How You Too Can Transition from a Librarian to a Doctoral Student

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Abigail Phillips.

I often get, quite naturally, the question, “So, what made you decide to get your PhD?” I always feel a bit sheepish when I offer my response, “Well, I’ve always known I would.” I should have an intelligent and eloquent explanation for such a major, life-altering decision. But I don’t. However, what I do have is a somewhat intelligent and kinda eloquent explanation for my decision to leave my job as a public librarian and become a doctoral student in Information Studies.

After working in public library for six years, two as a library assistant and four as a professional librarian, I left the practitioner world behind last fall to join the PhD program in Information Studies at Florida State University (FSU). I have yet to regret this decision. My experiences in researching, writing, and teaching over the past year have erased any doubts I may have had during those first few months of my doctoral studies. This feeling of rightness and certainty is a rare experience for me.

So, how do you, dear reader, know if you really want to get a PhD? If you are working as a public librarian or school media specialist, how do you know if academia is a good fit for you? What follows are some suggestions, tips, and advice from an ex-librarian turned academic for those thinking about entering a PhD program. Although my focus in this post is on potential doctoral students in Information Studies, this advice can be applied to any doctoral program.

Look really hard at your reasons for wanting to begin a doctoral program.

Ask yourself why you want to take on the massive workload and never-ending stress of working towards a PhD. The benefits of the extra education are few: slightly higher income, flexible hours, some travel, and a fancy pants title. If you aren’t passionate and excited by research, writing, and teaching, then you should reevaluate your intentions. The work is hard, the hours are long, and students are demanding. But if you’re like me and get weirdly excited by topics like information behaviors of young adults, research design, and education for future librarians, then welcome, future doctoral student! It’s worth it.

Librarian, do your research!

We are librarians. Do what you do best – investigate Information Studies programs out there. You want to know as much as possible about these programs to find the right fit for you. Contact the faculty members where you received your MLIS. Explain why you want to pursue a PhD, what you plan on researching, and ask them for advice (and to be references for your application!). Realistic, honest advice from people who have completed doctoral work is greatly needed as you figure out where to apply or if you even should apply. You don’t want to waste time or money applying to schools that don’t support your research interests or career goals.

Acknowledge that you will have to make sacrifices.

I’ve given up a lot for my PhD (and I’ve only just finished my 1st year!) – a secure, well-paying job, free time, money, and relationships. How comfortable are you at giving up these things? It’s hard to leave a job you love, even harder to give up the money. It will be several years before you make that amount money again. If you are lucky enough to have an assistantship that is probably the only money you’ll see for quite some time. The feeling of dread from knowing that you will someday be forced to pay back those student loans will become your friend/frienemy. On the upside, the other doctoral students in your program will be just as poor. Think of this as an opportunity to bond through complaining about money.

Know what you’re getting into.

Doctoral programs are completely different from undergraduate and even master’s level work. For doctoral students, free time is a rare and beautiful thing. The first year is hell. It’s better that this is made clear to potential doctoral students now. You must become an expert at time management if you want to have any sort of life outside of school. You can’t put off assignments until the night before like you could in undergraduate or masters studies. Nothing good will come of that type of approach to work. Realize that you can’t do everything and budget your time accordingly. Ask for help when you need it; give help when you can.

Have a support system in place before you begin.

Know the family members, partners, spouses, friends, etc. you can rely on to support you throughout the PhD process. You’ll need these people. Other doctoral students in your program, especially your cohort, are an excellent source for venting and moaning about all things doctoral. But remember not to always talk shop. It’s all too common for doctoral students to get together for drinks and only talk about research, committees, and workloads. You need a break from this type of thinking! Doctoral work has a tendency to become a fixed obsession in a doctoral student’s mind (at least for me). Occasionally, mentally step away from your work. If your fellow doctoral students only want to discuss information theory and committee selections, find people outside of academia to relax with. Like people who want to talk about music, art, philosophy, or cat videos.

The first year is hell.

