How to make the most of your online MLIS experience

When it comes to online library school, the old adage, ‘you get out of it only what you put in,’ is imperative. With grad school in general, you’re expected to take control and ownership of your own education and professional growth; and that’s doubly applicable when it comes to online learning. There’s no one but you to hold you accountable. The more effort you put into experiencing everything you can in your quest to become a librarian through online learning, the better off you’ll be – it’s all a matter of return on investment.

It’s not easy, especially if you’re like me and you’re working FT and dealing with life (especially with everything happening in the world at the time of writing this); but the long term benefits to your career readiness at the time of graduation could be worth some temporary discomfort and tight scheduling. Now, a caveat, I have been told that I take on too much, and people to often ask me how I do it. I acknowledge I have the privilege of having a fantastic support network that picks up a lot of the slack I drop in my day to day life in order to do everything I do in order to achieve my goal. Take only what you want from this article – no one can judge you for doing only one or a few of these things, doing all ten, or doing none. I just wanted to share some tricks and suggestions that have worked for me. LIS is a competitive industry and anything you can do during library school to help yourself to stand out will only be helpful to you once your degree is in hand.

Get organized and make a plan

Whether you’re just starting your first semester, you’re in your second year on, or even your last semester, making a plan never hurts. We’ve seen a couple of posts both for and against having a plan recently here on HLS, but if you remember back to January when I wrote about thinking ahead, you remember that I like plans, but I love flexible plans. A good plan always has at least one back-up plan. Planning and organization are basic building blocks when it comes to online learning. Online learning is incredibly self-directed and you will need to develop your time management skills. Find organizational systems that work for you. I love daily to-do lists and dry erase calendars above my desk that allow me to see the month’s due dates at a glance.

Having a plan for how you plan to go through the program is equally important, like Heidi said in last week’s piece on hacking your application, you should “know what you want out of your education and only seek out schools that offer that.” If you know what your end goal is, you can identify courses and extracurricular offerings that will be relevant to you and start making a list! Think about when you can take them and check periodically to see when they’re offered. If the plan doesn’t work out, flexibility is a skill that gets built up a lot in an online program. You’ll quickly learn that your plans won’t always work, but that’s the beauty of having a plan: even when it fails, it still works because it can guide you back on track faster so you spend less time floundering.

If your program has a capping project/major research paper/or thesis option, start looking at the requirements early

The University of Alberta has a capping project that you have to do in conjunction with your final course in the program. One of the things I did in the first semester was start looking into what I would need for that because I knew the main object being produced was a portfolio and I wanted to make sure I knew what I’d need to put in it. I’m glad I did that because, while reading the instructions, there was a point that said we should be starting to think about artifacts we could use starting as early as our second semester. So, what did I do? I started a spreadsheet (this is my go to trick for anything I need to track). Our portfolio needs to contain ten items, three from core courses, three from elective courses, one from our required IT courses, and the final three need to be experiential artifacts from outside of the classroom.

I’m glad that I looked at those requirements early, because I’ve been looking at everything since then in terms of the potential to get an experiential artifact I now have time to try and seek out really awesome opportunities for that. If I’d left it until closer to the time I needed to build the portfolio, I would have fewer options to choose from and a hard time working them all in. So, find out the requirements of your major final projects for the whole program in the beginning. It may seem counterintuitive, but your future self will really appreciate the effort, especially if it turns out that your department doesn’t give you a lot of detail in the instructions and largely leaves you to figure things out for yourself. You don’t want to be caught off guard in the tail end of your program or right before a cut off date scrambling to figure out what you need and how to get it.

Look into the extracurricular offerings at your school and take advantage of them

I mentioned extracurriculars above on purpose, because I knew they’d be making another appearance as a point of their own. Extracurriculars are any services or programs or clubs offered by your university outside of the time you spend in class (that’s probably obvious, but I wanted to be clear). There are a wide variety of them that are relevant to you as an online MLIS student. First and foremost, check out your faculty for professional association student chapters. ALA student chapters and CAPAL student chapters seem to be the two most common that I have seen. Your department may also have committees or student associations you can get involved with like mine does; as we have the Library and Information Studies Student Association, the Future Librarians for Information Freedom, and the Forum for Information Professionals. There’s also departmental and university committees that oversee a variety of things like an equity and diversity committee or a library advisory committee.

These are all activities that can act as resume and CV builders and help you build your professional network. There’s also student publications like a student-run journal or the university newspaper for you to flex your skills with. Don’t forget to check out workshop and training opportunities such as graduate teacher training or writing and research workshops offered by other campus units. These are valuable training opportunities that might be free for you as a student that you would otherwise have to pay to get later on.

Find professional engagement opportunities wherever they lurk

Following from extracurriculars, take the time to seek out professional engagement opportunities outside of your school as well. This includes things like conferences, webinars, workshops, Twitter chats (here’s where I self-servingly promote the Twitter chat I co-host, #LISprochat, and where I mention that we offer guest hosting opportunities!). You can even offer to write for library based publications, like Hack Library School. Look for and take any chance you can to find ways to engage with the profession and the people in it. Networking matters, LIS is a small industry so getting yourself out there so you can start to become a known quantity early is a beneficial move. You can use any excuse, for a research paper over the summer I decided to reach out to some people in the field and ask them if they could help point me in the direction of anyone or anything that could help me out, I made some really good connections that way. Also, take this opportunity to explore and experience new things, there are so many opportunities out there for students.

