The time has come. You’ve read dozens of articles, followed the buzz online, talked to trusted colleagues, and weighed your job prospects. You’re ready to earn your master’s degree. But with 63 qualified library and information science (LIS) programs to choose from, where to begin?
The American Library Association (ALA) has assembled general guidelines to get started, available on ala.org. The task of weeding through your options may be daunting, but it is far from impossible. Consider this your first information-gathering task in your new role as future librarian.
In the library world, the degree comes with many different labels, but most important it that is comes from an ALA-accredited program. Start by referencing a list of those schools using ALA’s online searchable database or list. Most LIS employers require a master’s degree from an accredited program for professional positions in the field, so an accredited MLS/MLIS course is essential.
LIS programs do not lose their accreditation status very often, but it happens. Most recently, the MLS program at Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven, suffered this action. Programs from five other institutions are currently in a status of “conditional accreditation,” which means the programs must make updates to comply with ALA’s Standards of Accreditation.
The “name” factor
It doesn’t appear that a degree earned from one school makes you more hirable than one from another. On the blog HiringLibrarians.com, an August 2013 survey called “What Should Potential Hires Learn in Library School” included the question, “Which library schools give candidates an edge?” An October 2013 analysis of the survey results revealed that 51 percent of eligible respondents said a candidate’s alma mater is not an important factor in hiring decisions, with a further subset stating that candidates’ skills and experience are more relevant than their school. As well, where you earned your degree will likely have little effect on salary.
That being said, not all library schools are created equal. Forty-nine percent of eligible respondents from the Hiring Librarians survey named preferred LIS schools (you can browse their answers). U.S. News and World Report releases rankings of the ALA-accredited MLIS programs in the United States (it’s also worth paying attention to the methodology behind the list). But for many prospective students, other needs—cost, life obligations, location—factor more into the best choice than rankings or perceived prestige.
It makes sense to begin by comparing LIS schools by cost. Some program websites are forthcoming with this information, others are not. Email the school for more details. Sign up for an information session. Schedule a meeting with a program advisor. Ask program alumni to share what they actually paid for their degree. Simply put: ask and ask again until you have an unshakable understanding of what you’ll be asked to fork over.
Regardless of which school you select, there are options to help reduce the cost of your graduate school tuition. Become aware of the opportunities via ALA’s Scholarship Program, its directory of Financial Assistance for Library and Information Studies, and the LISjobs.com scholarships page.
To apply for federal student loans, domestic applicants should fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Each state has different FAFSA deadlines—be aware of those or, better yet, the FAFSA campus deadline.
Universities offer a variety of scholarships, fellowships, grants, and work opportunities that provide tuition relief for graduate students. It’s possible to reduce tuition by thousands of dollars by taking advantage of financial aid opportunities, and a graduate assistantship with tuition waiver is worth its weight in gold. An LIS program with a higher cost but excellent financial aid options may still be a worthy contender. And for those already working as paralibrarians, employers may be willing to pick up some or, more rarely, all of the tuition. College savings plans, offered through employers or independently, are another way to help defray the expense.
What do you want to learn?
“Different programs offer different perspectives and emphases, and those will appeal to different kinds of students,” says Joe Janes, MLIS program chair at the University of Washington iSchool in Seattle. “Is the program one that seems focused on vocational skills and specific expertise, or is the curriculum focused more broadly at the conceptual level, or somewhere in between?”
When comparing curricula, one helpful benchmark is the school’s focus on traditional library services vs. newer, nontraditional information-related areas. Some LIS programs have been folded into “information schools” to strengthen the connection with other information sciences. Examining the balance of theoretical courses vs. those that focus on practical, “real-world skills” is another helpful measure. Overall, look for a reasonable depth of course offerings in your areas of interest, plus a good mixture of other electives. You never know what might spark a new interest or career direction.
Says Janes, “Students often wind up changing their ideas once they start a program, so having a wider range of options and an environment that fosters and encourages that sort of exploration and investigation can often be a real bonus.”
It’s also just as important to consider a school’s faculty: who they are, what their specialties and areas of interest are, and what the faculty to student ratio is.
Don’t forget to think outside the classroom. Hiring managers are looking for library experience as well as coursework, so seek out volunteer opportunities, internships, and (if you’re lucky) paid work experience to complement your course load.