Repetition is a wonderful thing. The first year of a doctoral program is really, really, really hard. You will be overwhelmed and stressed out. Many times during your first year you may wonder why you did this to yourself, how on earth you got into the program, and how anyone could possibly have seen any potential in you as a future researcher. There wasn’t a day that went by during my first year that I didn’t feel as if I wasn’t good enough or smart enough to be in the program. I constantly compared myself with other doctoral students and found myself seriously lacking. These feelings are completely normal! Repeat: these feelings are normal. Every doctoral student struggles with them. You’ve been accepted into the program for a reason. You’ll make it through and excel!

My advice/suggestions/tips are not meant to dissuade anyone from applying to a doctoral program. These are simply words of wisdom (sort of) from someone who has very recently been there and done that. Take from it what you will.

Anyone seriously considering a PhD in Information Studies?

Current doctoral students: Is there any advice you would give to future doctoral students? What was your first year like?

Soon-to-Be Doctoral Student Resources:

How to Make It Through the First Year of a PhD Program in One, Albeit Frazzled Piece
Graduate School Advice Series: 10 Things You Should Know Before Starting a PhD Program
PhD Program Success and Survival Tips

Abigail Phillips is a second year Ph.D. student in Information Studies at Florida State University. Her research and professional interests include social media, information behaviors of young adults, public libraries, library advocacy, and online learning. Before beginning her doctoral studies, Abigail worked as a public librarian in a rural library system in southwest Georgia. Abigail blogs about her research at She can be found on twitter @abigailleigh and tumblr at

Categories: Education & Curriculum

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13 replies

  1. Hi! This piece is really an eye opener…really! I am in a crossroad of my career right now…I feel burnt out and seriously thinking about pursuing a PhD in LIS as my escape route. I am now under pressure to come up with a decent research proposal that would hopefully qualify me for a scholarship slot that is up for grab. Whoa! I am a practitioner ever since and my only experience in doing research was when I was in Grad School taking up MLIS. Reading all those social theories from Giddens, to Shultz, Schatzky, Bourdieu and all…my mind is a mess! Well, let me see…if I get through this application, then probably this PhD thing is for me. If not, then maybe I’ll just be contented dreaming about PhD which I really want and been dreaming about ever since…:)


  2. Sounds familiar. This post interests me because I’m doing the complete opposite: after receiving my PhD in Humanities in ’11, I intend to enroll in an MLIS program this winter. The skills are certainly transferable. And I feel the same tug toward a profession that’s dogged me for over 10 years. It’s hard to explain to folks who think enough school is enough, but I know what I hafta do, even if it means working my way up from a Page at my local branch. The hardest part, so far, is getting hired. People tend to view PhDs with suspicion if you want to do work outside of the norm. They don’t quite *get* that we use our degrees every day. It kinda becomes part of you when you’ve lived with them awhile.

    My advice: know why you’re going. Keep your goals in front of your face. Find a mentor who can help keep your mind straight when you want to jump ship. Bond with your classmates where possible. And take advantage of the discussions you get in your courses; the farther along you get in your work (exams, dissertation research, writing) the lonelier you get. Take time to read books for pleasure. Don’t feel guilty when you live outside your studies. Don’t forget to BREATHE.

    Anyhoo, cool post.


  3. My comment is contradicting this blog post a little bit. You can actually have it all, the job and the PhD research. I’m not sure how common it is in the US, but here in the UK we have several PhD programmes that allow us to study part-time, as we continue to work. I’m one of the ones who did. I started my PhD in Sep 2006 and finished it in Nov 2011.

    It is really hard to continue to work full time AND do a PhD. There is no time to laze about, and you have to plan your holidays, time off and even sick leave very carefully, as you will have to catch up with yourself. But it is doable and lots of people manage it, even with families. Ideally you are in a workplace which promotes education and supports you, giving you a day or two a month to work on your PhD.

    All my spare time for 5 years was taken up by the research and it is exhausting. It takes time to recover. But it is rewarding and you get to keep the job and the income!

