MLIS: An Academic and Professional Degree

I expected my graduate classes to be like my undergraduate classes – writing papers, revising papers, readings, discussions – just more in-depth and with higher standards. This expectation comes from being a first generation college student with little exposure to the world of graduate school. My expectations were partially met as my program is also focused on professional development and competency. Rather than exclusively diving deeply into and applying theory, my program emphasizes the roles modern libraries are taking and the challenges they face. There is a focus on practicality with just enough theory to think broadly and critically about these. This approach is seen in coursework and readings, but also in program requirements and optional but encouraged internships, called directed fieldwork. There is a required final project called capstone that students spend their last year working on over three quarters, where a student, or team of students, leads and executes a project – it could be an event, digitization project, or field guide, etc (see examples here). Capstone aims to provide students with a deliverable and real-world experience that cannot be gained within a one-quarter class.

All this encouragement of experiential learning is advantageous for those of us who wish to find a job we want after graduation – which I imagine is all students. A job in an institution one wants and in a city or town one would want to work in can be a challenge to land, and my program works to prepare its students for this. The benefits of preparing students for the workplace go beyond helping them find employment. It produces librarians who excel at their jobs and are able to adapt to inevitable changes. It allows students to get a feel for the different settings they may want or may not want to work in.

However, these benefits are complicated my lack of experience. I came into graduate school right after undergraduate school not having had work experience and responsibilities that prepared me for the demands my program makes of students. At times it has been excruciating for me to try and take on these responsibilities before I felt I was competent enough to do them. This, combined with mental health struggles, has put me at a disadvantage. If I had better known and anticipated how much I would need the ability to take on projects and responsibilities, it would have been wiser for me to wait a few years until graduate school and gain more work experience in order to prepare for the skills needed to get the most out of my degree.

Further, my lack of experience has made it more difficult to find and get a job that would provide income while learning skills applicable to the kind of library I want to work in. It is certainly possible to gain the skills needed – like in directed fieldwork or internships – but they tend to be unpaid and it is not sustainable to work part time, do part time unpaid work, and be a full-time student. However, this can be made more manageable by being a part-time student. Despite these challenges, I am still thankful to have the chance to develop the skills I need before entering the workforce as a graduate. Going into the workforce without any experience of the responsibilities and skills needed to be the kind of librarian I want to be would prevent me from serving my community well and rising to the challenges of being a librarian.

Did you go right into your program after undergraduate? What are the pros and cons of doing so? Did you wait or make a career change before starting your MLIS? What are the pros and cons of that path?


Hanna Roseen is a second year residential MLIS student at the University of Washington with an interest in public and school librarianship and archives. You can check out her latest project, a sexuality education bookstagram, here.


Photo by Matt Hoffman on Unsplash

2 replies

  1. I started library school 4 years after my undergrad. By that time I had approximately 6 years of library experience, including my undergrad library where I worked as a student. I knew when I graduates with my BA that I wanted to go to library school, but I was so burned out that wasn’t feasible. In hindsight, I wish I’d started back a year earlier, but I still wasn’t able to make the emotional commitment at that point. I was fortunate that from the time I first started working at my college library that I have never not worked in a library since that time. Four jobs since my junior year of college; all libraries.

    Like you, I was a first generation college student with big ideas of what grad school was supposed to be like. Unlike you, I was never able to adjust my expectations of what it “should” be and I spent the four years of my half-time program being very angry and disappointed in the rigor of the courses. I had to work MUCH harder as an undergrad than a grad student. Furthermore with 6-10 years of library experience, I found relatively little of what was being presented useful or applicable to the real-life library experience. I got through on my intelligence and experience, but rarely had to put significant work into my classes (cataloging was a different matter, of course), and don’t get me started on “discussion boards.”

    Ultimately, I think the best way to learn to be a librarian is to work in a library. Courses are helpful and can bring you knowledge of other areas outside your experience, but nothing prepares you for your area of librarianship like working in it. I think librarian education would be greatly improved by approaching it like a trade, than an academic pursuit. Let’s have internships, novitiates, jouneymen/women, and masters. But, a university can’t really make money like that.

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  2. Those are really good points, Jeffrey! I certainly found my undergraduate experience super helpful for wanting to become a librarian since I was a gender studies major. The focus on justice and equality on both systemic and individual levels really informs how I think about librarianship. However, requiring a graduate degree seems a little odd. I agree librarianship would be greatly aided by becoming more of a trade – something that would also make it more accessible to more people as well.

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