Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

An MLS and Food Stamps?

Anyone following the news in academia probably saw this article last week about the increasing number of people with graduate degrees on welfare. A kind reader sent it to me with a note: “This should be required reading for anyone pondering an MLIS degree.”

Those of you who don’t work in higher might not be familiar with the genre this article belongs to. It’s the “look how awful it is that people who spent 5-10 years in graduate school studying subjects they knew weren’t marketable and now work for peanuts so they can call themselves ‘professors’” genre, and it’s pretty darned popular.

The genre seems to appeal mostly to people who have more education than money, job security, or sometimes just plain common sense.

Outside that group, I’m not sure who would be sympathetic about the situation of a 43-year-old single mother with a PhD in medieval history making $900 a month adjunct teaching two courses who blames the “”systematic defunding of higher education” for her plight. People always have to blame others for their problems.

“I’m not irresponsible. I’m highly educated,” she says, as if those two were mutually exclusive.

Ordinary people might read that and think maybe this woman should go out and get herself a full time job. Since she has a PhD, we can assume she can type, organize files, and plan projects. With those skills, there are probably plenty of administrative assistant jobs where she’d be a very attractive candidate.

The article even hints of this: “Some adjuncts make less money than custodians and campus support staff who may not have college degrees.”

But, I can almost hear the howls of protest from her, “I have a PhD!” Yes, you have PhD in medieval history. That and some good typing and organizing skills have qualified you to be an administrative assistant who can spend her weekends reading sophisticated books about medieval history. Congratulations!

Alas, people with PhDs and no job prospects often feel very entitled, and are willing to work for a pittance just to keep their foot in the academic game. The easy solution – that if you don’t make enough money teaching go find a job outside academia that will pay you more – isn’t considered a solution. The problem isn’t their unwillingness to do nonacademic work; it’s “the system.”

One professor who has been very critical of the adjunct situation in higher education gets to the root of the problem. “A big part of what we do in graduate education is foster this sense of vocation and teaching for love and passion for what you do,” says Mr. Bousquet…. “We socialize people into accepting the coin of reputation as status capital. Some people are so deeply socialized into the regime of payment by way of status that they are essentially trapped in it for life.”

Fortunately, librarians are generally immune to that particular disease. Professors have status. Librarians just have jobs, except when they don’t. Nevertheless, there is a huge difference between the way PhDs who work outside academia are viewed by their peers as opposed to people with library degrees who don’t work in libraries.

Spend ten years working on a PhD in history and you work a mundane job outside academia? Loser! Spend a year or two getting an MLS and end up working some mundane job outside a library? You’re just like librarians, except your mundane job is outside a library!

While the article highlights PhDs on food stamps, they are only a small percentage of the people with graduate degrees on food stamps: 33,655 of a total of 359,403.

The largest number are the people with master’s degrees, but no PhD or professional degree. 293,029 of those people are on food stamps. Only one of those is profiled in the article, someone with a master’s degree in English, as if being black and a single mother wasn’t enough of a hardship already.

Those with professional degrees (that would be us librarians, I think), account for only 32,719 of the graduate-degreed on food stamps. How many of those have library degrees we can’t say, but presumably some do. However, it could be that most of the professionally degreed on food stamps have degrees in acupuncture, forestry, or naturopathy.

Nevertheless, the kind reader’s advice that everyone entering graduate school should read the article, because even though the Chronicle doesn’t care about people with library degrees, we librarians do.

Library students are usually less naive than humanities PhD students, especially because a lot of them are humanities PhD students who have wised up and realized that being a librarian, while not as exalted and highly respected a job as being an adjunct professor at a community college, has better pay and benefits.

However, for a number of reasons, library jobs are harder to come by than they used to be. Public libraries seem to be doing their best to deprofessionalize their staffs to the point where they won’t need to hire librarians, and academic libraries tend to hire people who already have one or more graduate degrees in addition to the MLS.

We can learn two things from this. First, getting a degree in anything doesn’t mean you’ll get a job. Second, since no one is entitled to a job based on their degree, whining about not having one annoys people, especially those people who are working tedious normal jobs for low pay anyway.

Or we can end with the belief so many people seem to muddle through grad school clinging on to: don’t worry about the pathetic job market. That’s just for other people to worry about, not you. You’ll be the one to get that perfect job, despite the ridiculous odds. You’re a winner!



  1. I hope you didn’t mean to equate forestry with naturopathy! You might be harboring some misconceptions…

  2. The market does seem to be improving a bit as the slow economic recovery plods on. When I got out of libschool at the height of the recession in ’09 there was maybe one entry level position advertised every month or two. Hell, I continued working my grad school sales job for a year after graduating until I got a foot in the door with a part time position.

    These days there are a couple of new entry-level or non-director jobs coming along every couple of weeks. Competition is still fierce, I’d imagine, but it’s not as bad as it was.

    • gatoloco says:

      Embedded librarians? Okay just kidding. So many librarians do wonderful things for the undomiciled.

  3. AL, these are indeed dark days. Last week you wrote about librarians who are holding blogathons to raise money to go to the ALA annual conferences and this week you are writing about Phds on food stamps. What will it be next week…the librarian homeless problem?

