Should We Be Generalists or Specialists?

     I think it is safe to say that it is no surprise that our current job market is incredibly precarious, and has been for a while, our current pandemic notwithstanding. But, in light of our current professional circumstances, how can we adequately prepare for our job market if we cannot realistically learn everything and cultivate every skill that would make us widely employable? My fellow HLS colleague Kerri addressed this reality back in January, where she talked about how, while we cannot realistically learn absolutely everything there is to know while in graduate school, we still have ways to further learn via professional development opportunities offered through various avenues after we graduate and embark on our LIS careers.

      As my fellow HLS colleague Nick recently observed during his own journey to graduation, what we may have originally imagined our future LIS careers to be sometimes can unfold in ways we did not originally anticipate. His journey is one I can relate to because, when I first began my MLIS program at SJSU, I started my program with the intent to become an archivist. But, lo and behold, a year and a half later, I am planning on generally pursuing public and academic librarianship when I graduate in less than a year’s time; which I find both exciting and terrifying simultaneously as I try to project what the job market may be for public and academic library jobs next May. But, as we have learned very quickly this year, things can quickly change with little to no notice; making projection a moot point.

     So, where does that leave those of us planning on graduating within the next year? If we cannot realistically plan, and we do not have much left in terms of available units in our degrees to devote to electives, how can we plan for the unexpected? Having started my graduate program with no previous work experience in libraries, I sometimes have felt stuck between choosing classes as they all have sounded like good choices that cultivate skills that at least a few positions within the field ask for. So, this has become especially daunting as I progress further into the last year of my program; where my choices not only will determine how I will finish my degree, but how employable I may be next Spring, too. Graduation has honestly been hard to think about lately as potential employers all try to determine their best steps forward in terms of their reopening schedules, amended operations, and the like; which has left the future unknown.

     Thus, in response to current circumstances, I have found myself trying to figure out whether I should be a generalist or a specialist when it comes to defining the last half of my MLIS program. While current research demonstrates that both are incredibly valid approaches to one’s career in and out of libraries and information organizations overall, it still has made me wonder what the best thing is for me. I know from experience speaking with others who are attending or have attended my particular MLIS program during student meetings that generalists are sometimes preferred by some employees as they possess an ability to adapt to different positions within an organization; but some definitely does not represent all. So, seeing that public and academic librarianship are both career pathways that are in no way defined by one particular skill set or career type, I have been often wondering how I can specialize in some skills while still taking a generalist approach to my graduate education?

     Thus, for others in my position or recent LIS graduates experiencing something similar, I can only make a few recommendations on what my experiences have been so far while preparing for the unknown the next year represents:

     First, I am sure it is more of the rule rather than the exception lately for everyone job searching in our field to look for ways where they can simultaneously broaden and hone their skill set when appropriate so they are not pigeonholed into too small of a niche that rarely ever has job openings; especially now in our ever-changing circumstances. So, one way in which I have personally found ways to accomplish both is to mine current job opening announcements for information. I honestly have a handful of handwritten lists in my notebook organized into columns separating listed skills from related courses offered in my department that I have predominantly compiled from recent job openings posted on LinkedIn and other online job boards that detail what potential employers have been looking for lately; and how those required and recommended skill sets translate into my department’s current curriculum or into external professional development opportunities that I can take advantage of while in school or after graduation. Despite current events, there are always job openings being posted. So, I would highly recommend fellow students and recent LIS graduates check them out, even if they are not qualified for them, as they can still provide information that could help them tailor their job search to better-fitting positions.

     Secondly, social media can be incredibly advantageous to use while researching how to put your generalist or specialist perspective to work. For example, #librarytwitter is a huge community that affords LIS professionals and students the opportunity to network and gather information, as I have observed before; and it is an even more important resource now as we adapt and acclimate to our new sense of normalcy. Facebook is another great resource as I know there are many groups geared towards LIS professionals and students on that platform, regardless if they are related to your department or school; and, like Twitter, they are free to access and use. If there are any other platforms out there that I have overlooked that have helped you as you started your career, feel free to post about them in the comments section.

     Lastly, resources published by your department or school can be other important resources to use as they are directly related to your specific, and arguably unique, degree program. Since no one MLIS program or iSchool is like another, your department likely can help you figure out your best steps better than some other resources might as they are uniquely attuned to your respective curriculum, student learning outcomes, and program structure. For example, I know San Jose State University’s iSchool, which is where I am currently attending library school, publishes resources for students to reference in determining which skills and careers are most in demand, which institutions are currently seeking job applicants, and which courses in the school’s curriculum and services offered by the department can best prepare students for their post-graduation career. So, I realistically assume that other iSchools publish similar resources. Thus, even though it may not seem like it right now, we all have options available to us and I am confident we all will ultimately find the LIS jobs that best fit us.

Photo by Nikita Kachanovsky on Unsplash

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