Career Pathways: How to choose a MLIS program

CareerPathways

“I guess what I’m asking is, how did you get your job?”

After working with a local school librarian for months, I’d endured some awkward probing from him. He asked me where I went to school and where else I’d worked. To be honest, I wrote it all off as a weird way of trying to be friends, or maybe even harmless flirting. I never thought that he was looking at me and wondering how I was qualified before this question popped out of his mouth with all the grace of a runaway train.

I’d just finished two sessions of summer learning talks and had three more to go. I think I rattled off something about how I had management experience and some experience in training and presenting for other librarians–a key part of my job. He nodded his head, but kept looking at me sort of absently, as if the pieces still weren’t coming together. I decided I wasn’t going to read my resume to him and made myself busy with checking my work email.

It was not a great exchange. To this day, my working relationship with this person is more stilted and careful than before The Question. Mostly, I came away wishing that I had a better response ready. I wish that I was more comfortable and confident in listing my qualifications and talking about the career path that led me to managing a children’s department in the main library of a major urban system. This probably isn’t the last time I’m going to field this question. So, I want to get some experience talking about my career ¬†path with a more sympathetic audience–meaning all of you dear readers.

If you’re just joining me, you might not know that most of the content here is from my first few years in a professional library position. I started blogging when I was a full-time library assistant and I continued through my work as a rural branch manager. I wanted to give some perspective about what it’s like in the beginning of a career as a youth services librarian. I didn’t have a lot of other examples of newbies in the blogging world, but I knew I wasn’t alone and I wanted to leave a trail for other new librarians to find and to say, “Phew, okay. I’m not the only one making mistakes and this is normal for where I am in my career development.”

Now that I’ve progressed in my career and I’m reclining in a more peaceful stage, I want to stay true to that motivation by continuing to talk to early career librarians. I’m starting a series about all the factors that have driven my career so far in hopes that it will help some new librarian, even if we’re only comparing experiences.

Welcome to How to Choose a MLIS program. In future posts, I’ll be writing about the types of libraries I have worked for and the characteristics of each, the reasons I chose them, and the reasons I left them.

Also, as I move through my career timeline, I’m going to talk about my personal reasons for making career decisions, because those were just as important as my professional reasons and I don’t see many other professionals talking about that.

Some background:

I chose to go to grad school and pursue an MLIS during my senior year of undergrad. I was majoring in Creative Writing and focused on creative non-fiction. In the beginning, I wanted to be a journalist in the style of Nora Ephron. (Give me a first-person piece all day long, please.) I landed a couple of internships with local publications and found out that the road to that kind of creativity in journalism was…practically a deer trail in a remote forest, accessible only by hiking for three days with a map and a compass.

It was really unlikely for that to be my experience in journalism, and trying it would leave me financially unstable for a long time. So I went back to the drawing board and tried to come up with a career that I would love and would also leave me with some time and energy for writing in my free time. Adding to my list of needs, my partner and I were getting married the next year. He was in the military, so I would need a career with jobs all over the country in case we moved a lot.

I landed on libraries because I loved the public service aspect and the idea of helping people with information and books. I’d worked in bookstores during college, mostly for minimum wage and in unhappy, abusive retail environments, but I worked in the children’s section and knew our stock like the back of my hand. My co-workers marveled at how I could find everything and make recommendations like it was nothing. It seemed like a natural progression for me to move into libraries, but I actually thought, initially, that I wanted to work with adults.

I graduated, took my GRE while I was working a horrible temp job (making what I thought was a BIG $11.50 an hour) and living with my parents, saving money for my upcoming wedding. After my nuptials, I moved to a new small town with my partner and I enrolled in grad school right away. For money, I struggled to find a job for months before I worked for a consignment store where the owner paid me $7 an hour completely under the table. Truly legit adulting.

How I chose my first program:

The first university I attended wasn’t for me. I chose it after talking to two academic librarians I knew in my hometown about their experiences in the profession and what I could expect from grad school. They both recommended this first program to me because it was inexpensive and they’d had a good experience as in-person students. I chose it based, not only not their recommendation, but also because it was the only fully online program in my state at the time. It was an hour away from the small town where I lived and in a major city. It was the program that was closest to me physically, which also came in handy. It checked a lot of boxes on paper. As a new student, when I enrolled in classes, I was one of the last to sign up and one of the online courses I needed in my first semester was full. The instructor couldn’t be reached, so I wound up taking one class in person and two online.

