Friday, January 15, 2010

Just because you have a Ph.D. it does not mean librarianship should be your backup plan

The author of this column featured in Inside Higher Ed needed to do his homework. I usually don't jump on stuff like this, but this needed to get a reply. Let me start at the end of Joshua Kim's piece on academic tech and library careers for the Ph.D. folks. For a newly minted Ph.D., is a library career a good option? The answer is pretty much no. We can now make a small substitution in Mr. Kim's opening sentence to reveal the reason: "the [librarian] job market is in the toilet."It has been that way for years now in spite of cheery library administrators, the ALA, and LIS professors touting a non-existent wave of retirements and non-existent incoming job openings. The reason they do that is so they can continue to fill their enrollments in LIS schools. To deny this given the current climate is to be either ignorant or dishonest. So, telling unemployable Ph.D's to consider going to library school, or do some alternative program like CLIR, is at the very least irresponsible. I don't say unemployable because newly minted Ph.D's lack qualifications to be employed in their chosen field (that could be a whole other issue), but I say it because the simple reality is that universities are churning out doctoral graduates at an excessive rate into a low-to-no demand job market.

Let me blunt: if you go through a doctoral program, realize that your prospects to be employed as a professor in academia are dim, not to mention the possible issue of racking up an obscene amount of debt you will likely never be able to repay. Falling back on the hope of becoming an academic librarian is not going to be your salvation. If anything, you should have stopped at your first master's degree, then gone to library school. Because unless you are hoping to work in an elite R-1 school, you are overqualified with that Ph.D. A substantial number of academic librarians work at teaching universities and smaller settings, places where your very advanced degree is not exactly an automatic entry key. Allow me to tell you who you would be competing against:

  • Newly minted librarians. These are the people of all ages who are just coming out of library school. Many of them already go to library school with some library experience, and if they were smart, they got themselves some more experience while in library school (a job in a library, assistantship, internship, so on) to increase their odds to be hired.
  • Recent graduates of library school. These are the folks who graduated within a year to let's say three years or so. They have been in the market a while due to the bad market. If lucky, they may have a part time job in a library to make ends meet, often along with a second job.
  • Experienced librarians. These are folks who are looking for a better job. They may be looking for an advancement (say become head of a department), or they may be making a lateral move to another entry level job if the new job is better in some way. In our profession, experience in libraries counts for a lot, and if these guys are any good, they get hired fast.
All those folks are already out there fighting for the few librarian positions in the market. A lot of them (like me) are very geographically mobile, which means they will go where the job is. And let's not even consider the issue of low salaries in librarianship (unless you become an administrator, but that is a separate issue). Further, all those other folks I list above often bring in a wealth of experiences such as classroom teaching, work experiences that are relevant, technical skills, so on that many new Ph.D's who have only known the Ivory Tower may or not have. That's your competition if you are one of those new Ph.D's who suddenly thinks they will fall back on librarianship as a job. This is especially applicable to doctoral graduates in the humanities. Hey, just look at recent reports from the Modern Language Association (MLA) if you need proof. You can find some reporting from Inside Higher Ed on that very issue here.

I am willing to admit that I may come across as harsh. I honestly believe that, as someone in a doctoral program, you should know how to research things like a job market in your chosen profession. If not, you should be asking your local librarian, who will likely tell you what I am telling you if he or she is honest. Yet I also know, both from experience and extensive reading (remember: the tagline of this blog is "I read a lot of the LIS literature so you don't have to"), that some people will not be honest with you when it comes to job markets, the placement rates of their programs, so on. Thus allow me then to give a bit of the truth because better that you hear it now before you decide to plunk down more money into yet another degree, in this case the MLS, than learning the hard way that you could be as unemployable as before, if not worse.

In the end, I am not saying to not pursue the degree if it is your lifelong passion or if you want the education and/or do not care if you work in that line of work (maybe you have a full time job already, for instance). I have been very fortunate to find work as an academic librarian, but I learned some hard lessons along the way. Those lessons could be material for another blog post, but I digress. However, if you choose to get that doctorate anyways, do so informed and with your eyes wide open. This includes realizing that you may end up working in something other than academia. There are perfectly good careers out there for doctoral graduates outside of academia if you are willing to look, which is another little detail graduate schools often fail to mention. Realize also that jumping over to the library is not the magical cure given the reasons I have stated above. If you ask me straight up, I'd tell folks to not do it. But if you must, do it only after very careful consideration of your options and go in informed and prepared to face any consequences of your decision.

Additional note: I made a small list of items for further reading over on the scratch pad, Alchemical Thoughts, in case anyone wants to get more context.


Joshua Kim said...

Hi Angel...thanks for the great comments and insights. I appreciate you taking the time to lay out what is really going on in the academic library job market. I found your information somewhat surprising, as I had thought the academic librarian market was doing okay (at least compared to the faculty market). How can we create more opportunities to have these sorts of exchanges of information across the library and IT worlds?

Oh yeah...looks like we have similar reading tastes. I'm a huge Audible fan. You can see my Audible list at:


Angel, librarian and educator said...

Professor Kim: Thank you for stopping by and commenting. That is a good question you bring up, how to promote/create the opportunities for the exchanges of information. I know some folks in academic librarianship (Steve Bell comes to mind) advocate, for starters, for us to be reading the blogs of higher ed (the ones faculty write, so on). Could be a start, but yes, we should be exchanging more information and learning from each other.

Best, and keep on blogging.

P.S. I have to go look at your Audible list later :)

Paula Chambers said...

Hi, I really appreciated this post. I am the founder of a web-based community called Versatile PhD, for PhDs seeking non-academic careers. Part of my job is to identify careers where a PhD could find at least semi-satisfaction other than being a professor, and profile those careers on the site by means of panel discussions. I am considering "Careers in Libraries" as a possible topic for spring 2013 so am researching the field and trying to find panelists. It's been interesting: I am getting mixed signals. Some are saying what you have said here: don;t encourage PhDs to purse this career, because you need an MLIS and even then you are competing with many others, just like the academic job market. On the other hand, I am finding some PhDs who work in libraries and love their jobs. It's not an easy call whether to do this topic or not. You wrote this post in 2010: can you please comment on how things have evolved since then? It is the same only more so? Would you strongly discourage me from covering this topic even though interest is high among my population? Appreciating any light you have time to shed.


Paula Chambers, Ph.D.
Founder, The Versatile PhD