So, Why Do You Want a PhD?

The title of this post is a question that I have been asked a *million* times (OK, slight exaggeration) over the last year as I’ve filled out applications, done interviews, and talked with friends, family, and colleagues about the process. Everyone has different motivations and experiences that lead them to the PhD, but for those who are curious, here are my reasons:

1. I love research. Can’t get enough of it. Many friends and family members have been bored nearly to tears as I’ve gone on long-winded rants about some amazing new piece of information I found or a breakthrough I had in writing a chapter. Not only do I love research, I love writing about my research and sharing what I learn with other people. This brings me to my next point…

2. Teaching/mentoring makes me happy. Granted, I don’t have the most experience with this, but I love sharing what I know and learning from others, and what better place to do that than in the classroom? I also want to make my classroom a place students want to be, and where people feel safe sharing new ideas and growing together. How do I hope to do this? Well, that’s where you come in (see below).

3. LIS rocks. You already know this, but if you didn’t, you heard it here first. So many exciting things are going on in our field, and I feel like it’s a great time for folks who want to collaborate and stretch the boundaries of what we do and how we approach our work. I really want to be on the forefront of that change, and training future info pros to be impassioned and informed is a great way to do it.

4. I like learning. I love to learn new things, and the more new things I learn in a given day, the happier I tend to be. It might be hard to thrive in LIS unless you love to learn, and I suspect it would be *really* hard to be a PhD student (and someday, one hopes, a faculty member) when you stagnate and stop seeking out new ways to learn and grow.

So, LIS students past and present, this is where I want your input, both for my own growth and for other folks out there considering the PhD track. Since at least a goodly chunk of us plan on being professors, it would be great to know what it is you love (or don’t) about your faculty members’ approaches (or about curricula, although that’s been addressed somewhat elsewhere). One request I have is that we avoid a string of comments about a lack of experience in a library: it’s true, many faculty have little experience or haven’t worked in a library for years (more on that in a future post). What I would like to talk about instead is how the faculty members have made materials interesting (i.e. was there a theory that bored you to death until that one faculty member was able to explain it in a way that it clicked and became relevant?) or teaching strategies you especially enjoyed (for example, awesome Andre Brock in my department used a wordpress-based class blog for discussion, which resulted in the most involved and insightful discussions I’ve ever been a part of in a class). Part of the HLS philosophy is to use this space to talk about how we as students see LIS education (including both what we love and where we see room for improvement). I want to foster an educational environment where faculty and students are collaborators and where students have a meaningful role in shaping our degrees, so this seems like a great place to start getting that input while I’m still a student too!

22 replies

  1. I considered a PhD for quite a while before eventually “settling” on an MLS. I love to research and teach too, but I think ultimately my heart is in a library.

    For my instructors who potentially have less experience in a library, one thing that really works is their drawing on the experiences of the students. At UT, we have many opportunities for discussion in a virtual setting and its clear our instructors really rely and value what we bring. We also have a lot of guest speakers, which is great not only for a fresh perspective, but for building connections, too!

    Good luck on your degree!


  2. I’d like to get a PhD in something someday. At this point in my life though, I don’t know what I’m passionate enough about to write a very long paper on.

    Good luck!


  3. Thanks for the support from both of you! Rebecca, that’s awesome that UT professors are so open to student input–that’s definitely something I want to do. It seems like students will be more invested in a class if they feel like they have a say in things (or at least that’s how I tend to work!)
    Guest speakers are another great idea, and a good way to meet (and network with) people I’ve never met otherwise. One of our professors, Dr. Katopol, brings in so many and invites the whole department to her class to listen to their insight. I love it!
    Amanda: you might be surprised when you find a topic that you can write such a paper on. I stumbled across my topic for my book manuscript when talking with the head of special collections at my old job, and it turned into a research topic that got me really excited. I was able to write almost 200 pages on it (and I have *never* written something even close to that long before!) It’s good that you’re giving yourself space before just jumping in though, that way when you find that thing you want to research, you can jump in whole-heartedly!


