(Un)Written Tips for New LIS Students (Or, What I Learned In Grad School)

It’s mid-April and so many things are wrapping up. Most of my class projects have been turned in. I’m calculating the last hours I owe at each graduate assistantship. I just landed my first professional position! And—maybe most excitingly—one of my largest projects, the 2015 Symposium on LIS Education just happened last weekend. I’m finding myself with more free time (thank you, Lord) but also more anxiety about the future of my career.

Why not take a minute to look in the rear view mirror and reflect on the past instead of getting caught up on the “what ifs” of the future? I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again. Because I am the only graduate student voice on ACRLog right now, I feel an obligation to speak to graduate students’ needs and concerns. Thus, I thought I would write a short reflection on what I have learned in graduate school—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Fair warning: my experience in no way represents all LIS students’ experiences. My hope is that this reflection will give those just starting an LIS program or thinking about starting one some information about what it was like and what I might do differently if I had the chance. Hindsight is 20/20 so why shouldn’t we give others the space to learn from our misunderstandings and mistakes?

It’s important to give some context first. I have had what some might call an abnormal LIS graduate student experience. I attended the University of Illinois’ Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) where I focused on instruction and scholarly communication. I finished the program in two years. During the course of my forty credit hours, I took only four online courses. Throughout my time at GSLIS, I held 1-2 graduate assistantships, either in our reference or instruction department. This means that all of my classes were supplemented with practical, tangible experience, including fielding reference questions, performing assessments, instructing workshops, providing internal education, and even attending committee meetings. I was extremely blessed to have these experiences. I was extremely blessed to have the mentorship that these experiences inherently provide. I am a white female in the LIS field and I undoubtedly have privileges others do not. I had support and freedom to uproot my life and move to Illinois and many others do not. It’s important to acknowledge these differences and work to change the structural issues in our current LIS education system to include more diversity, in terms of prior experiences, race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic/ first generation status, and library training.

Below are my tips, in a nutshell. I have to admit that these were influenced by the recent Symposium on LIS Education Keynote (recording forthcoming) by Micah Vandegrift, Brianna Marshall, and Annie Pho entitled “Go Forth- OR- Community is Easy, Change is Difficult”. I’d like to thank them for giving me the courage to share both my successes and my failures.

Don’t underestimate your peers

I can’t overemphasize this enough. I came to GSLIS thinking that I would only really learn from my instructors and my supervisors. While I did end up learning a lot from these people, I learned just as much (if not more) from my peers. These peers—everyone from my colleagues at the information desk to the committee I worked with to plan the symposium—pushed me to think more critically about librarianship as a profession. They challenged me to think in new and complicated ways, through Twitter or weekly coffee breaks. They learned right alongside me, often sharing their newfound knowledge and developing projects with me so that I had some level of fluency in digital humanities or critical pedagogy or some other area I might have never been exposed to. By not only sparking my interest in these topics but also challenging my long-held conceptions about librarianship, they made me a better student, graduate assistant, job candidate, and (I hope) librarian.

Don’t get me wrong. I would advise you to ask your supervisor about their first job. Ask your instructor more about their experience with that topic. But don’t underestimate your peers—near or far. They know what you’re going through. They are trying to digest and grasp all of these new experiences too. Lean on each other. Mentor each other. Complain to each other! But make sure you develop relationships with the students around you. They are the future of this profession and your connection with them will be invaluable.

In short, I think my friend Kyle says it best:

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Push yourself

When I moved to Illinois, I didn’t know a single person in the entire state. I left Ohio for professional and personal reasons and I thought moving two states away would fix most everything. All of that sounds great on paper. But when you arrive, you realize that it’s overwhelming and isolating. The first few months were lonely and, frankly, depressing. But I pushed myself. I pushed myself to meet people. I pushed myself to attend community events and get familiar with GSLIS.

After awhile, I found my footing. Eventually, I was able to push myself in new and exciting ways. I took classes that were outside of my comfort zone. I led more workshops and instructional sessions. I took on a more challenging assistantship. I took an international LIS class and met LIS students from around the world. While all of these decisions mean that I have more experience, I also believe they have made me more thoughtful. I can relate to others’ positions more now. I am more willing to try new things and take risks. Everyone has to follow the path that makes the most sense for them. I would just encourage you to find ways to get outside of your comfort zone while you’re on that path.

Take your own stance/ Push your teachers, mentors, and colleagues

You’re going to have a lot of different people tell you a lot of different things. Everyone has a different opinion on everything, from teaching methods to the best tools to use for a specific project. Moreover, many people—even within our small library world—take different high-level stances on things like theory and ethics. These people are people you look up to. They have been in the field for decades and they have professional experiences you won’t have for a long time. Take their wisdom seriously and let it shape and challenge you.

