees. You can find Caitlin on Twitter as @scaredycait

If you’d asked me 18 months ago what my career trajectory was going to be, ‘librarianship’ probably wouldn’t have been high on my list. In fact, I didn’t even know library degrees existed. In 2014, I was completing a degree in English Literature and German with my sights set on translation or further study. However, a Q&A with a languages graduate led to the realisation that I didn’t want to spend my days alone writing instruction manuals for fridges and even if I did, I couldn’t afford the £7,000 fees for a course. Worse still, I was told flat-out that one foreign language wouldn’t be enough for a career.

At this point, I started trying to think of other options. After looking back at my employment history, I decided that I’d like to do something related to customer service, but also books – my first job had been a Saturday bookseller at Borders (RIP) and I loved every minute. I spoke to my ex-colleagues and, after discovering that several of them had moved into library work, I decided that it looked like a good environment for me.

However, this revelation came to me extremely late. By this point it was April and most of the traineeships had been snapped up. Just as Suzannah experienced in a previous post, I was rejected immediately for a few jobs and realised that my bookselling experience wasn’t going to cut it. (By the by, I can’t agree with CILIP’s claim that graduate trainees should have ‘little or no library and information work experience’ – I don’t know anyone who landed a trainee role without some previous work.) I was lucky enough to work one morning a week as a volunteer receptionist at Glasgow Women’s Library for three months, which gave me a basic introduction to library work and allowed me to see whether I’d like working in a similar place full-time. After some excruciatingly bad interviews, I accepted a graduate trainee role at Anglia Ruskin University a week after I graduated and, at the end of August 2014, made the 400-mile move down from Glasgow to Chelmsford in Essex.

At this point I think it’s important to mention something I learned very early on in my work at ARU: the phrase ‘traineeship’ is all-encompassing, and no two places will offer the same benefits. Some may be more focused on research, cataloguing or rare books, while others like buzzwords such as ‘customer focus’. My year was most certainly the latter: as a post-92 university with the majority of students completing courses in nursing and midwifery, we had no special collection, and our books arrived at the library already classmarked. My day-to-day tasks revolved around interacting with students and staff, which I really enjoyed. However, this wasn’t all I did – I was able to visit other libraries in conjunction with the trainees from the University of Cambridge and see how librarianship is applied to places like special collections, schools and corporations. For me, these visits were just as valuable as the role itself.

Although I really enjoyed working as a graduate trainee, I eventually returned to Scotland two months before my contract ended. I decided that rather than going straight into full-time study, I wanted to find a full-time library position and then do a distance learning degree – several of my colleagues were doing this and praised how helpful it was to be blending theory and practice.

Unfortunately, the real world didn’t agree with this plan. I thought that a graduate traineeship would somehow make it easy to waltz straight into a library assistant position…but my applications, interviews and subsequent rejections have proved me wrong. I tried everything: part-time, full-time, Saturday jobs, term-time roles – even jobs in German! In one interview, I was actively interrogated as to why I wanted to work instead of study immediately after the trainee year. At that point, I began to severely doubt my chances of success. (Unsurprisingly, I never heard back.)

Although this was disheartening, I’ve now changed my tune and am about to start an MSc in Information and Library Studies at the University of Strathclyde. This is the only course I can afford because, as a Scottish student studying in Scotland, I’m entitled to a partial loan towards tuition fees and will receive an additional loan for living costs. In the meantime, I’m back to working in retail to make ends meet – I know it would be great to work in a library whilst studying, but this simply isn’t viable.

One drawback of my year was that, although I got to tag along with the Cambridge trainee visits and became great friends with the trainee working at Anglia Ruskin’s Cambridge campus, Chelmsford seemed very far away from it all. I wasn’t able to go to any social events in Cambridge (2+ hours on the train each way at £50 a go made it both impractical and unaffordable) and London wasn’t cheap either. When combined with the distance from home, unexpected health problems and some tricky circumstances with the flat I ended up renting, I did feel quite lonely at times. That’s why I was really keen to contribute when Sarah initially contacted me about FLIP Network – I know I’m not the only person who will have moved a considerable distance to take up a post, and having somewhere to compare notes and look for support is invaluable. Having a list of LIS courses and their formats is also really convenient, as I’ve been unable to find these resources listed so clearly anywhere else.

I still have no idea exactly what I want to do once I’ve finished this degree or, indeed, which country I’ll end up in. Unsurprisingly, most UK library jobs are centred around south-east England, but the opportunities within librarianship are huge: marketing, schools, higher education, companies…the list goes on. I’ve learned that it’s never ‘too late’ to consider a career in information work, and any prior experience you have will only help you along the way. None of my initial plans worked out the way I had intended, but think I’ve toughened up and learned a lot more about myself and libraries as a result. And maybe I’ll get a job related to my degree. That would be nice.

Top tips for trainees:

  • Have an online presence. Twitter is really useful for the library world and it’s great for making connections after events. You can also follow and participate in monthly chats such as #uklibchat or #radlibchat. (And follow @FLIPNetworkUK, of course!)
  • Run a blog. You don’t even need to make it publicly available if you want, but it is a really useful way of keeping up with and reflecting on the places you’ve seen. Individual blogs can be time-consuming at points – some universities such as Cambridge run one blog with trainees taking turns to post, so if your place of work has several trainees this could be a viable option. You could even start a collaboration with a nearby university.
  • Be proactive and go to as many training events as you can. It can never hurt to apply for any and all bursaries/awards – CILIP offer several such as the Small Grants Fund for the east of England, and through a separate organisation I was awarded a place on a conference in Manchester in July. You never know, you just might win!
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