  4. I don’t have plans to get my PhD, but here’s a story about a teaching strategy that CLICKED! for me.

    In college, I was encouraged to take some early business classes and/or marketing/communications classes. I just couldn’t understand anything and I felt way more comfortable attending classes on the opposite side of campus 😉

    So, when I signed up for a class called Marketing and Strategic Planning for Libraries, I was a bit nervous. It was one of my favorite classes during my entire MLIS program BECAUSE the instructor was able to bring guest speakers (from inside and outside librarianship) who could discuss the VALUE of marketing and planning without using statistics. They told the REAL story of the value of marketing an org.


    • That is awesome, and I think it’s one of the things that can get lost with someone who’s been immersed in a subject for a while: you forget that not everyone has the same knowledge and skill set as you, so lots of terminology and confusing jargon gets used and muddles what you’re trying to say. Talking to students using just plain language and about topics that they can find relevancy in is vital.
      BTW, it’s awesome that your school has a marketing course for libraries–such an awesome skill to have! And kudos to your professor for making it relevant to students (and interesting).


  5. I went after a PhD fro the same reasons you did, I think ;). I love being in school, love the intellectual stimulation of reading, researching, discussing, reflecting, writing, all of that. I love exploring rabbit holes, and yes, in my case, I’m burrowing all over the place as one often leads to more ;).

    Like you, I love teaching and mentoring as well, and while I already have a fair amount of teaching experience already, a PhD will open further avenues, so there’s a pragmatic reason here as well. And let’s face it, it’s the currency of the realm, so it does make sense to get one.

    That said, I don’t think it’s possible to get a PhD on purely pragmatic grounds. The primary drivers have to be the desire to stretch and grow, to learn and share, the rest is icing on the cake.

    Finally, yes, I know I need to update my blog, one of these days when I’m not reading, researching, writing, sharing, learning 😉


    • I agree–getting a PhD just for pragmatic reasons is not a great idea. If you don’t love what you’re doing and want to push yourself in new directions, the degree will probably be less fulfilling. It sounds like you have done some great stuff in your program–I’d love to hear more about your experiences with teaching and research!


      • My teaching experience was a series of fortuitous circumstances really. While working as an instructional tech, I got the opportunity to team teach a first year seminar on new media for about four years, also taught classes in web publishing, in both liberal arts and community college environments.

        My research is all over the place right now, probably because I’m in my first year ;). My program is International Education and Entrepreneurship, so classes cover entrepreneurship, leadership, cross-cultural contexts, in addition to doctoral stuff like research techniques ;). I seem to be writing papers on everything from how culture evolves to a cross-comparison of women’s leadership in corporate and academic contexts. Somewhere in there, I presume my dissertation topic will reveal itself ;). For now, I’m just enjoying the journey 🙂


        • That’s awesome! It’s great you’ve been able to teach (and research) in such a variety of areas. I’m excited to see where it takes you!


  6. I’m considering a PhD after I retire (could not do it justice while working, trust me). But, not in LIS. Most likely in Public Administration…


    • Excellent! I agree, getting a PhD and working full time would be really difficult. I know people who have done it, but for me I would feel like I couldn’t give justice to either.


  7. I think the best experience I have had in the classroom were when the professor was able to include everyone in the discussion. In one of my classes, if I didn’t really understand the reading we had for the week, I could count on our class discussions to help me learn. I think it’s great that you want to get your PhD, I look forward to hearing where you are planning to go and about your research. The MLIS needs some reworking and it’s very exciting that you get to be part of that.


    • Thanks!!! I’m excited to be a part of it too. I love when professors have a knack for including everyone, especially since I can be kind of quiet so I like when I am coaxed out of my shell a little bit. That will definitely be something to work toward as a student (and someday a professor)!


  8. A quick comment here – I plan a future post on why I’ve decided not to get a PhD in LIS. (Unless of course a school pays me to do it!). Could bring some interesting counterpoints to this discussion.

