Library and Information Science: The Worst Master’s Degree to Get if You Want a Job?

Last week, a writer at Forbes magazine published an article called “The Best and Worst Master’s Degrees for Jobs.” Can you guess what I’ll write next? I certainly hope so, based upon the GIANT HINT that is the title of this post. Yes, that’s right, getting a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science was ranked the worst graduate degree to undertake when $$$ came into the picture.

I wasn’t surprised. I wasn’t offended. In fact, the first thing I thought was, Plaster this article on every single freaking bulletin board in humanities departments nationwide! Maybe THEN we’ll have less people flocking to library school. 

I’ll contend that this may sound heartless but it’s not about being nice, it’s about being realistic. The fact of the matter is that there are too many people enrolled in library school that have no business being here. Annoyed Librarian wrote about it way back in 2009 (as well as commenting on the aforementioned Forbes article last week), other librarian bloggers that I probably should be following more closely have likely written about it; it’s not exactly a new sentiment and it’s hardly restricted to library schools.  Many of my peers will not find professional jobs in libraries, and the administrators who admit them know that very well. I think this speaks to a wider issue in the field but because I only know my own experience at IU, that’s what I will focus on in this post. My irritation stems from a two-fold issue: SLIS as an entity that accepts pretty much everyone, and students who don’t understand the concept of personal responsibility. Hello, dangerous combination!

IU SLIS accepts 95% of the students that apply. That’s astronomical, and absurd. The ease of getting accepted to library school disgusts me on behalf of this profession. For administrators to accept the number of students they do, knowing what the market is like… I call it as I see it: sleazy. SLIS is a business, so I can comprehend the mentality. Why wouldn’t a department accept as many students as possible versus losing tuition dollars based on an ethical gray area? If students aren’t fussing or looking them square in the eye and saying, Let’s reevaluate how SLIS is contributing to the value of my degree together, shall we? I understand why they would keep that cash flowing. Departments are pressured to bring in money for the university; any department that doesn’t do so will quickly become scrutinized. SLIS isn’t the bad guy, SLIS is just self-interested. In addition to benefiting SLIS, the influx of students benefits the IU Libraries–the sheer number of us means that they don’t need to worry when they have a job to fill; they’ll have their inboxes filling up with applications for a $7.40/hr job. This incredible library system runs on the blood, sweat and tears of graduate students working for minimum wage or a little above it. IU has an incentive to keep SLIS growing, growing, growing.

Now that we’ve tallied up who benefits, let’s segue to who loses out: SLIS students. First of all, there’s almost no departmental funding and very few tuition remission inclusive GAships available. Next, there’s fierce competition for jobs which pay almost nothing because of the oversupply of student workers. While it is wonderful to gain paid experience in a library, many of us are subsisting on loan money as we barely scrape by. And that’s the students who HAVE a job or jobs in a library, because many don’t. Others work outside the library or not at all. (And for those who have the audacity to complain about students with multiple jobs, like myself–as though jobs should be doled out like consolation prizes, one for each student–I have no sympathy for you.) Also, you’ve got to be kidding me if you think 19 faculty members can serve as effective and involved advisors for the 291 SLIS Master’s students in the department. I have a relationship with my advisor because I created one; there’s no incentive for a faculty member to seek out their assigned advisees on their own because they are focused on teaching, research, PhD students and tenure. These problems could be solved or at least mitigated by a smaller program: funding would go to a smaller pool, jobs would pay more to become attractive to a more limited candidate pool, and advisors would have an advisee workload that is manageable instead of laughable. That scenario doesn’t have to be a pipe dream.

While SLIS administration is on a detrimental path with its admission standards (or lack thereof), it takes two to tango. Many students have the warm fuzzies for SLIS that then enables them to be taken advantage of. For instance, SLIS recently went through the process of ALA-reaccreditation. This was obviously a very arduous and important process, and it involved a lot of planning by the administration. Small get-togethers where the accreditation board could mingle with current students were arranged, and I openly shared the areas where I felt satisfaction (quality of librarians/library staff, incredible breadth of libraries to gain experience at, lots of digital projects and expertise at IU) and dissatisfaction (extreme number of students in program, lackluster orientation, mind-numbingly painful intro to technology and reference courses, little guidance unless sought out). I was fair. Of course I wanted SLIS to be reaccredited, and I felt confident they would be. Later I heard some students talking to one another about how the meet-and-greet went. I overheard one say, “I couldn’t believe some students were saying bad things about SLIS! Don’t they realize they are jeopardizing our school?!”

In that person’s opinion, voicing anything less than enthusiasm for SLIS was noted as a shameful disloyalty. She was coming from a place of personally liking those in powerful roles, and even if she didn’t have any qualms with SLIS (I would argue that she probably does) she felt that nobody else should say anything either. This protectiveness is misguided. I mean, really, at that point are you looking out for yourself or folks with upwards of six-figure salaries? (Just FYI: Do I think they earned these salaries? Yes, yes I do, actually. And if I’m ever in a position to earn that much, hallelujah and all the more power to me. I have no interest in knocking people who have worked their way up and built a career for themselves, but c’mon, let’s hold them accountable.) I understand what this student was getting at; speaking up, critiquing and demanding more can feel greedy when you like and admire those in authoritative roles. However, I think learning that you can like individuals but look out for yourself is a critical life lesson. Yes, these individuals are our mentors. All the more reason to shape SLIS into something that works better for the students, which, as an educational establishment, is where the focus should already be. How have we lost sight of that?

