Mélanie Brunet earned her PhD in history and then her Master of Information from the University of Toronto. She’s now the librarian at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Ottawa. Follow her @MelanieBrunet.
What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?
I started the PhD wanting to become a professor, although it was not until my last year in the program that I started feeling comfortable in front of a classroom. I was more comfortable doing research, but felt that I was writing for such a small audience that it didn’t really matter. Finally, I saw how the job market had not improved that much since my thesis advisor had struggled to find a tenure-track position in the 1990s. I started to think that an academic career may not be possible or was not even a good fit for me. But I carried on, encouraged by mentors and classmates who suggested that I would feel better about an academic career once I got to teach my own courses. So when I graduated in 2005, I applied for post-docs and teaching positions, but also submitted resumes for jobs in the public service and non-profit organizations.
What was your first post-PhD job?
I defended my dissertation in September and was a teaching assistant for the rest of the academic year. I was eager to teach my own courses, and in the fall of 2006 I started teaching on a sessional basis. Two years later, I got a one-year contract as an assistant professor at a francophone college in Manitoba. I enjoyed the smaller classes and the opportunity to get to know my students, but the course load was quite heavy. I basically spent all my time preparing lectures and marking, unable to do any substantial research, which in the end, was the aspect of academia that I enjoyed the most. After much soul searching and coming to terms with the fact that I was unhappy in academia, I decided to leave. Since I had not been successful at securing a non-academic job after graduation, I had it in my mind that I needed to return to school to get some kind of professional degree. I considered law and translation, but finally followed a friend’s suggestion and settled on librarianship.
What do you do now?
Turns out going back to school to get a library degree was the right decision. Looking back, I remember having more fun teaching my students about research and demonstrating databases than teaching Canadian history. I am now the librarian at the IDRC, a crown corporation that focuses on applied research in developing countries. Along with two library technicians, I provide research services and resources to the centre’s program staff and funded partners around the world.
What kind of tasks do you do on a daily and weekly basis?
Being the only librarian means that my responsibilities are quite varied. A typical week includes all of these activities: answering research questions (ranging from literature reviews to citation tracking); applying copyright laws and fair dealing provisions to document requests; evaluating resources, products, and services; dealing with content and service providers; reporting or fixing access issues to databases and other electronic resources; promoting library services and resources to staff and partners; preparing teaching materials, and offering training and orientation sessions; planning the redesign of the library website and creating video tutorials; engaging in professional development and committee work; and mentoring our summer student.
What most surprises you about your job?
That I enjoy it so much! I love the variety. It also surprises me that I get to use all the skills that I learned in graduate school, through my own work and as a teaching assistant: research, writing, teaching, managing projects, engaging in administrative and committee work. It doesn’t matter so much that I studied something that is not related to international development. I truly believe that I’m a better librarian because I went through graduate school first. Most IDRC library users have a masters or a PhD and they have to go through the research process, from proposal to publication. Because I have a good idea of what they are going through, I’m able to establish a good rapport, ask appropriate questions, and provide a service that meets their needs.
What are your favourite parts of your job?
I love that I’m able to be involved in so many different things and learn new aspects of librarianship along the way. Even in terms of research questions, I get to explore subjects that I would not have encountered had I stuck to my original plans: counterfeit drugs in low- and middle-income countries, donor partnership modalities, open access policies in the field of development research, etc. I also enjoy talking to people around the world. IDRC has four regional offices (in Uruguay, Egypt, Kenya, and India), so I get to interact with staff there, but I also do online presentations and training sessions for our research partners. Working around different time zones can be a bit tricky, but I’ve had the chance to meet (virtually) research teams in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Burkina Faso, for example. I also get to attend staff and partner presentations in Ottawa, where I learn about how IDRC-funded research can make a difference, and every time it makes me proud to work at IDRC. I may not engage in development work myself, but I help these researchers find information so they can concentrate on making sense of it and applying it to their projects. I find that very rewarding and it has opened my eyes to the many obstacles developing country researchers face in their work, including unreliable internet access and commercial research resources that are considered standard here but are out of their reach financially.
On a more personal level, I like that the hours of work are clearly defined, something that I found was lacking in academia. There was always one more article to read to improve a lecture, one more page that needed to be written before going to bed. I had difficulties setting boundaries in graduate school and as a sessional instructor. As a librarian working in a government library, I find it much easier to leave my work at the office.
What would you change about it if you could?
It’s not the job as much as the context. IDRC, like the rest of the federal public service, was hit hard by budget cuts in 2012. Most of these cuts had taken place before I started, but a few months in I found out that just three years ago, there were three librarians at IDRC. Now it’s just me but the amount of work has not necessarily declined. So if I could change something, it would be to hire a second librarian to share the workload. All this work means it’s never boring, but it can cause the library to miss opportunities to innovate because we do not have enough staff to dedicate time to new projects.
What’s next for you, career-wise?
Right now I’m just enjoying the fact that for the first time in my life, I’m not on contract. I have been incredibly lucky to get this job when so many federal librarians have been laid off over the past year. I’m not ruling out the possibility of working in an academic library again because I really enjoyed working as a reference assistant at Robarts Library at UofT during library school, but I hope to stay at IDRC for some time because I think I have a lot to contribute and to learn there. I would also like to do more research and publish in the field of information studies.
What advice or thoughts do you have for post-PhDs in transition now?
It’s not true that you can only be an academic and can’t be happy doing something else, but it may take some time to find out what that something else is exactly. Be open to all sorts of possibilities. Transitioning to a non-academic job can be scary and I think everyone’s path is different. I went back to school, but I’m aware that’s not an option for everyone. However, being enthusiastic and confident about what you have to offer is essential. It will help you get through the tough times while you make your path to a fulfilling non-academic career.