Interview questions commonly begin with, “Tell me about a time when you…” In your answer, interviewers expect you to cite specific examples—such as projects completed, programs led, and classes taught. But when you’re a new professional or a current graduate student, how do you sniff out the best projects? How can you tell when you’re being given an initiative that will grow your career, or a task that will just pass the time? The following questions should be considered whenever you are charged with a new endeavor. If you can’t answer these questions at the time of assignment, be sure to ask your supervisor or the person leading the project. They should be able to answer these questions—and, in the best work environments, they will graciously invite your feedback and comments for improvement.
What are the expected outcomes for this project or program? How will you know that I’ve done well?
As with any project, you should feel confident that you know what is expected of you. If possible, ask to see examples of what’s worked in the past. Do your best to get a sense of what “successful” looks like in this situation. Maybe it’s weeding 10% of the fiction collection, increasing interactions with patrons from last year’s baseline, or organizing and scanning the mysterious contents of a recently retired colleague’s file drawer. Every task, no matter how big or small, should have a desired outcome, and the person assigning the task should care that the work is done well.
How does this project or program relate to our goals (as a department, library, etc.)?
If you’re in a new role, this question should help you get a sense of how your individual work aligns with your department and the library at large. What is the role of your department, and how does it work within the library? What is the library doing to improve and grow? With that in mind, how does your project help the library meet its goals? You want to know that your work matters to the organization, and the connection between your task and bigger goals should be clear.
What’s at stake in this project? What would be the impact if this project didn’t happen?
If you’re being asked to do several things at once, this answer can help you prioritize. In most cases, a project with low stakes can be put on the back burner in favor of projects that have an immediate impact on your coworkers, your patrons, and library operations. But don’t let a project with seemingly low stakes get you down—sometimes it can be difficult to see the big impact of a project until it’s finished.
What do I already know that I’ll be able to use in this project? Is there anything new that I need to learn or find out?
This is a good time to clarify what resources are needed in order to do this project. Do you need to call or e-mail someone you’ve never met? Use new software? Access files or materials you haven’t used before? Hopefully there are some new things to learn in this project—that’s the fun part!
If you can’t get answers to these questions, or you’re not comfortable with the answers you receive, proceed with caution. The project might still be a good opportunity, but you will need to do the extra legwork of figuring out what you need to do and why you were tasked with this in the first place. Keep these questions in mind as you work--remembering what you achieved and why it mattered will help you immensely the next time you’re asked to talk about your contributions to your library.