I don’t know what the root cause of this MLS student passivity is. Is it the effect of an agglomeration of mainly liberal arts softies in the department? Maybe. Is it the effect of a society that says, Say what, you need a Master’s degree to check out books for patrons at a library?! and causes any ambition or innovation to slowly leach out of future librarians? Maybe. In my opinion it is mainly a symptom of not having expectations, of which SLIS is guilty. Pass your classes, sure, but beyond that you’re allowed to float along and make your own way… whether that is doing it all or doing nothing.

Often, students will get a year in without having a job and suddenly they realize they have one year left… and that many of their peers will be applying for a job in 6 months. Even when they reach that point, I don’t see a lot of truly panic-stricken people. I see depressed people or bitter people. In my opinion, the creepiest thing is that many soon-to-be-graduates resign themselves to a quiet desperation and willingness to take any job. It’s the rule and not the exception, and this motivational listlessness alarms me. I feel for them because I understand that is the mechanism of someone who feels like they don’t have options… but on the other hand, why do you feel like you don’t have options? Students who do nothing and then blame SLIS for not preparing them for the job market do not earn my sympathy. The job market requires students with library experience, the more the better, and a polished resume. Whether you “can’t” find library experience while in SLIS (I don’t believe in this supposed quandary) or don’t understand that you need student library experience to find a real library job eventually, I’m not sure you belong in an LIS program.

I’m sick of seeing people who don’t care. Sure, they will come face-to-face with professional natural selection during the hiring process. But SLIS is wasting these students’ time, sucking up their out-of-state loan money, and when they graduate with massive debt and no professional prospects that is NOT good for the economy or the profession. As these MLS-holders flood the market with few qualifications, salaries are driven down. Frankly, it makes me angry, and it begs the question: which came first, the chicken or the egg? SLIS’s overpopulation or SLIS students absconding responsibility for their career preparations? Both are problematic. People will always exert different levels of energy toward their education–some will work harder than others. There’s always that spectrum. However, the low admissions standards for SLIS exacerbate the tendency to do nothing, so that’s where my ire lies. I think many dismiss SLIS’s “cattle call” admissions as not affecting their SLIS experience, which is easy to think; more faces mean more friends, and what’s wrong with that? It can be hard to take a hard line on an issue like this when we think of people we like. Emotions get in the way of a sustainable model. And yet.

I want librarians sharp as tacks who are relentless and kind and innovative. Librarians who came to library school despite grave warnings about median salaries, a diverse group with fresh ideas and a willingness to work hard. People who know that building a worthwhile career in any field takes grit and gumption. Those are the people I want to be my peers. Not students who apply to a known easy program merely to stave off adulthood and job hunting, who are then accepted, complain about how easy it is while they do nothing to move themselves forward, and clutter up the department with their bad vibes.

There is no one type that will succeed in library school because our profession demands many skills and competencies, so this is not me saying don’t be a librarian. This is me saying, to current library students and future library students: strategize. Strategy is not a dirty word; it doesn’t have to connote throwing other people under the bus as you greedily gather up things that aren’t rightfully yours. We are graduate students and we are consumers. We are paying a lot of money to get an MLS and/or MIS in order to someday be bestowed with the esteemed title of librarian, so let’s get the most for our money–especially if it is loan money that magically appears and hardly feels real (the day will come when it is all too real). We can demand more out of our education if we so desire, asking more from both ourselves and our administrations. Recognizing our own self-interest and acting on it is the first step.

Are you happy with your SLIS experience?

7 comments

  1. Amen sister! I totally agree with you here. There is definitely an unhealthy cycle going on between listless, desperate (and often under qualified and/or under motivated) students and a self-interested administration (not just at the department or school level, but at the university level). I have to say that the lack of funding opportunities was a really a slap in the face/wake up call for me.

    Since I attended a private undergraduate school with pretty stringent admissions standards, I was used to good scholarship opportunities for the students that really deserved it. This is certainly not the case at SLIS. There are many students who deserve and need funding that don’t get it. Stronger admissions standards and more opportunities are needed throughout the university!

    As a result of this dynamic, I will be leaving SLIS this summer. While I would love to stay another year, it just isn’t financially feasible, and I have the necessary credits for my degree. Thanks for speaking up at the accreditation – these are issues that need to be addressed profession wide certainly, and if ALA is somehow blissfully unaware, they need to be told!

  2. I think the author touched on something important in this post, SLIS is what you make of it, you can coast through without direction, or you can actively seek out the learning experiences that you think will advance your career. Perhaps an internship or job, and a career plan, should be required of students before entering the program. Without real world experience it can be hard to know what to work for. Many professional programs can be this way, however a professional program that does little to advance ones job prospects is antithetical to the purpose of such a degree in my opinion. With the current state of the job market, a higher burden of proof should be required of both students and administrators to prove the utility of such an education on a case by case basis. It would not be a great way to secure tuition dollars, but it would be a better way of doing business.

  3. What I find disturbing is how people respond to this situation by saying that we just need more “professional development.” My friends in the world of academia (PhD students) face similar kinds of pressures when in fact there is a much bigger issue of far too many people getting the degrees than can be supported by jobs. It’s time for people to stop focusing just on tuition revenue and to deal with the larger structural issues.

  4. I mentioned this article in a recent blog post: http://elizabethlieutenant.com/2013/12/22/graph-lis-acceptance-graduation-rates-rising/
    I agree with you a lot of things you touched on Brianna. Unfortunately, this problem isn’t exclusive to IU SLIS. It makes me very unhappy that some of my fellow students seem content with the bare minimum, both academically and professionally. Kudos to you for taking control of your career as a budding information professional. I hope that more LIS students decide to do the same.

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