Hack Your Program: San Jose State University (Update)

Disclaimer: This post is particular to the author’s perspectives and experiences. It is not intended to be representative or indicative of any other student, does not represent the official stance of the university or any of its faculty or staff, and is current only as of the date of publication. For the most up-to-date information, please contact the SJSU School of Information directly.

We’ve published an SJSU Hack Your Program before, but it was written in 2011 and it’s a big school! There’s some good information and a lengthy discussion in that post, and I recommend perusing it as a prospective student, but keep in mind that it was written eleven years ago. I’m not going to repeat what’s been said there, but I would like to report on some changes.


The School of Information offers a bachelor’s degree, three master’s degrees, and a PhD program. The three master’s degrees are: master of library and information science (MLIS), master of archives and records administration (MARA), and master of science in informatics. All three programs are totally online, with no required face-to-face, in-person components. I am in the MLIS program, and will be discussing that program almost exclusively. (It is also the only one of the three that is accredited by the American Library Association.)


Look, I won’t come right out and say it’s really easy to get into the MLIS program…OK yes I will. It’s very easy to get into the MLIS program. Do you have a pulse and a bachelor’s degree? Congratulations, that’s basically all you need! The benefit of this is, of course, that you don’t have to pay an application fee or pay for or study for the GRE. The downside is that SJSU ends up with a reputation of not being very prestigious or selective. I took that to mean, make sure you’re also doing other things while you’re in this program, on top of your regular coursework, to make yourself stand out when you graduate. (I’ll talk some more about internships and ways to get involved later on.)


When I attended a Zoom session for prospective students before enrolling in my first class, I was surprised to find many (most?) of the questions asked were about the difference between regular session and special session. So, for anyone reading this with the same question: if you live in zip codes 939xx-958xx, you’re in regular session, and you pay regular session tuition prices. (This is subsidized for students who fall within the traditional university catchment area, even though all regular session classes, like special session classes, are online and you can take them from anywhere.) Regular session students register for courses with section numbers beginning with 0 (200-01, 281-05, etc.)

Special session is…everyone else. I live in southern California (my zip code is 91xxx), and I am special session. Special session courses are numbered 1x (200-11, 281-15, etc.) Rather than paying by semester, as regular session students do, special session students pay $474 per unit. Regardless of the session, the MLIS program requires 43 units to complete. SJSU operates on a semester schedule (fall, spring, and summer – there is no winter). One of the odd quirks is that regular session does not offer summer courses, so if regular session students want to take summer courses, they first need to take 19 units, and then apply to switch to special session for the summer.

That’s it! As long as you know your zip code, it’s easy!


Of those 43 units, 16 of them are required, or core, courses. Every MLIS student has to take 203, 200, 202, 204, 285, and either 289 or 299. 203, 200, 202, and 204 are the same for everyone, but 285 offers specialization options depending on your interest, and 289/299 is the culminating project. 289 is the course for completing an e-portfolio, and 299 is for writing a thesis; you choose one or the other, but not both.

203 is a short-term, one credit class that you must complete in your first semester. If you time it right, you can complete the entire class before your other classes start (although you don’t have to; you can take all semester to finish it if you want to). 203 is pass/fail (they call it credit/no credit) and, so far as I can tell, is largely designed to make sure you’re actually capable of and interested in completing the rest of the program. There is both a professor and a peer mentor to help you (of course YMMV, but I found my peer mentor quite helpful), but if you’re really struggling, this might not be the program for you. It covers basics like how to use Canvas and how to write a citation.

200, 202, and 204 are prerequisites for almost any of the electives you’ll want to take later, so while other than taking 203 in your first semester and finishing with either 289 or 299 there aren’t really any requirements for what order you take your classes, general consensus is you’ll want to front-load 200, 202, and 204 and do them pretty early on. (I did wait a few semesters before tackling 285, though, and it didn’t cause me any problems.)


One thing I really appreciate about the MLIS program website is that any synchronous components to a course are clearly posted before registration opens, so that if a professor wants, say, a synchronous Zoom meeting on March 22nd from 6 to 7pm Pacific time, you’ll know about that before you register. Can’t meet that requirement? Then that’s not the course for you. Otherwise, you can pretty safely assume that the entire class will be done asynchronously, and that if there are synchronous components, they’ll be optional.


SJSU has no specializations, tracks, emphases, or designations – you earn an MLIS, full-stop. This, admittedly, is one of the things I don’t love about the program. I entered knowing I was interested in academic librarianship, but I’m left to decide on my own what courses I should take to get me there, and my diploma won’t say anything about it. There are what the school calls pathways, and those are there to give students suggestions of which electives might be helpful in future career paths, but you don’t have to stick to the pathways or take their suggestions. This gives you a lot of freedom in choosing courses, but SJSU has a LOT of courses, and deciding how to get to 43 units can be overwhelming.


With that said – you can concurrently earn both your MLIS and a Digital Assets Certificate. What I like about this option is that the credits to earn the certificate can be included in the 43 required units, so you don’t have to spend any extra money or take any extra time to earn this extra certification. I chose the Digital Assets Management option, but there is also Data Analytics or Information Governance, Assurance, and Security to choose from (and I heard the school may be investigating adding further options in the future). I’m pretty much always on the lookout for anything additional I can add or do to make my future resume stand out, so I jumped at this option.