At the same time, hold your own! You have a voice! You are becoming a professional and an expert. They can learn from your experience too. I know it’s challenging and even scary to take a different stance then someone you look up to, but our profession will never grow if you don’t.

A quick note: I have to again emphasize that I have privileges that others do not. I am in no way advocating that this is feasible for everyone. We have bills we have to pay and sometimes challenging someone—especially if they have some level of authority over you—is not feasible. In short, if you have the privilege and space to challenge some of the issues in our profession, think about doing so, especially if they affect people that can’t have a voice.

Know your value

This is especially true in the job search. You’ll hear that jobs are difficult to land and they are. But you have worked really, really hard to be where you’re at. Recognize how incredibly intelligent, talented, and unique you are. I know that the job market is tight and you really just need to get your foot in the door. But remember why you came to library school in the first place—to do interesting, rewarding work. Think less about what kind of job you want and more about what kind of work you want to do. If a position doesn’t seem to give you space to do that work, seriously think about whether it’s right for you. This is all to say that if you believe you are a great library professional, others will often start to believe you are too. Don’t feel like you have to work somewhere were the work is mediocre, the pay is unfair, and the leadership isn’t active (often all in a region where you won’t be happy). You have to be realistic but  you should also realize that you are the best advocate you have.

Reflect

All of the things you’re learning are new and exciting. You’re reading new topics and scholars in your courses, you are developing new relationships, and you might even be teaching or programming or doing some other exciting activity for the first time. It all happens so quickly. You will blink and forget those first experiences. In some ways, this is great. You get to improve without ruminating on some the stumbling blocks you had to get over.

At the same time, you risk being able to tangibly see how far you’ve come. Take some time, either weekly, monthly, or even once a semester, and think about all of the skills you have learned and all of the connections you have made. Often writing, discussing, or critiquing something we have done allows us to digest it. We gain new insights and are better able to identify successes and failures, all of which make us better practitioners the next time we do something.

Start healthy practices now

I hope that this doesn’t sound preachy but this is so important! Grad school is a stressful time—financially and emotionally. If you work and attend classes, you have little to no free time. I get all of that. I have lived it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t set boundaries. At some point, you and your needs have to come first. If you don’t set boundaries now, it will be even more difficult to suddenly start setting them when you start your professional life.

I know you’d really like to be part of that new project. Or you think it might not be that big of a deal to take on one more hourly project. Maybe you think you can pick up the slack for your group for an assignment. Habits are hard to break! Think critically about how you like to work. Do you lead? Do you let someone else lead? Are you a perfectionist? Think critically about how you communicate. Do you say what you think directly? Are you sometimes passive aggressive? It might sound silly but take note of all of these now. The better you know yourself, the better you can advocate for yourself and your time. The more transparent you can be with yourself (and with others), the more successful and healthy your life will be.

My advice is simple. Be intentional and realistic about how much time you have. SAY NO! You never want to be in a position where you really care about something you volunteered for but you can’t actually do what you said you would. Put your needs first. Realize that you have an identity outside of your professional interests and that’s okay. You are an entire person—with a family, hobbies, and interests. Embrace that now and set boundaries when you can so you can enjoy all of the aspects of your life, personal and professional.

Embrace rejection

Last fall, my proposal for a large international conference was rejected. Many of my friends were attending and I felt foolish for not getting in. When asked about it, I glossed over it like it wasn’t a big deal. The truth is that talking about it more would have helped me grow. I would have been able to think about the quality of my proposal sooner and more effectively. Moreover, this wasn’t a career changer! I can still submit an improved proposal to another conference. I can take their feedback and use it constructively to challenge myself. (Also, sometimes there are just a lot of awesome proposals and the planning committee can only pick so many. Now that I have gone through this process myself, I realize how difficult choosing really is!).

Failure is hard, especially when you care as deeply about the profession as many people do. But see it as an opportunity to learn, grow, and reflect. Embrace it, stand back up, and try again!

Be kind to yourself

I’m not sure if I’m qualified to write about this because I’m not the best at it. It’s a goal I’m working toward. Be patient with yourself. Remember that learning and growth takes time. Remember that you can’t do it all. You can, however, acknowledge your successes and be proud of how far you’ve come. You deserve it.

More Resources Worth Exploring:

Brianna Marshall, Professionalism and Self- Presentation

Brianna Marshall, We Need to Share our Rejections

Jennifer Guiliano, Time, Money, and the Academy

Gennie Gebhart, Five Mistakes I Made in My First Quarter of Library School

Amanda Hope Davis, A Librarian’s Approach to Self-Care

Lix McGlynn, On Overcommitting

Brianna Marshall, Library School Life Lessons

Robin Camille, Hello from New York! My new job, how I got here, and the value of my MLIS