  4. not a hipster librarian says:

    Here’s the reality of most liberal arts jobs: you’re never going to be paid what you think you should be paid and you’ll always have to sacrifice. Why? Because everyone wants these jobs. Don’t kid yourself that librarians aren’t in the liberal arts arena — “library science” is a misnomer.

    • Sorry, but this is incorrect. While library science is hardly “science” there is something that makes it differ greatly from a liberal arts degree. That difference is that it is a professional degree. It is meant to prepare you for a specific job (being a librarian). It is also a terminal degree. Liberal Arts on the other hand aren’t geared towards a specific job. If a library is looking to hire a librarian the chances they choose someone with an MA in English as opposed to an MLIS is slim.

    • not a hipster librarian says:

      A few examples of liberal arts degrees that gear you to specific jobs: communication studies, dance, human resources, journalism and mass communications.

    • Where I went to college and graduate school, Human Resources is considered a professional degree (considering that is exactly what it is). Additionally Dance was considered a BFA. Communication studies and Mass Communications prepare you for TV, Print (Journalism is typically considered communications), Radio, Internet, etc. None of these, aside from HR (which is a professional degree) prepares you for one specific job. Such as being a librarian.

    • not a hipster librarian says:

      Where I went to school, all of the jobs I listed are liberal arts degrees. I would argue that being a librarian isn’t one specific job: there are a variety of different library jobs — reference, cataloging, outreach, management — in a variety of library settings — academic, school, public, private.

  5. I Like Books says:

    It’s not as easy for a PhD to get another job as you might think. First, while they were earning that PhD they weren’t developing a job history, and weren’t studying something like accounting or engineering. Or an employer will take the guy with the two-year degree in electronics over the PhD in physics, because they understand the two-year degree and don’t know what comes with the physics degree. Second, a lot of employers are a little paranoid about hiring the overqualified or overeducated, and will be asking things like “Why does someone with your education want to work here?” A PhD can essentially disqualify you for a lot of positions.

    But there’s not much sympathy from me for the PhD that doesn’t even try. Eventually you have to set your sites lower and take what you can get.

    • Michelle Sellars says:

      Just agreeing that it may not be as easy for that PhD to get an adminstrative assistant job as one might think. I have my MLIS and worked two jobs where I performed the basic tasks of a secretary. When I was looking for work I looked at secretarial-type jobs, and most required several years of experience in the field, and/or much more experience than I had using specific computer programs or with keeping the books. I’ve also found it true that it can be tough for the overly educated because employers assume you will leave as soon as you find a better job (which you probably will). I had this issue trying to get part-time library jobs. I had to reassure one of my jobs that yes, I really, really did need a job in a library, even a paraprofessional $10 one.

    • You are correct that it is not always easy for a PhD to get a job. You would not believe how many applications I receive for either entry level librarian positions or library assistant positions, and the person has multiple masters degrees as well as a PhD. These are people that for whatever reason have never held a full time 40 hour a week job. They have gone right from undergrad to an MA/MS program (again, sometimes more than once) to a PhD program. They have no track record of work history; all their references come from their professors or their academic advisors-no one who can tell me if this person came to work day in, day out and actually did the work they were being paid to do under a variety of conditions (such a budget cuts, reorganizations, layoffs, toxic colleagues, etc.) In a tight labor market, those that don’t have an actual work history don’t fare as well as those that do.

  6. elena schneider says:

    Some of us worked our way through college and actually obtained a work record. Even PhD candidates work; I schlepped books with a poor guy earning his PhD in history. He was also a new dad. He worked part time with us, had family time scheduled and then reserved 4 hours each night for writing his thesis.

  7. Dagny Taggart says:

    It seems that engineering PhDs run the world, and the humanities PhDs “comment” upon the formers’ management style.

    • Hank Rearden says:

      I fully agree, Dagny.

      I am grooming my daughter for a future in science and engineering. She loves to read all types books; however, she raids the 500s and 600s (DDC) at the library. Regardless of her career choice, I want her to get this type of education. She can always opt for secretarial work if that’s what she wants to do later. The converse is not true.

  8. Sheryl Kron Rhodes says:

    I received my MLS last spring, just over a year ago. During the last year I worked as an intern in an academic library for one semester & was employed as a reference/instruction librarian for a semester, but wasn’t kept on because of budgetary reasons…even though my salary for the entire semester was less than the cost of the computer set-up for the assistant to the director of a technical program in the library.

    I also have an MA in communications & nearly 20 years of work experience as an editor. I can design & teach classes (I was a TA in public speaking while earning my MA). I’m conversant in another language. I can write clearly & well, thanks for a technical writing class. I’m familiar w/Word & PowerPoint & have no trouble navigating the Web. I’m organized, type very well, am responsible, etc. etc. etc. I cannot get an admin’s job of any kind because I don’t have enough experience in the various software packages that admins have to have these days, & even if I did, I have too much education for any employer to be interested in hiring me as an admin (as I’ve been told).

    I’m considering taking classes in software packages, but honestly, why should I throw more money away on education that doesn’t stand much chance of getting used? After burning through a third of my savings to put myself through library school, the idea of wasting more money on schooling has pretty low appeal.

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