Academic Librarians & the PhD

I started my Library and Information Science (LIS) PhD in September.

That might be a relatively prosaic thing for a recent MLS graduate to write. For me, a 63-year-old former academic library and technology administrator, it’s a bit more surprising. Why am I doing this? Why now?

Even more important:

What is the role and value of a PhD in the field of academic librarianship?

It appears that few seek it, few employers require it, and most LIS PhDs are seeking academic careers teaching in LIS programs (i.e. a small pool). What about the rest of us?

I strongly associate with the idea of academic librarians as “scholar-practitioners”. We have a valued tradition of service (practitioner) but increasingly we also teach full-time and undertake extensive research (scholar); exactly the model of our faculty colleagues. That’s why many of us have academic status, are eligible for tenure, contribute to scholarship, etc. etc.

And yet the “terminal degree” in our field remains the MLS/MLIS.

There is a lot of angst within the field about the relationship between librarians and faculty. Issues of respect, power differentials, opportunities, rights, and responsibilities often feature in these discussions. Many of us want to be simply “faculty” not the more ambiguous “faculty colleagues.”

It seems intuitive to me that if we as academic librarians wish to be faculty in this sense that we have to have the academic experiences and accomplishments that other faculty have: a PhD.

Call it credentialism if you must but the value of the doctorate goes well beyond the pejorative “academic ticket”.

It’s very early days for me on my PhD journey, and the road ahead goes off far into the distance. However, I’m doing this because the intellectual experience will allow me to think differently, to develop a deliberative view of the ideas in our field, and to explore, in a previously unavailable way, a research question I’ve been wrestling with for years.

Yes, it’s an intellectual itch to scratch but if I accept the idea that for academic librarians the doctorate is the new terminal degree, I’m going to walk the talk.

At the upcoming 2017 OLA SuperConference, Lisa Sloniowski (York University), Karen Nicholson (University of Guelph) and I are hosting a session entitled “Academic Librarians and the PhD”. The session (February 2, 2017, 2-3:30pm) is an opportunity to explore, in a conversational manner, the nature and value of the doctorate in our field.

These are the types of questions we want to raise and explore:

Why get a PhD?
How might it advance or impact a career?
What are the personal costs and gains of further graduate education?
Should the PhD be the terminal degree for academic librarians?
What advice would you give to a librarian considering a PhD program?
What structural conditions do organizations need to encourage librarians to embark on and succeed in a doctoral program?

If you can’t make it to the session, we are planning a special issue of Open Shelf to include material from the presentations and discussions, and other contributions from those involved with the PhD in LIS or another relevant field.

As for me, I (half-jokingly) tell people my PhD ambitions are a race against senility. The clock is ticking. I’d better get back to that article on the theoretical framework of machine intelligence and literacy.

Michael Ridley is the Editor-in-Chief of Open Shelf. He is a Librarian and Instructor (First Year Seminar program) at the University of Guelph. He is also a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Media and Information Studies (FIMS), Western University.

  • Dale

    Interesting read, Mike. I’m heading out on research leave in about five weeks and my goal is to use the time to finish the dissertation I’ve put off writing for, oh, about 15 years. High time. Not sure I’m all the way there in terms of viewing the PhD as the new terminal degree, but I get where you’re going with that line of thought.

    • MikeRidley

      Good luck with the final stages! I realize the PhD as terminal degree is controversial but I think its a long overdue discussion. We talk a lot about faculty status but not much about faculty credentials (IMHO). Looking forward to the OLA session.