Professional Development That’s Up To You, Not Your Employer

When I ask fellow SLA members if they are going to the conference, there is one response that has never resonated with me: “No, I can’t go because my employer won’t pay for it.”

Now, I do understand that some people truly have financial restrictions that simply will not allow for the expense of paying for the conference on their own, but that isn’t necessarily the case for many of the people I hear this answer from.

I attended my first conference while I was still a student, way back in 2002 in Los Angeles. I was fortunate enough to win the William B. Neff Scholarship from the Museums, Arts & Humanities Division that helped pay my way, but I still stayed in a super cheap hotel (ask me sometime about the questionable video being shot in the room next door) and ate only what I could find at receptions and session breakfasts. I carried granola bars with me and ate very minimally for those days.

For many years after, I continued to pay my own way to conference – you can’t win a student scholarship when you aren’t a student – maintaining as low a budget as possible. I have booked cheap hotels over a mile from the convention center, and walked the distance every day. My first time attending an SLA conference in Philadelphia in 2011, my hotel was on the “wrong side” of the convention center, between a bail bondsman and a halfway house. The concept of buying a meal while at conference was totally foreign to me until very recently. Believe me, I have done and understand a low-budget conference experience.

For me, the question of if I would attend the SLA annual conference has never relied solely on whether or not my employer would pay for me to go; it has been a matter of what is important to me, what do I value, and what do I prioritize in my career development. Do I treat my profession as a job or as a career? Do I treat it as though I’m a professional? Is it important to me to make new connections and learn new skills and be introduced to new topics that will ultimately further my professional development and my career?

While it has lightened my wallet on occasion, and changed plans for a vacation later in the year, paying my own way to conference has always given me a sense of pride that I am a professional. And it gives me a much more personal sense of taking responsibility for my own professional development, in a way that I don’t get from having my employer pay for it.

No matter how I get there, I always come away from the SLA conference happy to have reconnected with colleagues, having made new connections and friends, and inspired by the sessions I attended. But attending the SLA annual conference on my own dime qualitatively changes my experience of the conference.

I have greater freedom at conference when I pay my own way. It doesn’t always have to be about obtaining skills that will help me in my job right now; it can sometimes be about getting introduced to a new area or idea that will help me grow toward a job I want to have in the future.

When my employer is footing the bill, I sometimes have to go to a session that more directly relates to my current job, a session that I can report back on and that justifies my going, rather than attend a conflicting session that might be more relevant to a career path I’d like to pursue. Do I attend the sessions about the future of data science, pursuing alternate career paths, or improving my resume and interviewing skills, or do I really need to attend that session on the ILS my library is thinking about using even though I have no real interest in it? If I’m paying my own way, the answer may be different.

Yes, staying in the same hotel as the IT Dance Party, and eating more than granola bars and cheese-and-cracker platters, has been a nice perk as I moved on up to the mid-career stage of my life. But I would go back to the low-budget conference if the alternative was not going to the conference at all, and I wouldn’t trade all those years of hunting and gathering in exchange for not making it to conference as often as possible, especially in my early career. Honestly, I’m not certain I would be in the same position in my mid-career if I had neglected such an integral aspect of my professional development when I was a baby librarian making my own way to the conference.

Go early. Go often. Invest in yourself.