However! I still haven’t figured out why this is, but if you choose to earn a Digital Assets Certificate, you have to do the e-portfolio as your culminating project; you cannot write a thesis. I heard somewhere (maybe in a webinar?) that only 2% of SJSU MLIS students choose to do a thesis rather than an e-portfolio, but if you are one of them, just know that that means you cannot also get a Digital Asset Certificate.


Oh, man. As I said – SJSU just has so many electives on tap. Here’s the current list, although it changes all the time, and you’ll notice that many of the sections are repeatable, with different topics of specialization to choose from. And new ones are being added all the time – I took an OER seminar last summer, and this summer I’m looking forward to a brand-new offering, Building a Critical Culture: Information Ethics, Diverse Communities, and Critical Librarianship. The bright side of having such a wide variety is just that – you can choose to really drill down and get very specific into a topic you’re really interested in (metadata, serving diverse communities, etc.), or you can skip around and figure out just what it is, exactly, that you are interested in. The downside is that there is just not enough room within the 43-unit constraint to fit in everything you could possibly ever want to take or learn about, and you’ll probably inevitably feel, like I do, that you’re going to end up leaving having missed out on something cool.

You will also want to be mindful of (assuming you’re one of the 98% and not the 2%) that final project e-portfolio you’ll be doing. Which leads me to…

The E-Portfolio  

To graduate from this program you’ll need to prove that you have some skill with each of the school’s fourteen core competencies. You can do this in a number of ways, and they don’t all have to necessarily be school-related. You can use work you’ve done at your job, presentations you’ve given, papers you’ve written, displays you’ve made, events you’ve coordinated, or a whole host of other pieces of evidence. The e-portfolio requires students to divide these pieces of evidence up among the fourteen competencies. So, while the opportunities are big and broad, I find it helpful to make sure I’m taking courses that fit into competencies where I might be weaker or need more help. My natural inclination, if I’m choosing courses based just off of what I like and nothing else, would end up making me really stacked in competencies F, H, and N, for example, but would almost totally ignore competencies  B, D, and K. Having that framework gives me some good clues about which areas I should be choosing my electives from. (The school provides a list of which courses cover which competencies, and you can also look up an individual competency and get a list of which courses would help you with it. These lists can be found here; just toggle between ‘MLIS Comps’ and ‘MLIS CLOs’.)


This may just be a personal preference, but, when presented with a choice and with all other things being equal, I’ve defaulted throughout my program to choosing the course taught by whoever is either currently working in libraries, or has most recently worked in a library, and it hasn’t steered me wrong since. Not that there’s anything wrong with professional professors! But I’ve really appreciated taking classes from working professionals who also teach a class or two on the side. The MLIS program has a lot of professors, period, and a large number that fall into this category, so if that’s important to you, you’ll have a pretty easy time in this program.


Totally optional at SJSU, but I mention them here because there’s a cool thing that might interest even those enrolled at other universities – the Internship Sites Database. These are internship opportunities, totally sortable by type, pay rate, and geographic location, that are open to MLIS students (and not necessarily just SJSU students). There is an internship class (INFO 294) that, depending on how many hours the internship you choose lasts, is worth either two, three, or four credits and is graded credit/no credit. Because SJSU is such a big school and it can be very easy to feel lost in the shuffle, I plan on doing at least one internship before I graduate.


I for one totally get the impulse to just put your head down and get through grad school as quickly and simply as possible. Can you graduate the program without ever joining an organization, volunteering your time outside of class, or doing any extracurriculars? Yes. (Even the e-portfolio/thesis is, technically, a class.) But, assuming you do want to get involved, SJSU has multiple student groups and volunteer opportunities. There are student chapters of many larger, nationwide organizations (like the ALA and REFORMA), and a group specifically for first-gen students, and these are almost always looking for new members and leadership on a yearly basis. Full-time students (at least 6 units in Fall and Spring semesters) can qualify for paid student assistantships or, if your talents lie more in the field of research and publishing, you can apply to edit or write for the Student Research Journal. (Cool note! You do not need to be a student at SJSU to submit an article to the Student Research Journal! It is open to graduate students at any school!) These are some of the most common extracurriculars I hear about as a student, but keep an eye out on your school email for plenty more.

All in all, I’m happy I chose to enroll at SJSU. I needed an all-online program, and I like that it’s both in-state and more affordable than a lot of the other all-online programs I considered. (In-state doesn’t technically matter, and there are plenty of other students in other states and countries, but most assignments are due based on the Pacific time zone and anecdotally I’ve met more local, west-coast based students than I have those from anywhere else.) And it has plenty of other things going for it that, with a little digging around on the website, make it a really customizable, interesting program.

Hack Library School would love to hear from anyone who either a) is a local, regular-session student, and/or b) a MARA student. If this is you and you would be willing to write up and share some of your experiences, please reach out to us at hacklibschool@gmail.com!

As always, the comments field is open for any current students or alumni to pick up on anything I missed or got wrong, or if you have any questions about the program!

Photo via San José State University, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lauren Bauer started her MLIS journey in January 2020 and two years later is still probably only about halfway through, and that’s if you’re counting very generously (which she does). She is the associate editor of Hack Library School and a library technician at a community college in Los Angeles. You can find her on Twitter @darthbookworm3.

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