There are four main categories of librarianship: public, academic, special, and school. There are opportunities for further specialization within each, and the right program can help to put you on this path quickly. Common LIS specializations include:
- Teacher Librarian/School Library Media Specialist
- Health Sciences
- Information Architecture/Informatics
Many schools offer dual degree programs, or the ability to earn two master’s degrees concurrently. This may be especially useful if you’re planning for a career in academic librarianship. Common degrees complementary to the MLS/MLIS are:
- Public Administration
- Children’s Literature
- Juris Doctor (J.D.)
If you are a midcareer professional (with significant library experience) seeking a graduate-level degree, alternatives to the MLS/MLIS include a Master of Library Management or a Master of Information Management. If you are considering a career in archival work, the Society of American Archivists has compiled a guide for those interested in a graduate program in archival studies.
You are here
For many applicants, relocation is not a realistic option, so the choice is between local programs in their hometown and online options. But for those who can relocate, if you plan to be a residential student, consider how the location of the program might cost you in other ways. If you plan to attend school full-time, living expenses will loom a lot larger in the absence of a full-time paycheck, so a location with a lower cost of living may make a big difference. If you’re debating whether to keep your full-time job, consider that your limited schedule will make it trickier to land LIS-related volunteer/work experience (unless, of course, you are already working in libraries). Urban locations will have more opportunities for working, and networking, but in certain cities the cost of living will be higher.
If the program you like has other library schools congregated in the area, how will this affect your ability to get work experience while in school and your job prospects after graduation? Will the competition for professional jobs be so fierce as to force you to leave all of your newly formed contacts behind for employment elsewhere?
Online or not?
You may be weighing the pros and cons of a fully or partially online program. For those considering fully online but not sure if it will be a good fit for your learning needs, take a Self-Assessment for Distance Learners. Or put yourself through the paces of a rigorous online course for free via Coursera, Khan Academy, or edX.
If you know that online will be your best choice, not to worry, you have plenty of options. “Nearly half of the 57 ALA-accredited programs are 100 percent online; 13 are primarily online, and 23 are partially online,” says Michael Stephens, assistant professor at San José State University’s online School of Library and Information Science and LJ’s Office Hours columnist. “Students in our program get at least the same opportunities as students who attend residential programs, including internships, award-winning student chapters, advising, faculty office hours, a student research journal, research assistant opportunities, etc.”
Make sure that the school makes learning, volunteer/working, and networking opportunities available to its online students. Cautions Stephens, “Sometimes when a school has both residential and online programs, many of the opportunities (guest speakers, student chapter meetings, tours, events, meetings, internships, etc.) take place on campus (or nearby) and are not easily accessible to online students.”
For many, library school is the first chance to start building the relationships that will carry over into your new career. Feeling as if you are a part of your LIS program—and not just tuning in for lectures—is important. Student groups and organizations, both formal and informal, help to build rapport and can even serve to influence higher-level program decisions.
Additionally, investigate the support services available to students, such as academic advising, job placement, and formal and informal faculty mentorships. The opportunities that a school makes available for its students should influence your decision just as much as—if not more than—the curriculum.
Many LIS programs share common admission requirements such as a statement of graduate objectives, bachelor’s degree with a minimum 3.0 average, a résumé, letters of recommendation, and more. Some schools ask for a Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) score, while others make it optional or don’t ask for it at all.
Once you’re ready to apply, give yourself enough time to get all your application materials in order and write a solid essay. Overall, it’s important to consider what might happen if you are keen to get started but are not accepted into your school of choice. If that’s even a possibility, it’s worth applying to your second and even third picks.
In the end, selecting a school is a gamble. You’ll find that certain ones feel right, seem to have a “fit.” There will be frustrations: classes and faculty may disappoint, and there’s the inevitable infuriating group project. But LIS schools are working to stay ahead of a rapidly changing profession. If LJ’s perennial guide to becoming a modern-day librarian (“How To Become a 21st-Century Librarian”) has “changed significantly in less than a decade,” imagine how reactive LIS schools need to be.
