Terminal Degree For the Academic Librarian

This was a topic of discussion last week on COLLIB-L. Someone asked what the generally-accepted terminal degree for an academic librarian was at their institutions. The consensus, along with some ACRL guidelines, certainly pointed to the M.L.S. as the terminal degree for academic librarians. Of course these degree discussions usually encompass some conversation about the Ph.D. (or Ed.D) for academic librarians. Is it something that enhances one’s career? Is it just for library deans and directors? What makes more sense, a Ph.D. in library and information science, a subject discipline, or higher education administration? A visit to the COLLIB-L archives would provide access to past discussion about the pros and cons of the doctorate for academic librarians. My own position has been that while it can be helpful if contemplating a move to the upper echelon of administration (although as Mignon Adams pointed out in last week’s discussion, of several recent hires at the largest research libraries in the Philadelphia region, the majority – three out of four – had no earned doctorate), I would advise making the extensive effort involved only if one is truly passionate about earning the degree for the sake of doing so (personal challenge, desire to learn more, seeking advanced research and writing skills, etc.), not because of some belief that it will make you more qualified for a job than other candidates.

What brought the COLLIB-L discussion to mind was this interesting blog post about the Ph.D. glut, and the economics of doctoral education in higher education. The author’s primarily economic perspective is that supply and demand principles do not seem to apply to the Ph.D. market. Even though there is a glut, there seems to be no decline in the number of programs at academic institutions or people willing to take the spots in them. Among the comments made:

The American higher education system is structured by the professorate to reward those professors who teach small classes of graduate students. So, year after year, decade after decade, the supply of Ph.D.-holding students increases, despite an academic market that does not hire most of them, and hires a minority at wages that do not compensate them for the money and time invested in earning their degrees.

While this post isn’t directly related to the COLLIB-L discussion, it strikes me as worthwhile reading for all of us whether we are thinking about pursuing a Ph.D., already have one, or will be convinced by this author that it’s just not a good idea right now. It does bring to mind two thoughts: (1) Would we have programs like the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellowship in Scholarly Information Resources if there wasn’t a Ph.D. glut in the humanities? My cynical side continues to believe this was a program engineered by a few large research universities to manage their own glut of humanities Ph.D. graduates. Hey, let’s just ship them off to libraries. Perhaps the program is placing these Ph.D.s who have no MLS in ways that are helping libraries. Other than my own skepticism I have no evidence that the program is hurting the profession; (2) Now that IMLS funds are fueling new scholarships (see priority #2) for Ph.D.s in LIS programs will we soon see a glut of our own Ph.D. holders? Though I’m not aware of a current or pending shortage of LIS faculty, perhaps the same wave of retirements that is supposed to open loads of jobs for new MLS holders will do the same for LIS Ph.D.s.

I’m pretty sure that this “should I get/do I need a Ph.D.” discussion thread on COLLIB-L will come up from time to time. It’s seems to be a perennial question that MLS holders ask themselves. Perhaps it’s just a natural consequence of our career insecurity and perceived lack of respect in higher education.

12 thoughts on “Terminal Degree For the Academic Librarian”

  1. Not career insecurity, but advancement. I just changed jobs and I threw a lot of them out because I didn’t have a PhD. As one of my previous bosses said, “I’m not a good director because I have a PhD!” But the faculty do think that having a degree grants some sort of mystic insight into the research process.

  2. Most working academic librarians can’t get a Ph.D. in information/library science without quitting their jobs due to a lack of distance education options, the small number of Ph.D. programs in general, and residency requirements. See the extensive dialog on this topic at: http://www.escholarlypub.com/digitalkoans/category/information-schools/, where it is argued that academic librarians who have faculty status at the associate or full levels are a special population for potential online Ph.D. programs, and that faculty objections to such programs should be reconsidered for this population.

  3. Lots of interesting questions here, but I’ll contain myself.

    First, if you’ve ever visited the annual ALISE meeting, you know that it is a seller’s market for Ph.D.s with an interest in going into LIS education. I have never seen so many interviews as I saw during my last visit to that meeting. Once I might have noted that one is most sought after at ALISE if one is in the IS-side of the house, but there have been plenty of jobs posted this year for people with interests in library-oriented areas, e.g., reference. In my mind, the major problem with the Ph.D. in LIS has been its focus in most programs on Information Science (something that Simmons is trying to address, for a select group, with its new doctoral program track). The “I-School debate” in one that doesn’t need to be engaged in a comment field!

