Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Oh Dear, It's an Early AND Undergrad Thirsty. I've Bent the Rules of Thirstydom so Much This Past Year That If It Weren't Already Bulging With Enemies and Former Colleagues, I, Too, Would Be on Cal's Shit List. Anyway, Here's Atrus.

I'm Atrus, an undergrad at a New England SLAC (double-majoring in Hamster Lit and Frog Lit/Language), as well as a regular reader of College Misery. I'm planning to get my MLS and become a librarian after graduating, so I've been doing everything I can to work towards that dream (taking whatever relevant courses I can, volunteering/interning at libraries, going to library conferences, befriending librarians, everything short of taking up residence in the SLAC's stacks). I provide occasional research guidance to classmates who request it. And yes, I point them towards both printed and online resources.

And yet I worry. The library job/internship market is a jungle right now - I've only recently found a paying summer job in a library. Some people that I've talked to have scoffed and said that libraries are becoming obsolete. A poster here once said that "If [a student] starts talking about going for a Master of Library Science degree, discourage her!".

I can deal with the increasing emphasis on technology (I'm a geek, I can adapt to changing technology); the salary much lower than what businesses are promising to my science-majoring classmates; even the near-certainty of having to take whatever I can get with regards to positions.

Do I have a chance in hell, or should I just change intended career paths now while I'm still young, relatively sane, and debt-free?


  1. This is not a dilemma unique to would-be librarians. We could have, all of us, found something else to do. Getting ANY job in academia is going to be hard, require going into debt, and so on. And it's a crap-shoot (to a greater or lesser degree depending on how posh is the pedigree of your grad program). If you're savvy enough to ask for reassurance on this point, you already know, deep down, that no one who's being honest is going to give you any. Short version: you don't shoot for an academic career because you want to just get a degree and walk out the door into a job, 'cause that doesn't happen.

    But here's a few things to consider:

    1) It's not impossible. You hear lots of stories about how there's 400 applications for every position and so on, but what you may not hear is that 25-50% of those are shitcanned right out of the gate because the applicants weren't really qualified for the position anyway. That may not be as much of an improvement on your odds as you'd like, but it is something.

    2) Just because you're one of two hundred people who applied doesn't mean your odds are one in two hundred. There are roughly a hundred PhD granting programs in my field in the United States, but if exactly one applicant from each of those schools applied to a middle-of-the-road SLAC TT position, about half of them would get tossed, or at least shuffled right to the bottom of the pile. The prestige of your grad program matters. Maybe it shouldn't, maybe it matters less in some fields than others, but it always matters at least some. You can shift the odds in your favor by going to a grad program that's high up on the food chain. So now instead of one-in-two-hundred, your odds can be one-in-one-hundred, or one-in-fifty. Those aren't TOO bad.

    3) Now that you've got slightly better odds, remember that you get more than one ride on the merry-go-round. This past year's job search wasn't the most rewarding I ever had, but I've got a line on something good for next year (cross your fingers). Maybe I get it, maybe not. But with not-terrible odds, and three or four or five shots... well, okay, I said earlier I wouldn't offer reassurances, but maybe just a little.

    Here's the thing. You don't try for this because you want something easy or straightforward. You try for a job like this because you can FEEL that you really wouldn't be quite as happy doing something else. So be honest with yourself and stop asking the wrong question. You don't want assurances about the job market - it sucks, as it always has to some extent and always will. What you want is to know whether this is something you think would be nice and kinda fun, or something you REALLY want, REALLY and TRULY. Because only the latter is going to get you through what you need to do for this kind of career. And we can't answer that for you.

  2. Cultivate a second career choice. However much you love this one, have a back-up plan, and put enough work into it to be viable.

  3. Sorry that I didn't have a lot of time to read this in detail. Off the top of my head, I don't know why you are asking this question at College Misery. If you want a career in Major League Soccer, go ahead. Like most college athletes, you may not understand how difficult it can be to reach the pros. If you are talented, you could get recruited into MLS but you should expand your potential job opportunities. Maybe try to be a kicker in the NFL. I'm sure you've got your heart set on playing a game in which you don't use your hands but you could explore other careers, such as sports training. Good luck!

    1. (I appreciate this post in the spirit in which it was offered. Go, Sporting KC Wizards!)

    2. Now having carefully read the OP, I realize the mistake I made with regard to an MLS being a master's in library science or major league soccer. It's a mistake you probably deal with often. Anyway, I'm pleased to see that my advice holds up pretty well, regardless. I would still strongly caution you to favor careers that involve using your hands. The job markets for soccer players, tap dancers and fulfillers of foot fetish fantasies are all pretty competitive.

  4. I somewhat agree with Ben that we may not be the best people to advise on this (but/and it sounds like you are in touch with others who are); however, I find myself running into librarians a good deal these days, not only on my own campus, but at various Digital Humanities (DH) thingies, so I'll take a shot. I'd say go for it, but choose your grad program carefully, looking for one(s) that are riding the tech wave, not trying to pretend it doesn't exist. It may even be that you should be looking for something a bit different (or a bit more than) an MLS. You probably want to be able to point to expertise in "information management" or something along those lines, and perhaps also in DH (though there are debates about whether that field is getting oversaturated, with jobs drying up as funding that was aimed at starting programs, not sustaining them over the long run, is stretched thinner and thinner, and Deans seem much less enthusiastic about the whole enterprise once the outside money is gone. Still, there's cool stuff to be done.)

