The sun is setting earlier each night, the weather is getting chillier, and Starbucks is serving Pumpkin Spice Lattes. It’s autumn, and for the first time in three years, I’m not in school. Having graduated with my master’s of library and information science this past spring, I am suddenly a librarian. Right about now, a new class of library science graduate students have started “iSchool” or “Information School” and are beginning to ask eager, sometimes desperate questions about how to manage work, school, and life. There were a lot of things I wish I knew about grad school before I started, and over the years I’ve found myself trading iSchool “hacks” with other students, the tips and tricks and shortcuts for getting through library school alive. So now that I’ve graduated, I think I’m finally in a position to give some advice for new library science graduate students on how to survive library school, how to make the best of it, and how to prepare for what comes after you complete your degree. After all, my degree must qualify me for something… right?
Keep in mind that some of my advice might seem a little… rogue, like a more mellow Hermione Granger circa Deathly Hallows and reformed overachiever. I’m focused on giving you pointers on how to have the best, most productive, meaningful, and, yes, fun experience in graduate school. Some of this advice is for graduate school in general, but most is library school specific. Let’s get to it.
(1). Find your people.
It’s crucial to not feel alienated while you’re pursuing your MLIS*. Librarians are weird people, and librarianship is not an easy choice of career. You need to be with other people who also get the same geeky bookish references, feel a unique joy from weeding James Patterson novels, and cultivating cardigans. These are the people who will make you feel welcome in the library community, especially crucial since libraries, librarians, and information are all subject to regular attack
Especially if you’re doing an online program, it’s easy to feel like you are alone on an island, and that’s even more true if you can’t get involved in the library scene locally. I went to a degree program completely online, and many of classmates were in that situation. I’ve found a lot of community in LIS** online, particularly through Facebook. While there’s one big Facebook group that is a catch all (Library Think Tank — #ALATT), there are also many other groups for library folk. Some of my favorites are listed in the Resources section at the bottom of this list.
When I first joined Think Tank in summer 2014, Think Tankers were the ones who helped encourage me to pursue a library degree, quit my full-time non-library job, and take a part-time library internship, decisions that felt very iffy at the time but was ultimately one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Think Tank made me feel like I had an extended family there to help back me up if I really fell. I’ve also made several friends through Think Tank and other library groups. I recommend trying to meet up with other librarians and students near you offline, too, if your school has local study groups or you find other librarians in the area.
At 30,000 members and counting, Think Tank is an amorphous beast of occasional drama, cat memes, and fun. Being in Think Tank for more than three years at this point has been like an extra credit or elective course to complement my MLIS program. I’ve learned about real issues that librarians confront every day that have shaped my own philosophy of LIS.
(*while there are many variations on the Master’s of Library and Information Science acronym, I’m going to stick with MLIS in this article since that seems more widely used).
(**shorthand for “library and information science”)
(2). Take an elective early.
This was one of the best pieces of advice I heard in the beginning of my program. Someone on Think Tank recommended taking an elective you are interested in your first semester since you often start off taking core classes and those can be, well, lame. Like many new students, I also felt doubts when I began. Did I make a mistake? Would it all go wrong? Was this a waste of student loan debt I could never pay back? Taking an elective that interests you in your first or second semester is a good reminder that LIS is a wide-open field that includes so many fascinating areas of study. I had no idea that library and information science was a big a field with opportunities and niches for everyone before I started my MLIS program. The elective I took in young adult literature and services helped keep me engaged and excited about my new career path when I took it alongside two core classes my first semester. It remained my favorite class all throughout my program, and was actually the impetus for this blog (and my decision to pursue the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts).
(3). Understand your drop / add deadlines.
This is maybe the most important piece of advice on this list. Please thoroughly review the drop / add deadlines and withdrawal period at your school. Not once but twice did I miss the drop deadline during shopping period and ended up having to take a class I didn’t want to take or be forced to drop it entirely with a “W” (withdrawal) and paid for it in full. My school was experimenting with 7-week sessions, a first session and a second session packed into the semester. I registered for a 7-week elective that I couldn’t do because of the workload from my existing classes just to see what the syllabus was like. Since it was an abbreviated semester, there were just 48 hours to drop the elective with no penalty or charge after the semester officially started. I ended up with a “W” on my record and owing a lot of money for that class because I wasn’t paying attention to the drop / add deadline. This is also relevant to summer sessions, which have shorter semesters and therefore shorter time to shop for courses.