Things went downhill from there. I found out on my first day of class that I wasn’t allowed to park on campus as a grad student and would need to walk, at night, for several blocks in a high-crime area. My in-person instructor took a personal phone call in the middle of class, and talked in front of the class for five minutes. Another instructor I had online was on vacation during the first week of class and didn’t send any indication to his students that our class wouldn’t start for another week. When we tried calling him, we learned he had given us the wrong phone number in our syllabus and only found out he was gone because I called another instructor to ask about it.

I was also disappointed in the lack of financial aid I received from the university. My partner and I were not earning very much, but I didn’t receive any aid based on need.

I was only in the program for two weeks, but everyone I interacted with left me wanting more from my experience. I dropped out and took a financial blow for it when I was charged with $1200 for tuition. I wish I had known more about finances at the time because I should have negotiated that down, but I didn’t. (Yes, you can negotiate your tuition and fees.) I eventually paid it off when my partner made some bonus money.

When you know better, you do better.

There were only three schools in my state that offered a MLIS program and I just eliminated one as a possibility. The second was a very well-known program that was designed to be three years and was…quite expensive. Most MLIS programs are two years, so despite the school’s reputation for excellence, I didn’t think it would outweigh the expense and delay in starting my career as an MLIS-toting professional.

The third school almost had to be good enough, but I was willing to look outside the state if necessary. It had some online courses, but I knew I might be taking some courses in person and driving an hour and a half to get there. I emailed a faculty advisor and asked some questions about what I could expect from faculty, the resources they provided, and what courses would be best for me going into public libraries. I had my suspicions that it was going to be focused on academia after seeing that many of the elective courses were geared towards that. The advisor responded to me quickly and warmly. She acknowledged that the program leaned a little more heavily toward academia, but that she and other professors would be eager and willing to help me make connections with public libraries. She also said they were working on adding more courses for a public library focus and were committed to diversifying their faculty and student body. I found out that the program offered diversity scholarships, which I didn’t qualify for or want, but it was nice to hear. I visited the school, met with an instructor, and got a good feeling.

I submitted a FAFSA and was happily surprised that I received some need-based grants that helped me with tuition.

I enrolled. After my first semester, the school introduced a fully online program, so I only had to take one course in person. My experience as an online student was good, mostly because I found my peer connections with professionals I knew locally. I was getting on-the-job experience while I was studying by volunteering at my local public library and interning for a major urban system an hour away. I had good communication with my professors and when I told them that I was using resources available in my local public library because those were most applicable to me, they all understood, with one notable exception. During a reference course, my instructor once sent me a pretty harsh email basically asserting that I wasn’t trying hard enough because I used public library databases and resources. He ultimately gave me a high grade and gushed about my final project, which was based on local history sources we had at the library where I volunteered.

Do online degrees hold you back?

Honestly, no one has ever asked me in an interview if my degree was online or in person. No one has ever asked about my MLIS program experience at all. It’s a line in my resume that checks a necessary box and employers care way more about job experience.

If you live in a big state and you aren’t currently located in a major city, chances are that an online program is a better fit for you than trying to drive for hours to a university three days a week. Online programs are also really handy for people with children and/or full-time jobs with fluctuating hours. They’re quite common now and I think anyone who looks down on them is unreasonable.

I think creating connections for myself locally was pivotal, though. I worked hard in class, but I worked just as hard to be professional, dependable, and assertive as a volunteer and intern. I was offered a part-time job in the library where I volunteered after a few months (earning $16 an hour in circulation, no less), and was eventually promoted to become a part-time librarian there. During my internship, I met a mentor who gave me great career advice and continued to check in with me after my internship ended. My internship gave me my first experience at designing and running programs. It was huge for me and helped me get that promotion to become a part-time librarian.

By contrast, I knew people who went to more expensive, renowned, traditional schools, but never tried to get on-the-job experience during their studies and were shocked that they couldn’t get full-time librarian jobs right away.

There’s definitely something to be said for the peer networks you develop in traditional programs and completing a rigorous degree is always something to be very proud of, but there’s no career advantage in public libraryland except for people who work really hard on the job.

TLDR;

  • Submit FAFSAs to multiple schools and compare the aid they offer. Negotiate if there’s one you really want to go to, but another school made a better offer.
  • Visit campuses. Meet with advisors and instructors. Read reviews or ask former students.
  • If you do find yourself in a program that leaves you wanting more, find a new one. It happens, unfortunately.
  • Don’t shy away from online programs. They’re great.
  • Get on-the-job experience, even if you’re only volunteering.
  • Let no experience be beneath you. Anything could turn into good experience or a paying gig.

That’s it for this week. See you next time!

Did this post help you? It took around 2 hours of my personal time to share with you. If you would like to send me a dollar for my time, I would not be opposed.