Q: Whilst studying for my PhD I began working part time in a university library, and discovered just how much I love it! I have an undergraduate degree and masters in media and creative writing, and I had been pursuing the PhD because of my love of academic research and education, and to be truthful because I had found it very difficult finding a career path with my qualifications.
During my studies, I felt increasingly worried about future career prospects, and the uncertainty of an academic faculty career, and when I started working in the library it felt like I had finally found the perfect career for me which brought together all my skills and passions, so much so that I quit my PhD at the end of the first year and began applying for MLIS courses and entry level library positions.
After looking into costs I decided an online course may be the best option for me. I also managed to secure a full-time job working as an information assistant at a further education college.
I just wanted to ask – if I have taken a job in a further education college, would I then be able to move into higher education and academic library roles in the future, or into public library roles (after I have the MLIS qualification)?
I also wondered if an online MLIS program (accredited by CILIP in the UK) is viewed the same as attended courses by employers?
And finally, I just wanted to ask if any further qualifications would be needed to become an academic librarian alongside the MLIS and an additional masters? Ironically after quitting my PhD, I finally got offered a paid studentship, and I just wanted to be sure that the PhD wouldn’t be useful or essential to a library career before closing the door on it.
Sorry for all the questions. I would be so grateful of any advice, help or suggestions you may have! Thanks so very much!
SM: Dear Many Questions:
So glad you discovered your love for working in libraries and are taking the steps to realize your perfect career! I know several librarians who have PhDs, and know of several others who left their respective PhD programs to pursue librarianship instead. I think, as you mentioned, the career prospects for (teaching) faculty members in higher education can be uncertain and for people like yourself, who love research and being involved in higher education, a job as an academic librarian can be a satisfying alternative.
I will attempt to answer your questions as best I can, in sections (and from the point of view of a US librarian):
Will my job in further education make me eligible to work in higher education?
To first clarify for my US readers, further education (FE) in the UK and elsewhere is similar to vocational, trade, professional schools in the US. Higher education (HE) means universities in both the UK and the US.
In the US, academic librarians are academic librarians, whether you work in two-year colleges, four-year colleges, or universities. There are similar roles, and similar duties in all academic libraries. However, there will always be differences in populations served, amount/type/number of resources offered, and the structure of administrative hierarchy – but this is also true in public vs. private schools, as well as in schools of different sizes and in different locations. It is possible to move from one type of academic setting to another, and (it seems to me that) working in a FE setting is closer to working in an HE setting than a public library setting. As an academic librarian, or someone working in education, you would (most likely) be working with student populations, teaching information literacy classes, providing reference services, collaborating with faculty, and sitting on campus committees. Also, you are a still a student and not working as a professional librarian. Most potential employers will recognize that a library job of any kind, while you’re pursuing your degree, is ambitious and beneficial.
The most important thing is that you are working while taking classes. You are gaining much needed experience and skills — transferable skills, which are wanted in many different types of academic libraries and institutions, and will make you more hire-able when you complete your degree. It all comes down to your skills, your experience, and your attitude — and how you translate all of that in your application materials. And… it is always possible to get there from here.
Are online courses viewed the same as in-person by employers?
This question comes up often, and there has been lots of public discussion on this topic, which you wouldn’t think would be an issue today. According to the American Library Association, there are twenty-nine fully online accredited MLS programs in the US and Canada. So… my answer to you is: it all depends on who’s doing the hiring. It shouldn’t matter whether you got your degree entirely online, in a hybrid program, or in a traditional on-campus setting. However, there will always be bias and opinions that come into play in the hiring process, and some people do think that the online degree is not quite the same (see discussions on this topic from Information Wants to be Free, and Hiring Librarians). I completely disagree with this opinion. Some of the smartest librarians I know got their degrees from online programs. I also believe that you get what you put into it. Every person, whether the program is online or in-person, needs to commit to a certain level of scholarship, communication, follow-through, and ingenuity, in order to complete a degree program. Once you have that piece of paper, nothing else matters (except for skills, experience, and attitude… as mentioned above).
Any further qualifications needed?
Other than the MLIS (or equivalent accredited degree), there are no other across-the-board qualifications needed to obtain an academic librarian position. But every position, and every institution, and every library will have its own unique set of requirements. Normally, a PhD is not required for academic librarian positions in the UK or the US; although for certain positions such as a subject specialist in a large research university or a director position, it may be a required or preferred qualification. A second masters (which you have) is often required to work as a librarian in a higher ed institution, but some places will allow you to obtain that degree on-the-job within a specific time period. You may decide, one day, to finish your PhD, and that may or may not open other doors or opportunities for you. But if you think about the changing nature of the library profession, any education, certificate, or degree above and beyond the MLIS will only help to enhance your skills and drive your career path to the next level or stage.