Please, review your school’s deadlines and avoid my expensive goof, and these things are not always advertised well (if at all). Address your questions to the registrar, your department’s administrative assistant, and your adviser, anyone with a pulse, for clarity or to confirm anything you don’t quite understand. My undergraduate experience was a close mentorship with my adviser, so to be dropped into the chaos of a larger university for grad school and having to practically be my own adviser was an awakening. No one will hold your hand. Get comfortable asking for more details about the policies and try to get them in writing.
(4). Focus on good points, not just good grades.
As an undergraduate English major, I mostly dealt with letter grades. I wrote a lot of papers and weekly reflections. A lot. My MLIS program, however, was a science degree, and one where grades operated on a points system. Say you can get 100 possible points in a class. That could be divided up many different ways, like a final exam that is worth 10 points or 10% of your grade, a portfolio project worth 20% of your grade, discussion boards worth 20% of your grade, and so on. Coming in from a humanities background where an “A” was more of a feeling than a number, I had to reorient my way of thinking about getting a good grade.
The secret is in the points. Once you’ve reviewed how your grade is constructed, start looking at everything in terms of points. Go for the easy ones, the “low-hanging fruit.” Everyone hates discussion boards, but they usually make up a pretty substantial part of your grade, let’s say 10 points for full participation in 10 different discussion boards. On the one hand, this should help you rest easy if you need to take one or even two off because you just can’t do it that week. On the other hand, these are easy points, and if you get a disappointing grade on another assignment, they will help give you some security toward the end of the semester during the crush of finals.
If you are strategic about building points—and knowing when it’s okay to ease back a little and not go over the top since it’s a crazy week or you’re sick or whatever—you’ll have more security and flexibility.
In one of my last classes, my grade had dipped a little bit after a few tough assignments. I was worried about my final exam until I realized that I could literally bomb the exam since I only needed a C to get a B and a C+ to get an A. I thought about it differently. I had to answer just as many questions correctly as I needed to get enough points for a C and therefore a B. That’s all I was responsible for. New students, my tip to you is to master the points system.
(5). A+ advice = “B’s Get Degrees.”
To add to my point above, I strongly suggest you do two things to make your life easier. First, know what your school’s grade policy is. Second, understand that nobody will ever look at your transcript.
Understanding your school’s grade policy is crucial to helping you stay sane and also master my points method in the second piece of advice above.
It took me a few semesters to realize my school’s grading system rounded up. So, there were no B-, B, or B+ grades. Instead, it was all the same range. So you could get anything from an 80 to an 89 and it would be a B. Meaning, you could work harder to get an 89 final grade, but you could also work hard and get an 83 and it’s still a B.
Mind = blown, right?!
(I do want to emphasize that you’ll want to look at your school’s unique grade policy and grading scale. My experience is specific to my program. I can’t speak for every university out there.)
To the second point on transcripts, in hiring, having the degree is generally more important than where you got the degree, and even less important is your GPA, in most cases. Most graduate degrees require at least a B average, so if you’ve graduated, you already have a good enough GPA. And really, a job application might ask for transcripts, but it’s more to confirm your degree, if they even ask. Library hiring managers or people who sit on library hiring committees often say your GPA doesn’t matter, and they never look at your grades: the important thing is you have the magic MLIS. Then it’s Achievement Unlocked.
(6). Get experience in any way you can.
I didn’t have much library experience coming into my program, and I wasn’t alone. It’s not uncommon for people to graduate without any library or library-related experience. Do not let this happen to you. Any kind of work or volunteer experience you can find will help you out in the long run, and a lot of it you can do from home.
I love internships, and in the library world, they can be an awesome way to learn new skills, network, and develop practical work experience in library science. I interned at a few places during grad school and loved it. One of the advantages of LIS internships is that interns get hands-on experience since libraries are often understaffed and can really use your help pitching in, as opposed to an internship where you just make coffee and organize the break room. In my experience, LIS internship supervisors are eager to accommodate your particular interests and will help you develop projects to help you get experience and acquire skills you want from the position. One of my resources listed below is the San Jose State University’s Information School Internship Listings. This is a great site to find internships for library science graduate students, both virtual internships and in-person internships, paid and unpaid.
Volunteering is also another strong place to start. My local library is small enough that they rely on volunteers for a lot of help. This means I got experience in circulation, shelving, and social media, all of which has helped me leverage in some way to get interviews or interest. Besides volunteering at your local library, you might find opportunities through a site like VolunteerMatch, a clearing house for thousands of internship opportunities. Search for terms like “library,” “libraries,” “reference,” “research,” “metadata,” “catalogue,” “literacy,” “story time / storytime,” “book sale,” and “book,” just to name a few. Many public, private, and school libraries post internship opportunities on here. I’ve found volunteer opportunities online across the coast in California and in person at a library just a few miles away from me.