    Evidence of recent senior hires certainly seems to support Steven’s conclusion that a doctorate is not required for appointment as a library director, but it certainly has some value (in addition to personal satisfaction and growth) for those in libraries where librarians hold faculty status and the director is part of a Council of Deans (or similar group). Discussions of the degree of value could dovetail with similar discussions among non-librarians of the relative status of the Ed.D. on campus vs. the Ph.D., or of others who operate on campus as faculty without the doctoral degree (e.g., MFAs). Again, that’s another discussion.

    Given that I do hold a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration, I could go on about the reasons why I think that superior to a Ph.D. in LIS, but I’m thinking of proposing that as part of a paper for ACRL 2007, so I’ll let the argument mature a bit 🙂

  4. I agree with Marc that the subject-area degree is probably the most beneficial for librarians from the job-hunt standpoint. I am a new librarian in my first professional position and was very intimidated by the number of job descriptions that indicated a desire for a subject area masters from an ideal candidate, especially in the area of reference services.

    However, I can see how the PhD in library and information science might be more helpful if the librarian was interested in getting on the track to be a department supervisor or library director. I think that a second degree can always be helpful to librarians, but which degree they choose to pursue should reflect their personal goals in librarianship.

  5. Stewart’s point about “another degree” is interesting, but I don’t think we really need another degree in LIS, as much as an opportunity for people to focus clearly on issues related to library administration and the place of the library in the academy.

    One easy way to accommodate this within the existing degree structure would be to offer an Ed.D. option in LIS schools (this is really the same thing as the Lib.D. that Stewart suggests, but without the need to create another degree type). Ed.D. programs focus heavily on application, and typically include internships and other activities that allow the advanced degree student to reflect on practice within the context of the discipline.

    One reason why I undertook the Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration (and why others are doing the same) is that Higher Ed (whether Ph.D. or Ed.D.) is a field in which one can examine the academic library as part of the broader organization. This is probably possible within any Educational Administration program (if you happen to be located at a school that doesn’t have a Higher Ed program), but it’s very nicely accommodated by Higher Ed programs.

    I see the Simmons program, though limited in some ways, as being something of a bridge between those two approaches (and kudos to them for building in an opportunity for rotating “Professors of the Practice,” which is one very nice model for brining practice-based leadership and a scholarly practitioner model into advanced LIS education.

  6. One problem I have with the notion that it takes a PhD to be a library director is that I’m not frankly sure what value it adds. Is it merely a decoration? A status symbol? Or truly “working knowledge”?

    Any librarian could be a library director if they have the intelligence, the curiosity, the ability to think institutionally and globally, and to be inclined to help a library organization grow. The LIS PhD may be a wonderful thing, but as a credential, it is most appropriately preparation for becoming LIS faculty. We all can learn constantly simply by being curious enough about what we do to conduct and share research – and by developing organizational cultures that promote such learning.

    I’m more concerned that good librarians don’t think about becoming directors because they would have to drop out of a profession they love and become full time administrators within systems that are traditional and hierarchical. They don’t have to be that way. We should all be leaders, whatever our job title. And everyone should have the opportunity to shape the library’s future as their own professional knowledge grows.

  7. Just to be clear, I’m actually suggesting a professional doctorate to *replace* the MLS as a new terminal degree, in the same way that the Pharm.D. replaced the B.S. in Pharmacy a few years back. As the Bachelor’s becomes the equivalent of a high school diploma in this country, I think librarians should be required to hold an even more advanced degree than the Master’s. Our profession is becoming more complex over time, more intellectually demanding — Shouldn’t our terminal degree more appropriately reflect this advancement by being more than just a Master’s?

    I’m not married to the idea of a Lib.D. necessarily (as opposed to an Ed.D., say), but I do think that the profession would benefit in many ways from library school becoming a longer, more intellectually rigorous process that also requires a significant practical experience component, such as a clerkship.

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