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Advice LibParlor Contributor Reflection

Academia’s Blurry Boundaries: Navigating the Transition from an Academic Department to an Academic Library

LibParlor Contributor, Hannah C. Gunderman, explains how she transitioned from a domain-specific postdoc to library faculty.

Hannah Gunderman (she/her/hers) is a Research Data Management Consultant and Faculty Librarian with the Carnegie Mellon University Libraries in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She received her PhD in Geography from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in 2018, and decided to pursue librarianship after finding unhappiness in moving towards a career in geography professorship. Her main research areas include cultural geography, geographic and cultural influences on research data management adoption, and popular culture. In her spare time she enjoys reading, drinking tea, watching anime and reading manga, spending time with animals, and working part-time towards a library and information science degree. 

My story

I want to preface this story with a note that I am incredibly grateful for my former postdoctoral experience, as it helped me successfully transition from a domain-specific faculty track to library faculty. 

In the summer of 2019, I completed a 10-month postdoc at a large university in the southern U.S. in an information sciences department. I was on the job market for the entirety of my postdoc and primarily applied for jobs in academic libraries, as I knew about a year into my PhD that I did not want to pursue the path of becoming a professor in my academic domain. I was thrilled when I received an offer in February 2019 to become a faculty-status academic librarian at a university in the midwestern U.S., and promptly accepted the offer!

As soon as I broke the news to my department about accepting an offer for a new role and communicating the end date for the postdoc, I became hyper-aware that many of the projects I was involved with would not end by the time I left. Having lived within geography departments for almost a decade prior and witnessing several postdocs and faculty move from institution to institution within geography, I noticed how it was fairly common for these individuals to bring their research with them. However, as a person moving from a domain-specific postdoc to library faculty, I didn’t know how to make this transition, especially when I was no longer being paid by my former institution to do this work. I searched endlessly online for blogs or articles describing how to make this transition but came up empty. I ended up taking several projects with me, many of which no longer fit within my research track nor my new job duties, and I found myself working on weekends to move the projects forward. As a result, my physical and mental health began to decline, and I was perpetually exhausted due to never truly having a weekend to myself. I had to make some tough decisions for moving forward and away from some of these projects while still maintaining positive connections with several of my former coworkers. 

From my experience, I’ve identified three lessons I learned which I wish someone had told me to consider when making this transition.

1) When supervisors and colleagues become collaborators

“While it may be nerve-wracking, sending a simple email detailing why you need to step away from a professional collaboration can be a powerful step towards a more positive research agenda and emotional outlook.”

When making my transition from an academic department to an academic library, my former supervisors and coworkers suddenly became collaborators. I no longer directly reported to them as an employee, but rather as a voluntary co-researcher in our projects. While I initially stuck with these projects out of a sense of obligation, I quickly realized that it was 100% up to me whether I stayed with these projects and collaborators or chose to end my involvement. At the start of your transition, I would encourage you to sit down and evaluate your experience with your supervisors and coworkers within the academic department, asking yourself the following questions: Did they stick to deadlines? Were they responsive to email? Did you find yourself carrying most of the workload? If you answered yes to any of these, you might consider finding new collaborators. Sometimes, through no fault of their own, we work with folx who can make collaborating on research incredibly stressful and exhausting. If you found that collaborating with them was difficult while working within your department, it will be much harder to continue this collaboration from a distance. Remember, just because you choose to no longer collaborate with certain former coworkers/supervisors doesn’t mean you can’t still have a professional connection. While it may be nerve-wracking, sending a simple email detailing why you need to step away from a professional collaboration can be a powerful step towards a more positive research agenda and emotional outlook.

2) Evaluate your new career trajectory

While some of the projects from my former institution perfectly fit within my new career trajectory, others fell outside of my new research agenda and work hours. For this reason, I chose to continue the projects which fit within my new research agenda and set up strategies for slowly leaving the projects no longer in alignment. When making your own transition, take stock of your current projects. There may be an opportunity to leverage these projects in a way that will benefit your path towards tenure & promotion at your library.

For the other  projects that did not align with my new role, I felt a connection and obligation to the research as well as a strong desire to not disappoint my former colleagues and supervisors. For these projects, I identified individuals at my former institution who could step into my former roles, and helped provide them with resources and training so they could succeed in taking over my responsibilities. If you feel a strong emotional connection to the research, it can be difficult to step away and/or handoff your roles to another person, but I encourage you to remember the reasons why you are stepping away. If you continued with the research despite it no longer benefiting your career, you may end up feeling bitter towards the research and/or your coworkers-turned-collaborators. When I left a portion of the projects from my former institution, I retained the positive memories of working on the research. 

3) Set firm boundaries for yourself

As a PhD student and a postdoc, I felt a pressure to work evenings and weekends, and prioritize my research over my health and general well-being. None of my supervisors or colleagues explicitly told me to work evenings and weekends on top of a 40 hour work week, but as I observed they themselves working beyond 40 hours, I took on the same habits. As a faculty-status academic librarian, there are weeks where I may have a manuscript deadline for a journal that requires some extra work outside of my workweek, but for the most part, I chose this new career to avoid the culture of overwork which is so prevalent in academia. While I still feel small aspects of this culture within my academic library, overall many, if not most, of my colleagues strive to stick to a 40 hour work week.

“Firmly communicate your boundaries as soon as possible and take a stand against academia’s culture of overwork and unpaid labor.”

If you are continuing projects from your previous institution which may no longer fit within your defined job roles and research trajectory in your new position, this work will likely be relegated to your evenings and weekends. I encourage you to honestly ask yourself if you want to do this work outside of your regular work hours. Will it benefit your career? Do you truly feel energized by the work and want to continue it? Can you still balance your health and well-being while doing this extra work? If you answered yes to any of these, you might consider sitting down with your new supervisor and discussing a plan for working on this research without negatively affecting your new job duties. If you find that you cannot continue these research projects from your former institution, communicate your new boundaries to your collaborators. I have spoken with several postdocs who moved onto working in another environment (such as industry) and even up to 3 years later are still working on projects where their former supervisors are expecting additional work. Firmly communicate your boundaries as soon as possible and take a stand against academia’s culture of overwork and unpaid labor. 

Final thoughts

While sometimes (or, maybe more often than not?) academia can pressure us into taking on as much as possible, I emphatically encourage you to prioritize your own health and well-being when making the transition from an academic department to an academic library. Academics, whether we realize it or not, can reproduce a culture of overwork1 onto ourselves and our coworkers, and this can make the transition between these two environments incredibly difficult. I hope the tips that I have shared here may help you effectively navigate this transition in a way that will allow you to retain your connections to former supervisors and coworkers, while also working towards your new career path.


The concept of overwork is influenced by race, gender, and ability. As an able-bodied, cisgender white woman, I acknowledge that my own perceptions of overwork may greatly vary from the pressures felt by women of color, disabled folx, and other marginalized individuals within their work environments.

Featured image by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič – @specialdaddy on Unsplash

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

The expressions of the writer do not reflect anyone’s views but their own

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