How to Survive Your MLS Distance Program: 6 Tips from a Recent Grad

Marian Mays, Senior Editor, INALJ 

How to Survive Your MLS Distance Program: 6 Tips from a Recent Grad

Marian MaysThe transition to full-time online classes can be extremely tough, especially for new students. Online classes can make you feel isolated, require more personal diligence, and can be a time management nightmare. Plus, MLS programs don’t always offer students practical advice that they need to be successful outside of school.

For some students, distance programs offer positive benefits. Most online classes do not require you to be in a physical classroom at any certain time of day, which provides students with a larger range of job opportunities. Some MLS programs even offer in-state tuition for distance education students. If you’re interested in going to school in your pajamas, or you need some pointers that apply to your current education, follow these six tips for success.

1. Befriend Your Professors

I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough! Befriending your professors should be your main priority as a new student. Getting to know your professors provides you with both short and long-term benefits. A personal relationship with your professors can lessen your sense of isolation, benefit your course grade, and influence your future job prospects. LIS professors make great professional references! I would not have my current job position without the reference of an LIS professor.

Most professors understand that life is full of unforeseen consequences. Jobs, children, pets, and family can place a strain on the distance education student. However, distance education professors deal with these issues themselves. Professors are always more likely to provide students with extensions or extra help when the initial student/professor relationship has already been established. These relationships can be fostered by frequent participation in online discussion boards, volunteering to lead groups or extra projects, frequent visits in office hours, and a positive attitude. Many professors offer some kind of face-to-face contact through a video chatting service if you do not live nearby.

2. Don’t Rely on Your Calendar

Don’t get me wrong – keeping an up-to-date school assignment calendar is extremely important. At the beginning of each academic semester, I printed my syllabuses and inputted all required assignments into my phone calendar. However, this isn’t always enough. Professors sometimes make mistakes in their syllabuses, or have used syllabuses that apply to previous years. Make sure you frequently check your assignment folder in whatever online system your program uses. If you see any inconsistency between the syllabus and your course shell, ask your professor immediately. You should also consider routing your campus email account to your personal email if you have not already done so. Sometimes professors will send out short-term assignment notices with no prior warning.

3. Find Some Way to Network with Your Peers

You may think there are no opportunities to network with your peers if you live thousands of miles away. You are wrong! Many schools allow you to participate in their student LIS organization through webinar conferencing. Some schools even allow out of state student members to hold officer positions. If your school doesn’t currently offer these opportunities, contact your student affairs officer. They might be more than happy to work something out.

You can also consider saving money for a trip that will allow you to network with your peers. Many schools offer study abroad programs or courses in LIS. Often, students are able to use their financial aid to fund these programs. Conferences are another great way to network and obtain professional skills that you can add to your resume, and many conferences offer scholarship opportunities. Consider asking your student LIS chapter or listserv if any students will be attending LIS conferences. You can room with fellow students to share costs.

If student memberships or conferences aren’t really your style, consider emailing classmates that you interact with on discussion boards just to chat. You never know what kind of friendships you might build if you are willing to put yourself out there. Meeting a large group of my LIS peers was truly a turning point of my distance program. It helped me feel excited to be entering the field.

4. Enter School with a Clear Purpose

Before starting a distance program, you need to ask yourself why you want to be a librarian. The fact you love reading isn’t going to cut it in those future job interviews. So many different types of librarianship exist, and school is much easier when you have a clear concentration. If you don’t have any idea of what type of librarianship interests you, find a professional mentor. Ask to job shadow or interview several different types of librarians to narrow down your options.

The truth is, some ALA accredited distance programs are very small. Your school of choice might not be the best option for a very specific career choice, such as music librarianship. Make sure you check out what courses and concentrations the graduate schools you apply to offer. This can save you a lot of hassle in the long run. Also try to make sure that your school has a secure accreditation. Most employers will only accept your degree if it is ALA accredited.

Once you enter school, don’t play around! Try to fit in a course that interests you in your very first semester, to make sure that you want to continue with this career path. There is nothing wrong with being a generalist, but it will not make you a competitive candidate for jobs or internships. School will also be a more enjoyable experience when you are taking several courses in your specific area of interest.

5. Experience Matters

If you haven’t heard this yet, you will soon. The job market for librarians is suffering right now. Don’t procrastinate on securing a library position while you are in school, especially if your program lasts two years or less. Finding library experience is extremely important for entering students who have never worked in a library before. Your previous experience will always outweigh your education to an employer. Try to find a paid position if you can, and be willing to make some personal changes in your life if the job isn’t an easy fit.

Paid internships and graduate assistantships are great resume boosters. Make sure you look at the deadlines to apply for assistantships before applying to your MLS programs. Sometimes programs will expect an early application date or only hire fall semester students. If you can’t find a paid position in a library, consider volunteering or an unpaid internship. Unpaid positions will not be as beneficial to your job search, but they will show that you are passionate about the field.

Still searching? Volunteer for INALJ! You’ll be able to get a better sense of the job search process while helping others. AmeriCorps often hires paid social service volunteers to work in public libraries. You can also consider applying to be a Community Representative for the Digital Public Library of America. If you’ve exhausted your list of available libraries, take a look around on your state library job board or school listserv. Don’t give up! Sometimes, smaller organizations and law firms have libraries that you might not even know existed.

If you can’t find a library job, try to get some customer service experience in a bookstore or your area of preference (Daycare – Youth Services, Computer Store – IT Track). Be willing to stay flexible and think outside the box. I was paid minimum wage in my first library position, and I drove over an hour for my first paid internship. You CAN get hired after library school, but having experience is going to make the process a lot less painful.

6. Save Money, Less Problems

One thing that people forget to mention is that job hunting can be expensive! It can often feel like a full-time job that you don’t get paid for. Saving money while you’re in graduate school can help ease the transition between school and your first professional career. Don’t forget to consider the simple costs of job hunting. You’ll need computer access, a large supply of printer ink, printer paper, envelopes, business cards, and stamps. These things can really add up. If you’re struggling with the basics, try to see if your current employer or student LIS association will provide you free or low-cost printing service.

Make sure to factor in travel costs such as gas money, airline tickets, or hotel rooms. Most employers will expect you to travel to their library for an in-person interview, and some may not be able to cover the cost. Some employers don’t offer any type of video or phone interview even for an initial job screening, so make sure you’re prepared before you apply. Also make sure to clarify if the potential employer will offer some type of relocation assistance to out of state employees.

There are a lot of resume boosters that aren’t necessary, but suggested. Joining ALA or your local library association is extremely important. It is expensive, but you’ll be able to afford twice as many memberships with a student membership price versus a professional membership. The main benefit of professional memberships is the credibility it gives to your resume. However, joining could also make you eligible for things like scholarships, free resume editing, and free resume posting. Conference prices are always cheaper as a member, and are also a great resume booster. Many conference scholarship applications require you to be a member of the organization. Attending conferences shows potential employers that you are passionate about professional development opportunities and networking.

Marian Mays graduated from the University of Kentucky School of Library and Information Science in May 2014. She is currently finishing an 11 month term with AmeriCorps, and is in the process of job hunting. In her free time, Marian enjoys reading, hiking, rock climbing, hula hooping, and belly dancing. Marian is currently located in Anchorage, Alaska.

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