Additionally, hiring managers often talk about any customer service experience at all can help. Getting a job in retail or customer service are good ways to get transferable skills and experience in helping people, which is the soul of the library mission. Listening to an angry customer and resolving their problems at Target is not that far from de-escalating a crisis at the circulation desk, and library hiring managers recognize that experience is valuable in a library job. Also look into tech support jobs, especially ones that offer services through web chat. Having work experience that involves online messaging positions helps qualify you for reference chat jobs, which can be freelance or part of your duties as a reference librarian.
In short, if you don’t have something going right now to get some experience, bookmark this article so you can come back to it. Then open a new tab, and start researching ways you can get experience without even leaving your couch.
(7). Become a calendar cruncher.
I used to be pretty bad at organization. In fact, I was almost let go from a job because I wasn’t organized in my office space or in my head, which led to some bad mistakes. And there was a certain part of me that was anti-planning anyway. I grew up with my father (a hyper-organized former Navy officer and teacher) creating a detailed menu for our family—”The Davis Family Menu”—that was never followed at all.
“Why would you ever want to plan what you eat over two weeks? I’d sooner die than wake up without the option to live each day differently!” was my attitude.
Yeah, Sarah. Then your messy mind nearly cost you your job. Time for a wakeup call.
Then library school happened and all of a sudden I was a lot more organized, like super next level nerd information organization, becoming a spreadsheet junkie, labeling my home bookshelves by genre and arranged by author last name, morphing into a list junkie, and developing really good productivity skills. Library school does this to you. It will ingrain you with more self-discipline and self-awareness of your organizational strengths and weaknesses than you knew you realized you have. It must do this—because if you don’t learn these skills, you will not survive graduate school.
Looking at those first syllabi, I was ready to panic. Some moron will probably tell you at some point that library school is easy. It’s not. Most people who go to library school are juggling multiple commitments at once: work, volunteering, interning, being a parent, being a significant other, family obligations, spending time on your own creative projects and goals… etc. Even if you were only focused on getting your degree, it’s still a lot to manage overlapping deadlines. The beauty of an online program is you have 7 days x 24 hours = 168 hours in a week to get your work done. But once you add in Life Outside School, that shrinks.
Time management is really key here. Some students develop a system, like Mondays through Wednesday devoted to readings for class and lecture reviews with Thursday through Sunday blocked off for coursework (discussion boards, reading reflections, papers, presentations). I had a similar schedule. In graduate school, I became much less of a procrastinator, maybe because my line of work is deadline-driven, and I got good at shoving away that anxiety if I could turn something in a day or two ahead of time rather than put the pressure on to finish it the day it’s due. Either way, calendars are really effective at keeping track of due dates, whether digital calendars like Google Calendar or physical planners, like the Passion Planner, which I use. In the beginning of the semester, it can seem like a waste of time to sit down and manually synch everything up, but having your deadlines and notable weeks will give you some piece of mind.
(8). You are a fucking beast.
(But even beasts need to Netflix, chill.)
Many of my non-library friends went to graduate school, from MFAs in comics to MBA programs to law school and beyond. I was the only person who didn’t move to go to grad school full time. I couldn’t afford to relocate, and I had to stick around home for family and medical reasons. When I compared myself to my friends, I felt like my online program wasn’t a big risk, like I wasn’t a graduate student, too. Friends would talk about their grad student life, and I admit, I felt left out since there were no barriers between my “classroom” and my couch. They were the same. Because of this inferiority complex, sometimes I wouldn’t give myself enough credit that what I was doing was hard, too, and minimized the many sacrifices, stamina, focus, and energy, and the grueling emotional, physical, and mental stress that library school demands. Recognizing that my struggles were just as valid meant giving myself to permission to treat my stress and do some self care. My nugget of advice here is to practice self care. Binge watch TV, start coloring in coloring books, develop some stress-busting hobbies like knitting. Exercise if you can. Go outside and breathe in the fresh air. Cuddle with your pet. Lose yourself in really long and involved recipes for baking and cooking. Get away from the library world and hang out with your friends who are outside the library bubble.
On a more serious note: graduate school can be grueling, and sometimes you need to focus only on your health and leave school. I did this. I took a full medical withdrawal one semester. Review your school’s policies on medical withdrawals. Look into disability services and any accommodations you might be able to secure if you have a medical condition that could throw a wrench in your semester. See what counseling your school offers, and if it applies to graduate and/or online students. If you are in trouble, the best thing you can do is communicate regularly with your instructors and your advisor. Ask for help if you need it.
