Hack Your Program: University of Michigan School of Information (Update)

Disclaimer: This post is an update to Emily Thompson’s excellent 2011 overview of the MSI program at the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI). My update reflects my experiences as a current UMSI student, plus a handful of testimonies that I gathered from current MSI students and recent alumni.  Please know that our opinions are not intended to be representative of the opinions of all students, faculty or staff. 

Program overview

Web banner depicting squirrel at laptop with text UMSI creates new Squirrel-Computer Interaction Specialization

SI culture in one image via KF

The University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) is an iSchool with roots in library science. The program was the third in the nation to receive ALA accreditation in 1928. The program went through several “incarnations” before establishing itself as the “School of Information” in 1996.

UMSI offers several degree options, all of which are on-campus only: Master of Science in Information (MSI), Ph.D in Information, and the recently formed Bachelor of Science in Information (BSI) and the Master of Science in Health Informatics (MHI), a collaborative public health/information degree. In the 2014-2015 school year, there were 386 MSI, 59 PhD, 87 BSI, and 49 MHI students.

Program Requirements

Graduate students creating an affinity wall

You will come to love/hate the affinity wall, a culminating process in SI501: Contextual Inquiry via Liz Chua

The MSI requires 48 credit hours, which for most of us breaks down to two years of full-time study, with 3-4 classes per semester. Half of the 48-credit program is composed of required coursework:

  • SI500: Information in Social Systems 3 credits: You’ll take this course your first year, along with all the other 300+ MSIs in your graduating class.. It’s an introduction to big-picture information ideas. The format of the class may change year-to-year, but it is typically co-taught by two professors, representing different areas of interest (e.g. social computing and archives or interaction design and school libraries).
  • SI501: Contextual Inquiry and Project Management 3 credits: This is another course that’s seen many iterations over the years. You’ll work on a team of five to gain experience working with a client to solve some information problem. Along the way, you’ll learn contextual inquiry methodology (which will seem familiar to social science folks). Part of the CI process, the affinity wall is a UMSI rite of passage (see GIF). Embrace it.
  • Research Methods 3 credits: Choose from a variety of methods courses, including the heralded SI622: Needs Assessment and Usability Evaluation (4 credits) which is a lot of work but offers experience working with a client to perform full usability testing.
  • Management 3 credits: Choose from a variety of management courses,  although a word of caution, SI’s offerings for library-specific management courses are spotty. You might plan to take SI626 Management of Nonprofit Libraries only to find that it was taken out the course catalog for that school year. You may need to be open to taking the theoretical SI617: Choice Architecture or SI627: Managing the IT Organization
  • Cognate course(s) 3-6 credits: Cognates are, as Emily put it, “a fancy word for a class in another department.” Students may take up to 6 graduate-level credits. I’m taking a GIS class at the College of Architecture and Urban Planning and a marketing analytics course at the Ross School of Business. For peer-recommended cognates, see this list.
  • Practical Engagement Experience 6 credits: PEP credits are typically obtained through a 360-hour summer internship experience between your first and second year of the program.


MSI students are required to specialize in one or more tracks. The “tailored” specialization option allows students to create their own specialization, with the guidance of faculty advisors. We like to refer to ourselves by our acronyms.

Financial Aid

SI offers a variety of scholarships, most of which are not limited to LIS-focused students. Offerings include half-tuition and full-tuition merit scholarships, diversity merit scholarships, and a few University Library Associate fellowships, intended for academic librarians-in-training, through a joint program with the UM Library. I was lucky enough to land a ULA position, and if you have questions about the ULA program, please let me know.

There are also competitive opportunities to work as a teaching assistant (AKA “GSIs”) or a research assistant (AKA “GSRAs”). This is not to mention the wealthy of work study opportunities in academic departments, libraries, and museums across campus. SI will also match external scholarship awards up to $10,000 and they maintain a pretty extensive spreadsheet of available opportunities.

From what I’ve heard, it really is not affordable for part-time study. Tuition for out-of-state students is double that of in-state students. And securing in-state status is notoriously difficult at UM. I did not receive notification of my in-state status until the end of my first semester, and that was only after submitting two rounds of paperwork.

