Graduate Studies: Frivolous? Necessary? Somewhere in-between?

The eight types of graduate student

“I initially figured that we must all be there because of a pure thirst for knowledge. I’ve since realised, however, that the impulses that draw someone to academic study beyond graduation are a lot more varied than that.”

This link came across my Facebook dash a couple of days ago and of course I had to pass it on.  It generated quite a few humorous responses, as well as a few more thoughtful comments.  Most of my friends (and myself) easily identified with one of the listed choices (I definitely identify with #7), and I found it telling that I could go through the list and put names of friends and acquaintances next to each entry, but it wasn’t long before people were pointing out the areas the article missed — my friend Jane Mason of Virtuous Bread said, “There does not seem to be one for ‘I could not think of anything else to do at the time'” and my friend Virginia followed that up with “I think I’m with Jane on this one. Does crushing boredom count as sufficient motivation?”

While boredom is a valid reason for going to graduate school, it was my friend Matt of three4history who really got me thinking about what types of graduate student Patrick Tomlin neglected to mention (which has naturally snowballed somewhat as I have reflected on discussions I’ve had with other people recently).  Matt said, ” Initially, my reason was going to grad school to obtain a usable degree in my field (history)…” [emphasis mine].

Matt’s degree is, if I’m not mistaken (and feel free to correct me, Matt!), a Masters of Public History in Archives and Records Management, which is a very close relative of my own degree-in-progress in Archives and Preservation.  These degrees fall under the missing item in Patrick Tomlin’s list, 9. The Professional Degree.

What makes our degrees “professional”?  Why wasn’t “I had to have a graduate degree to get a job in my field” included in the list of types of graduate student?  It’s not like there aren’t a lot of degrees and a lot of people that fall under this heading — I’d argue that law school and medical school fall under this professional degree heading, as well as the many public service and heritage degrees.  For my part, I doubt I would have come back to graduate school to do another master’s if it hadn’t been for the fact that the MSIS/MLIS is required to get full time employment as a full librarian rather than a paraprofessional library assistant.  I’m sure there are many people out there who would sympathize with my view and who would skip graduate school if they could.

So why ignore this wide swath of graduate students?  It was suggested to me recently that I’m not a “real” graduate student because I’m not in a “traditional” academic, research-focused department.  And it is true that being in a practical, professional degree program feels very different from being in an English literature graduate program — maybe that also has something to do with the fact that I’m older and far more focused on getting the very specific, practical skills that fulfill concrete real-life job requirements than in taking any class that sounds interesting (“Ooooh, ‘Imagining the Polity in England, 1377-1422,’ that sounds neat!  I like Gower!!”).

All of this feeds into the question whether or not MSIS/MLIS degrees are practical, professional degrees and whether they should be required for librarian jobs.  In Texas, there’s been a lot of debate recently about whether or not librarians should have their masters degree, especially in cases like public school librarianship — is it really necessary for someone to have a masters degree in library science to serve as an elementary school librarian in Small Town, Texas?  There’s been a push to remove that requirement in some school districts lately, partly as a money-saving initiative — why pay someone twice as much for a masters when they can do the job just as well without it?  It also has to do with job creation and opening positions up to more people.

I can see both sides.  Of course, any MSIS/MLIS candidate is sure to say “But of course the MSIS/MLIS should be required!!” because I’m sure no one wants to admit that they’ve spent two years and thousands of dollars getting a special professional degree that is, ultimately, proved worthless — and I’m sure none of us want to be in competition with even more people for jobs.  But at the same time, I think there is a lot to be gained by opening up librarian jobs to more candidates, especially in school districts that might otherwise not be able to afford to staff their library.

This is also related to some discussions of subject librarianship that I have read recently which suggest that reference librarians for specific subjects (for example, business or medicine) should have a degree or a minor in that subject — with the implication that unless you’ve studied and somewhat specialized in that field, you can’t understand it well enough to adequately serve the needs of your patrons.  As someone who has worked in two specialist libraries and provided reference services for two subject areas very, very far outside her specialty, I have to admit the idea that I’m not good enough at providing reference services because I didn’t minor in mathematics or astronomy kind of gets my back up.  I think subject reference librarianship is composed of one part transferable research skills that can be gained in any field, and one part specialist knowledge that is learned on the job.  The suggestion that I should get another degree or minor in physics to properly serve the students at my PMA Library is a bit absurd.

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3 thoughts on “Graduate Studies: Frivolous? Necessary? Somewhere in-between?

  1. I’ve come across the professional/graduate split a lot in my time as a grad student, and personally I think it’s a problematic construction from the other direction, as well – if ‘normal’ grad students aren’t getting degrees to allow them to work in their chosen profession, what the hell are they doing? I don’t know many universities that would hire someone as a professor that doesn’t have a PhD, so effectively, it is a professional degree (but even writing that down, I can hear a million PhDs cry out at once and be silenced).
    I have to admit, I read through the 8-types-thing, and it actually really bothered me, just because it seemed to superficial. Yes, there are people like that in grad school, but in my experience, very few grad students (professional or academic) are frivolous. Especially if they’re in anything more than a year-long degree, that’s one hell of an investment of time and money just to seem cool or drink heavily. And as all research degrees are also professional degrees and we all want to get a job after, there’s also the problem that grad students are often very, very competitive, and often that bubbles up as claiming all other grad students are frivolous, or just there because they got funding, or there because they couldn’t hack it in the ‘real’ world.

    • These are all really brilliant points! Especially about the “professional” distinction. I’ve never meant to imply more research-based degrees aren’t “professional,” and ideally all degrees lead to a *profession,* I think it’s just that I think there is a big difference between academic jobs (in universities or think tanks or what have you) and jobs that don’t feature original research as a major component.

      And in defense of the some of the “8 Types,” I think as far as the “couldn’t hack it in the ‘real’ world” thing, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard (current and previous) coursemates, including at Oxford, who say they got their BA and couldn’t get full time work anywhere and decided to go to grad school. I’m sure they *could* “hack” it, but for whatever reason couldn’t find a job at the time — it just surprises me how often I’ve heard that, as I agree that if you’re going to make such a huge investment of time and money you should be doing it because you *really really* want to, not because it’s an alternative to unemployment.

      • There is definitely a big difference between academic and professional jobs, but I do think it’s also a division that’s partly artificially maintained – in part because academics don’t act like a profession (which is a rant you’ve heard me give before).

        I do know people who felt like they couldn’t ‘hack it’ in the real world, but oddly enough, they are never the ones that I think probably couldn’t ‘hack it’ – there are definitely academics that I don’t think should be allowed out in public. I think part of people going back to school is also that people think getting a higher degree will always improve their CV, which I’m not sure is really the case.

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