In the end, where you go to school will not make that big of a difference. What matters is what you do with your time while you’re there. Good luck, and see you on the other side.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
- How many credits are needed to graduate, and what is the cost per credit?
- Is there state-supported tuition for state residents?
- If so, what requirements must you meet to count as a resident of that state?
- Does the school have reciprocal tuition agreements with other states?
- Are online students offered in-state rates even if they are not residents?
- What other campus fees are included in the tuition or charged separately?
- What is the estimated cost of books and supplies?
- What is the student insurance rate, how often is it charged, and how might you opt out?
- What is the estimated total cost of the degree?
- Does the school participate in the federal student aid program?
- What other financial aid services does the institution offer?
- How is eligibility for financial aid assessed?
- What kinds of financial aid is offered (tuition, fees, books and supplies, room and board, transportation)?
- What enrollment status must students maintain to qualify for financial aid?
- What program-specific scholarships are available to LIS students?
- What general LIS scholarships are nationally available?
- What kinds of graduate assistantships are available to LIS students?
- Do they include a tuition waiver?
- What other LIS student employment positions are available?
- What general campus work opportunities are available?
- Is the program offered in quarters or semesters?
- What are the core classes?
- What elective classes are offered and how frequently?
- Which technology classes are offered? Which are required?
- What is the graduate degree project or requirement (thesis, practicum, research project, exam, etc.)?
- If the school offers courses both online and offline, are required courses offered online-only or also in person?
- Does the program offer internships, practicums, and/or independent study as part of its curriculum?
- Does the school belong to a consortia?
- Are course credits recognized from other programs?
- Can credits be earned from other graduate-level courses?
- Are credits recognized from an existing master’s degree?
- Are doctorate degree programs available?
- Who are the faculty and what are their backgrounds?
- Where and what do the faculty publish?
- Does it match your areas of interest?
- Have faculty members won any awards?
- What is the level of faculty professional involvement (professional societies, committee work, etc.)?
- What is the faculty/student ratio?
- Do recent alumni feel the curriculum adequately prepared them for professional-level work?
- Does the program provide recommended academic tracks or course listings in a designated specialization/concentration of interest to you?
- How often have the courses that you want to take run in the past few years?
- How many professors in your speciality are there, and are any of them about to take a sabbatical or otherwise become unavailable?
- Does the program offer alternative master’s degrees to the MLS/MLIS?
- What concurrent degree options are available, what is the cost, and what are the requirements?
- What is the cost of living in the area you hope to attend school?
- How large is the campus, and where can you expect to live relative to the campus?
- What opportunities are there for out-of-program working, learning, and networking?
- How many libraries/information centers/museums and archives are in the area?
- What is the relationship between the school and these institutions?
- How many other library schools are in the state or region?
- What is the job market like for new LIS graduates in the state or region?
- Does the program require an on-campus orientation or other mandatory in-person events?
- What services are available for incoming students to learn the technology?
- Are courses synchronous, asynchronous, or a mixture?
- What elements comprise the online courses (lecture, class discussion, collaborative project work)?
- Does the school use any methodology to assess and make their online programs more effective?
- How do online students socialize and build rapport within their cohort?
- What other online opportunities are available to students?
- What opportunities are there for socialization and relationship-building among students?
- Is there an events calendar and what does it look like?
- What student groups and organizations are there and what do they do?
- Is there a student group presence on social media?
- Does the school have an ALA student chapter?
- Does the state library association offer discount rates for students?
- How receptive is the program to student feedback?
- How responsive is the faculty/program administration to student needs and concerns?
- Where do students live in relationship to campus?
- Would the school be considered a “commuter school”?
- What did recent alumni say about the relationships they were able to build within the program?
- Are recent alumni happy with the academic counseling they received?
- Does the program have a job center, and what are its placement rates?
- Are alumni eligible to receive placement services?
- If it is a hybrid program, are community resources offered for online students as well as in person?
- When are the application periods and how frequent are they?
- How are applicants evaluated? What is the acceptance rate for the program?
- What is the minimum (and maximum) amount of time allowed for completion of the required credits for the degree?
- Does the program offer technology training for newly accepted students?
- Does the program require applicants to submit a standardized test score?
- Will the program waive the standardized test requirement for previous graduate work?
- Will there be an in-person interview?