Student Involvement

SI has a number of active student groups, including the School of Information Master’s Association (SIMA), an ALA student chapter, and a SAA student chapter. Student groups plan social events, campus lectures, workshops, and service projects, like World Information Architecture Day, SI Day of Service, A2 Data Dive, and an annual library unconference called QuasiCon. I participated in a number of really fun design jams, hosted by the HCI student group. Design jams are 2-3 hour sessions that allow small teams of students to respond to a design problem posed by visiting clients like Facebook and JSTOR.

Why SI?

  1. Technical skill development that is approachable, yet rigorous enough to provide a foundation for careers in user experience, development, digital preservation, data analysis, and project management–all areas of growth in library and information careers. I chose SI because it sees user-centered design and technical fluency as key to all information professions, including librarianship.
  2. Practical professional experience. Your internship and work study experiences are where you’ll really learn the ins and outs of professional life. Luckily, Ann Arbor, Michigan is home to a really big research library, a really innovative public library, and a ton of other fantastic libraries and museums within driving distance . That’s not to mention Alternative Spring Break, with opportunities to work at ALA Washington, the Field Museum, or the Library of Congress. There are student service groups like the Michigan Makers and UM FEMMES–a network of makers and STEM outreach and instruction programs. You can gain design consulting experience as part of the Design Clinic, help local organizations do good with their data as part of the A2Data Dive, and create a viable start-up venture with support from the UMSI Entrepreneurship Program.
  3. Career support from UMSI’s own Career Development Office. They’ll help you find and succeed in internships and careers. They want happy, successful graduates, and they are really proactive about it.
  4. Awesome colleagues who love libraries, archives, data, development, social technology, content strategy, user experience design, EdTech, electronic health records management, information policy, and more. You will learn great things from them, and they will make you a better librarian.
  5. Awesome professors who love libraries and awesome professors who don’t especially love libraries but can appreciate that you do and will help you tailor your graphic design, information visualization, interaction design, or usability coursework to the area of libraries. Shoutout to Kristin Fontichiaro, Silvia Lindtner, and Colleen Van Lent.

Program Weaknesses

When I asked LIS students about the weaknesses of the MSI program, their response was resounding: The LIS program is weak. There aren’t enough library and archives courses, partly because there are not enough faculty in these areas to teach courses. The School of Information continues to add faculty in other areas of interest, while relying on limited faculty and adjunct lecturers pulled from the University of Michigan Library.

UMSI is proud of its evolution into a program for data scientists, user experience professionals, developers, analysts, and entrepreneurs, and often this is seen as, at the expense of the LIS specialization. One person wrote, There are definitely feelings of “us-against-them” and resentment among the specializations that can be counter-productive. Sometimes I wish that the school still offered a separate MLIS degree that is more tailored to library science; at present UMSI is trying to be all things to all people and not completely succeeding.

Hacking SI

Emily’s hacks are still really applicable. Some advice from other SI students:

  • Learn to program. Learn something about UX from your HCI friends. Learn project management. Find a way to connect what you are learning with what you experience in jobs/internships at libraries.
  • Visit [your courses] before you commit to keeping anything permanently on your schedule! Often course descriptions definitely don’t reflect what the ACTUAL class will be like, so try to get a feeling for this on the first day and load up your schedule! Course shopping is super key.
  • I would recommend finding an internship that stretches your skills as much as possible, even to the point of scaring you. SI doesn’t provide much real world experience aside from the PEP internship so this is your best shot at getting some.
  • There were a lot of great internship opportunities in the UM/Ann Arbor area, but I would caution students to consider: Is this relevant to my goals, or just interesting? If you want to teach information literacy in a community organization or public library, for example, don’t spend your summer cataloging manuscripts just because it seems like fun. Find something that will really offer useful experience, and help you when you are applying for jobs.
  • Prospectives should know that saving money during the year is extremely important, because finding an LIS internship that pays – and pays enough to live on – can be a challenge.
  • In addition to courses, job(s), and internship(s), try to schedule yourself “down time” to attend campus events. Keep a lunch hour free at least one day a week. The programming by student groups, UMSI, and other campus departments is a very valuable addition to your experience.

And what I tell myself: You owe it to yourself to try things you weren’t expecting to try in grad school. Opportunities will arise that seem really scary, but all you have to do is mark it on your Google Calendar and show up. Or hang out in the student lounge and tell someone you’re struggling with it. Something really great will probably happen.


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