(9). Develop a Plan B. Now.
Whether it’s your final semester or your first semester, you will have doubts about your chosen degree and field. Newly minted librarians face challenges getting hired after graduation. The sales copy you read from library schools or heard from others that Baby Boomer librarians will retire in droves and therefore open up jobs to absorb degreed librarians is wrong. It’s not true. It’s a tactic to get people to enroll in programs, many of which supply little to no career development or support in finding jobs. Many new librarians piece together multiple part-time jobs because it’s difficult to find full-time positions, especially if you are not in a position to move.
This is a reality check: it’s important to think about a career that is not in library science, not just because of labor and hiring problems within LIS, but you might also find that you’re tempted by another career that uses your skills and degree, just not in a traditional, brick and mortar library. Many library science skills are transferrable, especially if you can market them that way.
Let me tell you a little bit about myself as an example.
I don’t work in a library, but I consider myself a freelance librarian. I operate mostly in the writing, editing, research, and communications sphere. I had to leave the reference internship I took when I started library school about halfway through that first semester. I have a chronic illness that was so disabling I couldn’t leave the house to go to my internship. I still needed money, though, so I started picking up remote work in freelance writing and editing, almost all of which had something to do with reading, books, readers, libraries, academics… many jobs I got by branding myself as a librarian while operating outside a traditional library. My freelance business eventually started to take off, and a lot of what I do now is directly related to libraries and LIS in general. I was able to brand myself and my degree in an unconventional way that has allowed me to salvage a career that likely would have been impossible, since so much of LIS work is in person, live and at a library or site. I am lucky to have found another way to use my degree, something I find exciting, interesting, and a good use of my skills—and disability friendly.
I encourage you to think about alternate careers you can do with your MLIS and not to wait. To start thinking what your “Plan B” would be. I had to think about it extremely early, within my first semester, and maybe that was a good thing.
Think outside the library! Here are just 20 of the many innovative jobs you can get with your library degree: knowledge manager, professor or writer’s research assistant, user experience designer, information architect, project manager, database management, metadata writer, study guide or book discussion guide writer, digital asset manager, subject matter expert, instructional designer, research analyst, remote reference librarian (chat), library vendor, indexer, abstract writer, fact checker, editor, writer.
(10). Have fun.
No matter how intense it gets, graduate school is still a great time to explore not just your field but also find new friends and join the vibrant and amazing library community. You can use graduate school to excuse a lot—stressed out rants, purchasing books or other materials as “research” or “professional development,” wearing pajamas all night (or day), and consuming tons of caffeine and coffee—and also use it as an excuse, too. I got out of jury duty two years in a row because I said I was a full-time student. You can also get lots of student discounts! Get some awesome librarian swag. Adopt a cat. Most of all, you’re suspending reality in a way, and that means you can fall into a little grad student cocoon and enjoy it.
Make the most of your education. Take that elective you think sounds unexpectedly alluring. Use your assignments as opportunities to explore whatever interests you in library science. This is a degree you can really customize and make your own if you follow your hunches, reward your curiosity, and pursue your quirky pet interests and passions. You will say to yourself many times, “I can’t wait for this to be over,” and it’s just as true that you will soon be thinking back to the grad school years fondly. But I’m willing to bet you’ll be continuing your education soon, on whatever subject you thirst to study next, whether formally in school or informally on you own. All librarians have an insatiable intellectual curiosity.
You’re a librarian, darling. Your thirst for knowledge never ends.
And now you have mastered the skills to pursue it forever.
LIBRARY SCIENCE GRAD STUDENTS
(An incomplete list of links that I will update periodically—feel free to suggest some!)
Connecting with other LIS students and professionals:
- Facebook group – Library Think Tank – #ALATT – General interest
- Facebook group – Storytime Underground
- Facebook group – Librarian Memes
- Facebook group – MLIS Students
- List of Librarian Twitter Chats
- Hack Library School
- Librarian Wardrobe
Blogs, websites, or organizations to learn more about LIS issues and topics:
- Mr. Library Dude
- Librarian By Day
- Library Journal
- Library Journal – The Annoyed Librarian Blog
Finding internships, jobs, and volunteer opportunities:
- San Jose State University’s Information School Internship Listings
- The Traveling Librarian’s Virtual Jobs Listings
- Smithsonian Digital Volunteers
- Digital Public Library of America Community Ambassadors
- I Need a Library Job (INALJ)