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.