MLS, MA, PhD, EdD… Academic Librarians & Degrees

I have many, many thoughts on this topic. This is by no means a comprehensive statement, but it’s a beginning. I’ve been asked by a lot of librarians why I’m getting a doctorate, if there’s a purpose for PhD/EdD’d librarians, if they should get a doctorate, etc… so here are my initial, top-layer, off-the-top-of-my-spiky-redhead thoughts.

I’m a firm believer that doctoral degrees can help academic librarians become more knowledgeable, skilled, experienced, and in particular better socialized to the faculty life of teaching and research. Such a degree helps you better sympathize with graduate students and gives greater insight into faculty needs. Doctoral work helps make a stronger argument for the professionalization of academic librarians and their true equality to faculty. Doctorate programs usually help train you in original research, statistical analysis, and professional expectations for presenting and publishing. In turn, if you’re already an experienced academic librarian who’s presented and/or published a little, you’ll find some class assignments to be a lot easier than your classmates. (When many of my doctoral classmates got stage fright presenting to 10 fellow students, I was grateful for experience with library instruction and conference presenting!)

Q: Would more education make me more qualified?

A: No, not automatically. There is nothing to say that one librarian with a MLS & PhD is a “better” librarian than one with simply a MLS. Many librarians won’t get a raise when they complete a doctorate, so you must determine if the money, time, and effort put into it will be worth your while. Then again, a doctorate may qualify you for a promotion to a higher position (such as dean of an academic library). But not all deans have or need doctorates, either. This is a super-complex question. In fact, the whole area of education for academic library professionals is pretty wild, in my opinion–there’s no agreement on the need for a second master’s, let alone a doctorate. There’s still a healthy debate about what makes a true “librarian”–what about full time staff without MLSes who’ve worked reference desks and cataloging for 30+ years and know far more than I do about libraries? What about my mom, who was in title my high school’s librarian for years, but hadn’t yet completed her bachelor’s degree? I’m not in full agreement with ALA (gasp!) on their strict definition of the term “librarian” even while I contrarily believe that degreed librarians need to be viewed as true professionals (and should thus act and dress accordingly, but that’s a rant for another blog post). But I digress.

Q: Can a doctorate inform me about a subject, research practices, the environment in which I work?

A: Yes. If you want to become an amazing subject expert, or to broaden your research skills to an absurd point, or if you want to study the environment in which your library operates (in my case, studying the higher education context in which academic libraries operate), great: the doctorate is wonderful for that. But… be sure you really, really, really-times-5-million want to do it. Please read this post about my experiences and think some more before applying. You can become a great subject expert without a PhD/EdD, or even without a second master’s for that matter. You can improve your research skills without going back to grad school. You’re a librarian, you know how to read! Go read books, research your topic, heck audit some classes, even. But only enter a PhD/EdD program if you absolutely must. It’s immensely rewarding, and it’s got to be because much of the time (especially if you’re working full time while doing it), it’s absolute hell.

Q: At my institution I’m faculty with faculty rank and tenure potential. Should I seek a PhD/EdD?

A: Depends. Ask knowledgeable individuals at your library–actually, ask several of them. Look at those who have successfully earned tenure and look up their educational background. You can still present and publish your research widely without a doctorate–librarians and doctoral students do so all the time. If it’s a requirement (stated or not) at your institution and you plan to stay and seek tenure, of course, do so. If it’s not required, what are your other reasons for seeking a PhD? If you’re simply getting it because it’s expected and/or you’d like to have a doctorate, back away from that application slowly! Trust me, you’ll be a lot happier if you don’t sign up for the craziness… and you’ll probably have more time to do all that presenting and publishing that’s expected of you.

Q: Will any of these rules hold true for all academic librarian positions and for all individuals?

A: Of course not. Every institution, library, position, and librarian is different. You alone know best yourself and your position–you’re the only one who can truly decide if further education is right for you.

Weigh the pros and cons, and ask yourself why you’re considering a doctorate.

  • Do you plan to seek a position higher in the library ladder (management, administration)?
  • Are you considering a career in academic administration parallel to or above an administration position in the libraries?
  • Are you considering a shift to a faculty teaching or research position?
  • Do you want to push yourself (and possibly your family) beyond your wildest expectations?
  • Are you comfortable with a large amount of risk, and the very real potential that you will not complete your dissertation?
  • Are you willing to put yourself back in the “student” role as lesser than faculty? (Believe me, this is tough!)
  • Are you so fascinated in your chosen field that you’re already voluntarily reading articles, books, and blog posts on it in your free time?
  • Do your friends and family avoid talking to you because you’re always talking about your chosen field?

Warning signs… if the statements below describe you, think again about what 6-10 years of a PhD will be like.

  • You constantly wonder how people “find the time to read.” (Exception: if you’ve been in school recently, you’re excused from this warning sign.)
  • You’d like to become a better subject librarian / faculty liaison.
  • You want to become a more clear peer to the academic faculty at your institution. (I think this is a great benefit of having a PhD as a librarian, but it in no way is a good single reason to get a PhD.)
  • Summers off sound like a great idea, so maybe you’ll try teaching.
  • You’d like a raise.
  • You’re really keen on the idea of being called “Dr.”
  • Getting a doctorate sounds like a good idea.
  • You’ve always wanted a doctorate.

Should (non-MLS) PhD-holders seek library positions? Believe it or not, we don’t really have more openings in the library than in your average academic department. If you’re truly interested in library work, then yes. If you have experience working in libraries and a hint of what you’ll be doing, okay. If the library needs an in-depth subject expert, great. But if you’re simply looking to expand your employment horizons, then this isn’t the place for you. Just like my MLS, MA, and in-progress PhD in Higher Ed don’t qualify me to teach or research in your department (unless it’s my areas of expertise & training: library science, art history, or education), having a doctorate doesn’t mean you’re qualified to work in a library. Being a good researcher doesn’t necessarily mean you are good at helping others research (as a reference librarian); the exception is if a library needs a good bibliographer in your specific topic. But I’m not talking about non-traditional library positions that are seeking outside the librarian pool of candidates. If you want to be a librarian that badly, go get your MLS and becoming socialized in the culture and body of knowledge, then come get a library job. I don’t mean to sound like a grump, but I want to point out that just as every academic department is a distinct entity with its own knowledge, professional practices, and procedures, so is the library. If you’re not versed in that culture and/or don’t care about it as much as your academic field, you won’t enjoy a position in the library much.

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5 thoughts on “MLS, MA, PhD, EdD… Academic Librarians & Degrees

  1. booktopiareviews says:

    excellent summary of motivations & rationale. I’m currently annoyed that w/ 10 years teaching experience and a hard-won MLIS (while teaching) I can’t get my foot in the door in a library of any sort. This is what I want to do. Unfortunately, I don’t have the ability to take a part-time job for experience, and all the full time jobs I see either want a second MS/MA or 3-5 years exp. sigh. I keep applying….someday.

  2. eva says:

    I’m curious about where would be a good school for a PhD. I have a MFA in studio art & the MLS. I’m currently a supervisor/manager of the arts division of a public library. But I really miss teaching & research. I really appreciated your well-considered and informative blog entry above.

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