Carrie McKnight Wants to Help You Succeed

Career Blog

Published: February 4, 2021 by Jillian Collins

We’ve been interrupted. 2020 was a sharp turn from what we could have anticipated, not just as students, but as individuals. The first part of my interview with Carrie McKnight, SJSU career counselor for graduate students, focused on fantastic tools available to you through the SJSU Career Center. 

The Big Questions

Carrie and I talked about two aspects of the disruption we’re all experiencing:

  1. How to account for a lack of work history during the months and possible years of unemployment due to a lack of hiring;
  2. How to develop the flexibility and adaptability that is so critical to our changing circumstances.

Not surprisingly, Carrie had good advice on both issues, and how you should be prepared to address any gaps in your work history due to it. And when you switch gears so quickly in your personal life, your professional goals or desired path may do the same. These two things go hand in hand, but in a way that gives more hope than despair.

How to Bridge the COVID Gap

My first question to Carrie was how to explain employment gaps in your resumé and cover letter when the COVID pandemic is “over.” She had two smart tactics here, and also identified ways to possibly turn this downtime into a positive. Carrie’s recommendations:

  • Address it within your cover letter. Carrie advised that you can briefly address any gaps during a pandemic that impacted your ability to work, but to keep the focus on what you did to develop any professional skills during your downtime. By “describing your experience,” as Carrie put it, your cover letter should “focus on accomplishments and on your core competencies and skills.” In addition, Carrie underscored that addressing a COVID gap has an opportunity to show your strengths. Mentioning “your own accomplishments, or key takeaways from experiences”—for example, how you evaluated your career preferences or explored a variety of position titles you could apply your MLIS experience to—shows any potential employer your determination to not let time slip away. Any achievements that occurred during a global pandemic is something to be proud of.
  • Be proud of yourself. The pandemic was an unanticipated event that none of us could have planned for or controlled, but you managed to keep up with your course work while juggling work upheaval, personal disruption, and all-around chaos. This is a major accomplishment, and one that speaks to your resilience, persistence, self-management, and maturity. Life has been an ongoing test this past year, and you passed with flying colors (okay, straight A’s!). You need to own that accomplishment, know that’s who you are, and be proud of yourself.

Reassuringly, Carrie maintains a positive outlook in this area. A global pandemic that has shaken everything and affected everyone in varying ways is “just a reference to so many people in the same situation…I don’t think it’s going to be really unusual for employers or HR people to see this coming up on an application.”

Focus on Resiliency and Adaptability

The second issue Carrie addressed was how to be prepared for the unpredictability of the current and foreseeable job market. Her advice:

  • Be flexible. This was the most pragmatic and personalized advice Carrie gave: “Be prepared in a lot of different ways.” In any job, you encounter the unexpected, and per Carrie, the more open you are to responding positively to the unexpected, the more resilient, flexible, and adaptable you become. During a job interview, you can talk about how you’ve handled the unexpected (because basically right now we all live in the unexpected), you become your own best testament to that critical job strength, adaptability.
  • Contingency planning and career planning go hand-in-hand. As Carrie put it, asking yourself questions to open yourself to other options allows more space for opportunities. She advises students to be open to plan B and C. “So keeping those plans in mind, what were your initial career goals? Why did you enter graduate school? What did you originally want to do, but also keeping plan B or C in mind?”

“You might have to accept other opportunities or explore other opportunities or other jobs for a period of time. But just make sure those other opportunities or other jobs allow you to build skills, especially related skills or transferable skills, that might still help you on your journey.” — Carrie McKnight

  • Stay the course, in your course work. No one is going to deter you from your MLIS goals. Keep yourself on track, but be ready to roll with the waves. “[It’s] kind of like stick to the plan,” Carrie said, “but be open to other opportunities or other things that might come up along the way…we’re advising students to cultivate that kind of open-mindedness.”
  • Be authentic with your personal brand. The importance of a personal brand, in Carrie’s opinion, should never be underestimated. The basis of understanding the impression you make on other people should be introspection and self-reflection. “What’s unique about you? What’s interesting about your story, what’s your background?” These are all important considerations and will help you understand what attributes you want to be known for. Per Carrie, this is about “really defining what are those core competencies and strengths and unique qualities” that you already have, “and then really spending some time getting some clarity around that.” Once you’ve gone through this process, use these creative tools to help heighten your professional visibility.

All the flexibility, the tenacity, and how you make use of it, is where you shine. Where you go from there, is what Carrie would ask you: “How do you put that messaging [from your personal brand] out to the world, [and] to the job market?”

Achievements on Display!

As Carrie pointed out, she’s eager to help you move forward, but it all comes down to you. Use the tools and opportunities now. Take charge and be open to new opportunities. You are the future of libraries. Value your strengths and embrace what you can do now to adapt for the future.  

Quick Jot from Jillian

The strongest I’ve ever felt was when I began to face career adversary. Early on, I had to make a choice on staying in one field, or growing in another direction. I decided to grow, not to stay. It was a decision that I made, but did not have much lined up in terms of a next step. I ended up going into different workplaces, where I gained experience on the job, and built up emotional resilience. If a temp gig ended before I thought it would, it hurt to abruptly leave, but eventually I saw how I could get back up and keep going. Keep going, but hold on to the important experiences. Through the best of times, and the worst of times, I am able to endure. Now, we have a global pandemic, which, of course, is the ultimate test in both personal recognition in achievements and awareness that reality must be addressed as innovative opportunity.

This is how I reacted to Carrie’s advice on these tough issues. Typically, the focus on career achievement stays on what you have access to (e.g., Handshake, LinkedIn, etc.) and who can help you in a network. But taking on personal hurdles is what I wanted to address. Carrie made it clear that even a pandemic shouldn’t stop you. As odd as it sounds, you can see a clear picture in chaos. It’s hard to focus, so re-frame. I know we all have different circumstances, many amplified due to the pandemic and other events beyond control. What you do control is where you go from here.

Reach out to Carrie. Use the SJSU Career Center. Strategize to be your best advocate; open yourself to what you may not expect because you may love it.

Selected Career Opportunities

  • Metadata Services Assistant Manager. New York Public Library, Metadata Services Unit. (Long Island City, NY). Full-Time, may require travel to Long Island City, NY. Apply through NYPL Careers
  • Academic Editorial Intern. Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc. (New York, NY). Paid Part-Time position, Temporarily Remote. Apply via the Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc. website

Mark Your Calendar!

Shameless Self-Promotion: Selling yourself in the age of a pandemic hosted by SLASC

  • Date: Monday, February 8, 2021
  • Time: 6:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. (Pacific Time)
  • Location: Email to attend this Zoom event

SAASC: A Reel Look: The Collections of the UCLA Film & Television Archivehosted by SAASC and UCLA Film & Television Archives

  • Date: Wednesday, March 24, 2021
  • Time: 6:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. (Pacific Time)
  • Location: Register here to attend this Zoom event


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