    Great post Julia! I look forward to your involvement in the reshaping of LIS education! You are the future!


    • Looking forward to that post, Micah, since I came to the same decision after roughly 10 minutes of MLIS orientation. 🙂

      I really enjoyed reading this post. It’s very encouraging to see your enthusiasm, Julia!


      • Thanks!! All this support makes me happy! And that would be a great post to read (although you never know, there might be a school out there that wants to throw some dollars your way!)


    • Micah, as an anthropology PhD drop-out, I can’t wait to see your post.

      Julia, I appreciate all the reasons you listed in this post, but you can practice LIS research, teaching, learning, etc. without going for the PhD. Is it just that being a PhD student allows you more time for those things?


      • I suspect it allows more time than if I were working full-time and doing research, but more than anything it’s the experience it provides and the fact that a PhD forces me to expand my horizons a bit. Being around faculty who’ve researched in areas I haven’t means that I can learn what good research looks like outside of library history (which is where I have the most experience). It also gives me the ability to stay in academia and participate in LIS as someone who’s job is solely to focus on teaching and research than I could be if I were also working elsewhere (although you’re right, those opportunities exist for people in a variety of LIS jobs).


  9. I agree with the above on bringing in real-library experience via guest speakers, and letting the students’ varied (and often fascinating) experiences have a role in the class. Too few professors know when to step back from class discussions and let the students take over (I had this problem myself when I taught middle school), but my best LIS professors did.

    More philosophically: I think LIS school has a split identity, partly as pragmatic career preparation, partly as a chance to talk theory and history and all that fun intellectual jazz one doesn’t necessarily get to do on the job. And I think the tension between these two often results in classes being watered down and neither one really happening fully. It may be hard to do both in the same class, but I’d say pick at least one and go full-bore. You want a pragmatic class? Go nuts with the guest speakers, have people interview practitioners in the field, arrange for people to get tons of hands-on experience with whatever technology or process or artifact matters for the class. You want theory, go theory; assign lots of readings from serious research literature and hash it out like mad in class discussions and papers. But don’t go half-assed.

    (One of the things I feel I really didn’t get out of school was an understanding of what the major journals are and which ones publish what, so it would be nice to have that sort of exposure in a theory-oriented class.)

    In general — and this is applicable to either a practical or a theoretical class — I felt my LIS education did not have enough case studies.

    On some more general pedagogical notes, not confined to LIS, and stuff you may already know from your teaching experience:

    1) Your students’ feedback matters; solicit it and be brave about reading it. However, there is (empirically) a poor correlation between student reviews and student learning, so take it with a grain of salt.

    2) Backward design is your friend. Don’t start with a list of chapters or readings to cover; start with a list of skills and knowledge you want your students to have mastered by the end. Then decide how you will (and can!) assess that. Then decide what kinds of experiences students will need to have had to prepare them for the assessments. Et cetera… My best-designed class involved a very manageable set of skills (I think six?) that were woven through the class, and I could justify everything I did with reference to at least one of those.

    Oh, and back to LIS: if you’re going to be teaching any tech classes, talk to people *outside of libraries* about what tech they use to do analogous things, what they think the state of the art is, et cetera.


    • Awesome, awesome points! First of all, thank you for the reminder to use backward design, because I am definitely someone who can get caught up in fine-tuning one area without taking a step back (I’m getting better…) Another awesome reminder? The either/or approach. I have felt the same way in many classes: we try so hard to build curricula that create a foundation of research/theory AND provide practical skills, which is a *lot* to try to fit into two years. Your suggestion to choose one and run with it is so valuable, and hopefully will be of greater value to students.
      Also, I’m a research nerd and I still am feeling out all the journals out there (and what they do). That would be an amazing list both to share in the class and with others (like, on here. A future post maybe?) I would definitely include OA and student publications on that list, because I feel like there is a lot of value students can gain from being a part of those processes.
      Thanks again for this wonderful reply!


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