Q: Is it OK to treat unpaid experience as professional experience on my résumé?

Q: Is it OK to treat unpaid experience as professional experience on my résumé?

Q:  I have been looking for a permanent job in mostly archives and university libraries for nearly three years. I will spare you details of how discouraging the search has been. I have been volunteering for various organizations for those three years doing a few projects as an unpaid librarian for a couple non-profit organizations. Currently on my résumé I list my volunteer and intern experience in a separate section from my professional experience. Someone suggested I list these experiences with the professional and don’t mention that they were volunteer gigs. This feels dishonest somehow. Is it OK to treat unpaid experience as professional experience on my résumé?


SM: Yes, yes, yes! Just because you weren’t paid for the work you did doesn’t mean you cannot call it professional experience – especially since it is. You are doing internships to get the experience you need to get you the job you want. This is what internships are designed to do… and some do it better than others.

You should put your most relevant experience up front, regardless of whether you got paid for it. This is especially true for people who don’t have that much current, or recent, library experience under their belts. If it makes you feel better (or less dishonest), rename your heading “Library Experience” and put everything else under “Other Experience” or something similar. And, since we’re talking honestly, I can’t take full credit for this advice. As I was graduating from library school (some oh so many years ago), this is how the director of career development told me to arrange my résumé — more functional than chronological.

As you rework your résumé, don’t lie about what you did, or what your title was — call it an internship, call yourself a volunteer — just make sure to include all the important skills, jobs, projects, systems, technology, tools, etc., that you worked on and used. If you were “hired” as an unpaid librarian, then your title was librarian. You don’t have to mention that you weren’t getting paid, although you may want to mention that the job was temporary.

Here’s the thing: potential employers and hiring committees don’t want to spend a lot of time going over your résumé to try to find applicable experience and skills. So don’t make them search. Highlight your experience and skills that correspond to the requirements of the job by putting them up front, where they can be easily found.

If the job calls for a certain number of years of “professional experience,” then your unpaid work probably won’t be considered as part of this requirement. Typically (although this can differ from job to job) this only applies to people who have held professional positions that required an MLS. But that doesn’t mean that the work you’ve done in your various unpaid positions is not “professional” in nature. Best of luck!


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