    Also, be aware that you would probably be working/attending school (and perhaps competing for jobs) with a lot of recent Ph.D.s who are now trying to pursue alt-ac career paths (which, loosely translated, means alternatives to a faculty job, many of them still housed in the academy or related nonprofits). That might make things more difficult. On the flip side, reading up on some of the alt-ac discussion (you'll find plenty by googling) might offer some insights into possibilities that don't necessarily require the Ph.D. detour.

    1. Bottom line from my perspective: there's going to be plenty of demand for at least some of the skills traditionally possessed by librarians, and some related, relatively new ones. Key ones (which are relevant to a range of activities, including business and government -- e.g. intelligence -- as well as to academia) include the ability to categorize/search/organize large amounts of data, and the ability to curate data (select among/organize huge numbers of superficially similar things so that people can find the one(s) that are truly high quality/useful).

  5. What Cassandra said, with the caveat that if your only acceptable position is an academic librarianship, the job market for university librarians sucks almost as much as the one for academics themselves. But there are some alt-ac positions (not to mention corporate or legal librarianships) out there, too. If you aren't at all willing to explore options outside of academe (at least for a while), then rethink your priorities before you start.

    For context: Two friends completed a similar undergrad program to yours (albeit 10 years ago), then immediately followed that with an MLS from top programs. One (who was and remains a remarkably brilliant person) was not willing to move just anywhere for a job (and, to be fair, the openings were in some very far-flung places), landed some interviews, but turned up nothing. Ever since, zhe has been working a job that never would have required a masters in the first place, and was quite bitter about it for a while. The other friend also never found work as an academic librarian, but has had some success in info/IT type jobs that draw at least in part on what zhe learned in library school, but whose pay was not exactly commensurate with hir credentials.

    Two things to keep in mind going forward, if you decide to stick with your plan:

    1) Keep your debt to an absolute minimum, even if it means piling on extra coursework or taking a part-time job to make ends meet while you complete your studies. Stay as close to debt-free as humanly possible.

    2) As you apply, grill your potential programs on placement numbers, and ask specifically about the kinds of jobs that their graduates have taken after completing the MLS. If they don't have this kind of data, it's a very bad sign, but you can also ask for a few recent alumni contacts, EMAIL THEM YOURSELF, and find out what's what. They will have their own stories and, chances are, accounts from the rest of their cohort as well.

    A third point that might come in handy, if you have time remaining for it as an undergrad: take courses in fields that would hire librarians--law/pre-law, business, etc. Strategize with a minor or elective coursework that will project knowledge of something outside the humanities.

    Good luck!

  6. I concur with the geist of the advice thus far. My first attempt at grad school, back in the last millennium, was at a school that had just diversified from MLS to MSLS & MSIS. I didn't finish, largely b/c I realized I could make a living doing the IT/IS thing, which was a good thing for my marriage & new wife getting her BS!

    Anyway, what I learned then, and have learned in my time since then in the academic IT side of the house is that you need to know what you want & how much you want it. I wanted to be/stay in academe, play with some cool IT once in a while, help some cool people use IT to meet the academic mission, and (once I knew I wanted to move into management) get a few letters after my name. I was flexible enough wrt money to trade better pay in the private sector for the better atmosphere in academe.

    It sounds as if you'll need to decide what's your level of flexibility, esp. wrt academic libraries vs. academic information "brokering/processing" (for lack of better terms at the moment...). There are lots of places in the academy for people with high information-facility skill sets, especially if they have received the kind of substantive education you can get in a top-notch MSIS program AND aren't wedded to the idealistic vision of academic libraries. I've seen many schools where very cool stuff is being done out of the IS/IT shop, not the library, just b/c of the historical artifact of how things were created administratively 50+ years ago.

    Keep educating yourself, formally and informally, never stop feeding your inner geek, and don't be afraid to befriend both faculty and admin-flakes as you move along!

  7. Hi, student here. University Libraries are awesome, especially when the staffers do all the work for retrieving anything that I ask. But really, isn't it a matter of time before the Aaron Swartzs and other hackers make the university subscriptions more and more obsolete? If open access ever takes root, what does this mean for university libraries?

    1. That is the question that Atrus, and the rest of his field, is trying to answer right now. But the answer is not likely to be non-existence. Libraries, or things like them, survived the printing press and the profligation of cheap reading materials, and survived the computer and the ready access of troves of information to everyone through tubes piped into your living room. In fact, the new library at my campus has almost no physical books you can walk in and touch. There's a far corner with a half dozen stacks of the most popular, or most relevant, books. All the other bound paper products are in a warehouse, accessible by a machine that can take commands from a smartphone. The rest of the library is rooms with spiffy boards and screens and non-rectangular desks with computers and computer-like devices and connections.

      I don't know where libraries are going, but it won't be away, and bound paper products will be a small fraction of the floorspace.


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