Take advantage of student discounts

Student discounts are one of the many opportunities available to you. Professional associations like ALA have discounted student rates for membership – you get all the perks and benefits of membership without having to pay the full fee. Along with this are discounts at conferences, as many of them also have a student rate; and a lot of the time you’ll also see a call for student volunteers to help out at the conference and some conferences offer volunteers free entrance into the conference after their volunteer shifts. Professional development course providers also sometimes offer a discount to students which can help you supplement your course learning. Getting involved as a student will allow you the chance to work your way up to leadership positions in professional associations faster. Professional association participation and leadership involvement are looked upon favorably in hiring.

Talk to your instructors outside of classes

Be proactive and seek out your instructors outside of the e-classroom structure. Ask them questions and try and get to know them. They are working professionals often with wide networks in the industry – in other words, they are good allies to have. Good instructors will be supportive of developing a professional rapport with you and will be happy to help you on your professional journey. An added bonus is if you decide to do a second master’s degree (often needed for academic librarian roles) or you eventually want to do a PhD, you’ll have some people you can easily reach out to to be references. Some might even offer to be references for you in your job search.

Get library experience ASAP

I’m not going to sugar-coat it, there is a lot of gatekeeping in this profession and there are a lot of librarians out there who will discount any support staff level work that you do (I hate the term paraprofessional, but it’s one that gets thrown around a lot in regards to non-librarian level library work). But, getting any library experience you can will help you over not having any at all, if only in helping you understand the practical ways in which libraries work. Working in a library will help you understand the industry, help you start building your skills, and help you to synthesize the theories you’re learning in your classes with the lived realities. Looking for student library assistant jobs at the university you’re a student at is the easiest option; but it’s hard if you’re in an online program because chances are you’re probably not geographically near enough to work for the school. What might be available to you though are graduate research assistantships through the faculty, so look carefully for these options as they give you not only valuable library-related work experience, but a chance to develop a closer working relationship with one or more faculty members and any other research assistants (all about that networking!). Some RAships will even offer the chance of publications and conference presentations. If you can’t do that, though, try and get a job in a library near you (if you’re not already working in a library FT while studying). Another good option is looking to see if your program has either co-op or a practicum option – though, ideally, you would have identified those opportunities before you accepted the offer of admission!

Start investigating job postings for post-graduation

I know that you’re probably thinking that this seems counterintuitive and that there’s no way you should be thinking about this if you’re just starting the program, Mary Elizabeth did make a good case for why you shouldn’t be; but she and I disagree on the finer points of that. I acknowledge that she’s correct in pointing out that what happens after graduation is not the concern of the present you – it’s a future you problem. But, if you do a little bit of work in the present, future you will be better prepared and will thank you for it.

You obviously know you want to be a librarian or information professional, but you may or may not already know what kind you want to be. Take time now as a student to explore as many and as varied job postings as you can, and pay special attention to emerging hiring trends. Read the posts closely to find things you like, and make note of the things you don’t. When you find a job posting you like, save a copy of it for reference. Use these job postings to figure out the skills and experiences needed for these positions and then find ways to tailor your grad school experience to get you those skills and experiences. In doing so, you’ll come out the other side of your MLIS in a much more hirable position. Given the bias there can be against graduates of online programs, making yourself a standout candidate will help you in your job search. I’ve been through that struggle before when I did the library and information technician college program fully online from 2010-2012 and I don’t want to go through that again post-MLIS.

Think carefully about tailoring your assignments to your interests

Following the previous tip will also help you with this step. Because so much of graduate school is self directed, that leaves you a lot of opportunity to really tailor things to your interests and needs. In every course you take, you’ll find at least one assignment that is broad enough that you should be able to tailor it to your professional interests. For example, I’m really interested in copyright, open education, scholarly communications, and outreach – at least once in each of my courses so far I’ve managed to find a way to do an assignment that was aligned with at least one of those areas, or one of my secondary interests. Another reason you’ll want to do this is so you can start to leverage the work you’ve done on your assignments into conference presentations, and publication opportunities. Make your school work do double, or even triple duty, for you.

Find your people and build a community outside of the eClassroom

I’ve saved this piece of advice until the end because, for me, it’s the best piece of advice. This has been one of my best experiences with the program so far. Most learning management systems are not really designed to encourage community building among students. As an online learner, you have to be more proactive to make these connections than your compatriots in the face to face programs, but don’t believe anyone who tells you that online learning means you don’t get to make meaningful professional connections. Same as everything else, it just requires a bit more effort and, as with everything else on this list, you get out of it what you put into it. Luckily, there are a plethora of free services on the internet that can make setting up a way to collaborate with your cohort-mates outside of the official school infrastructure easy. My cohort uses Slack, but you could also set up a Facebook group or other group on social media, use a Discord server, or any number of other services. Slack is especially useful because so many other organizations are starting to use. This has been the best resource for me so far, as we’re all so supportive of each other. We meet there to decompress and vent, chat about our likes and our lives, and share advice about course selections, assignments and capping opportunities. It’s nice to have that informal, unmonitored space just to connect with the people in my program. Find out if something like this exists, and, if it doesn’t, start something! Pro Tip: this system makes doing group work really easily because you’ll quickly and easily find people you work well with and you’ll want to do all your projects with them.

The most important thing to keep in mind through all these tips, though, is to remember to take care of yourself and find a work-school-life balance. The last thing you want is to come out of your MLIS and already be dealing with librarian burnout. Burnout is a huge problem in our profession anyway, so don’t push yourself towards it. I’ve been there, and burnout isn’t fun. Teacher burnout was what lead me to libraries in the first place. Make the most of your experience, but while you’re doing that, don’t get so wrapped up in that goal that you forget to enjoy yourself. Make time in your day for non-school and non-work things. Don’t abandon your hobbies or your friends and loved ones.

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