    The blog post above says year 1 is hard. For me, year 1 was the best and most exciting year. You are still really enthusiastic, exploring a new area, the academic world and can you actually do this? Year 2-3 was a struggle, do I really know what I’m doing, how can little I contribute to the world of academia? In year 4 I knew what I was doing, I had a clear vision and by year 5 it was just finishing everything up, double checking things, running another few searches to complement…

    My piece of advice if you go down this route? 1) Doubting yourself is normal 2) Make sure you schedule in fun times/breaks to get away from it all 3) Start writing your dissertation in year 1, then keep updating it as you go along and 4) It is ok to disagree with your supervisor, after all it is your research. But remember they are there to be critical because they want you to pass.

    Good luck!


  4. Are there any other PhD programs that you would recommend besides MLS? I heard that a PhD in education would be better than one in library science because you wouldn’t be as pigeon holed. You could still research and teach in the library science realm but also go into the education field or administration in higher education.


  5. I’m in my final year of course work for a doctorate in Ed. Admin with a cognate in library science. Yes, Paige: this is an *excellent* mix for a doc program, because it positions the graduate to be engaged in the larger picture of education but with the foundational strength and perspective of LIS. ( is the only such program in the US, I’m told).

    I second Helena’s advice: start with a general topic the first semester, and begin your literature review of the diss. writing immediately. You can narrow as you read through all the studies on that topic. Every semester has helped me come to this last year with a well-defined topic and research question — and I have built an extensive database of articles and research to build my dissertation.

    As tangential info: I work full time as a school librarian, and I am the oldest in my cohort.

    You can do this — if you commit. *Do NOT plan to do anything other than study … all the time … for years. But if you love learning, you’ll love this!


  6. Thanks so much for this post and all the discussion! I am in Australia, and about to undertake a second Masters degree first (this time in Education) with the aim of completing a PhD at some stage after that. You are all inspirational to me! Good luck for those who are still working on it, and well done to those who have already finished!


  7. This is a great post. I graduated from the San Jose/Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Gateway PhD program last fall. The part-time distance program allows students to continue to work, but as others here have said, those interested in pursuing the degree should know this model allows time for little else. In my program, we met twice a year as a cohort – once each August in San Jose, and once at a conference relevant to our work (ASIS&T or ALISE) – the rest of the time we met virtually either as a group or with our advisers. I loved the experience of being in the program and QUT’s research-driven model was an excellent fit for me. It really taught me the importance of self-discipline needed to complete the program and that’s required of newly minted academics. I, too, was a public librarian prior to enrolling in the program. As the CEO of a medium-sized library, the pace of that job was overwhelming at times but the things I did day-to-day were so different it would be hard to compare the two experiences. I have no regrets, but I say this after finally catching up on sleep nearly year after completing 🙂


  8. Thanks for this. I returned to school for a doctorate in LIS in 1995 after almost two decades working as a public librarian. Some of my colleagues thought I was crazy. But the ones who knew me well thought it was the perfect fit. I graduated in 2000.

    I agree with everything you say in your posting. Getting a PhD was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life, especially since I was then in my 40s with house payments to make and other responsibilities. Being a doctoral student is all-consuming for the entire time you’re enrolled. It is not a challenge to be entered into lightly as it will change your life in ways you may not be prepared for.

    Over the years, many people have asked me whether they should get a doctorate. My advice is to know exactly what you want to do with the degree once you graduate. This should not be just an excuse to go back to school and do research. You do not need to get a doctorate to continue your education. My own goals were very clear: learn how to do good research so I could become a freelance consultant and help librarians plan and assess their services. I also knew that the rigors of being a student, again, myself would help me be a better teacher of MLIS students. Both these goals were accomplished; plus my studies helped broaden my view of the profession. I now take nothing for granted. Doctoral work makes you see the world in a whole different–and, yes, more scholarly–light.

    My last piece of advice for those currently enrolled in a doctoral program: celebrate your ultimate accomplishment by participating in graduation. I wasn’t going to “walk” when I finished my degree, because I didn’t think it was all that important. But my husband, who was so thoroughly supportive during the entire process, reminded me that it wasn’t just my accomplishment that was being celebrated–it was also his and my entire group of family and friends. So I participated in the ceremony. It was the single happiest day of my life.


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