Newsletter of the Association of Library and Information Science Students (ALISS)




 title of the newsletter: The Silverfish


January 2004

Vol VIII Issue I

ischool logo
Information School
University of Washington
About the Silverfish
Editorial Board
Submission Guidelines
Current Issue


Next article >>

So You Say You Want to Be a Doctoral Student...

By John Glover
Snow is swirling outside the window, the break is over, and you're once again ensconced by the fire in your favorite reading nook. Since the quarter is newly begun and your spirit has yet to be crushed by endless reading and group work, the thought occurs to you – just what am I going to do after I've graduated? “Why, of course,” you think, “I'll just continue my idyllic, carefree lifestyle through into a Ph.D. program. After all, it can't be that different from the MLIS, can it?”

First-year doctoral student Lisa Nathan would beg to differ, likening the doctoral process to “four years of a hurricane” in which one's life outside school shrinks to almost zero. Nathan ought to know about hurricanes, having worked for years as a boat captain in the Virgin Islands before entering the discipline. While doing library-focused Master's work at Simmons College, she went to an ASIS&T conference and had her eyes opened to the kind of research that was being done in information science. It led her to think seriously about doctoral level work.

“You've got to be clear on your goal,” she says. “People will ask and want to know.” Nathan came to UW's program because she wanted research experience and training, enough to allow her to produce truly well-designed work. When asked what makes a good Ph.D. student, Nathan pauses for a moment and replies that “good students are perfectionists. It makes it tough, because the same qualities that make you a good student drive you absolutely crazy. ”

A Ph.D. program can be many things. “For the wrong person, it's a train wreck,” says Joe Janes, Associate Professor and Chair of Library and Information Science. “Three days in, some people quit.” But not all is gloom and doom, and Janes is quick to point out that he is very happy with where he has landed. “I can't imagine my life any way other than what it is.” To this he adds that “what I did then, I'll treasure my whole life.”

When committee members at the iSchool begin screening applicants for the next year's crop of Ph.D. students, they look for people who are researchers first and foremost, says Janes. People who are engaged by the idea of research as a career, primarily in an academic setting, are the ones who tend to make the grade. There are many other factors that come into play, from the likelihood that the applicant might be a good fit with the program to whether or not he or she displays any idea of what scholarly research is.

“It opens and it closes doors,” says Janes. “It will make you almost unemployable as a librarian.” When considering a Ph.D. program, he says, you have to know what you're in for from the beginning. Because there is no universal undergraduate degree in the field, the MLIS (or equivalent) is the heart of the discipline; there is no further general study to be done beyond it. Leaning forward in his seat, Janes drops his trademark boisterousness and says quietly, “the Ph.D. is for research, not just for the intellectually restless.”

Where does this leave the LIS student who is still trying to figure out whether a doctoral program might be right, who hasn't really developed a strong research agenda and wants to know if he or she might be the sort of person likely to do something with such an agenda once it has been developed? What sort of traits are good for doctoral students to have in general? “This is going to sound trite, but... wanting to know more about the field, explore the field, and learn about things we don't know very well,” says Phil Edwards, a first year doctoral student who recently graduated from the University of Michigan. Any other clues? “You have to be able to look at a problem at varying levels of abstraction, down to a researchable question, but also being aware of broader implications.”

All of this began for him because of a class he took in the literature of chemistry as an undergraduate at Buffalo. The process has stayed fresh for Edwards thus far in graduate school, as reflected by the evolution his interests have undergone. Although he still maintains ties to the world of science librarianship, his focus has shifted significantly. “Digital reference is an area I would never have thought I'd be involved in four years ago,” he says. As to where it will take him next, he's working on a variety of topics and projects, but an understandably major part of the process will be the dissertation. When asked what he sees dissertations as being all about, Edwards replies that “a dissertation is a snapshot of a researcher's abilities, methods, and interests at one point in time.”

That same dissertation research, combined with the teaching he does here, are like meat and drink to Steve DelVecchio, now in his third year in UW's doctoral program. This program has been very beneficial to his development as a scholar. “The group here is very supportive of each other,” he says. As to how it compares with Master's level work, he cautions that “there are too many things to do, but people come up with ways to manage it happily and productively.”

DelVecchio came to UW with an already impressive resume, including a ten-year stint at New York Public Library. He enjoyed the years before the doctoral program, when he both taught and worked in the private sector, but as he says, “I had long-term interests in teaching LIS, and wanted to devote time to writing, research, and teaching.” When asked what sort of questions potential doctoral students ought to ask themselves, he suggests asking “are you genuinely interested in research?” Because of the research orientation, DelVecchio feels that students should try to go someplace where their own interests are supported and where they can be sure of being able to pursue their own research agendas.

Now, as you sit by your window, the fire having gone out and the snow having long since turned to gray-brown slush, you've had time to think about whether you want to make a run for the Ph.D. and the accompanying riches and fame. Apparently, the question is not so much whether you want to enter a doctoral program, but whether there is something that you want to investigate, some question that you keep coming back to in your readings and the papers that you are writing. Can you imagine discussing it with your colleagues for a number of years? Thinking about it until you have, quite literally, become one of the most knowledgeable people in the field on the subject? By all reports, entry into a Ph.D. program is not a step to be taken lightly, but is one that brings great rewards for those who have the necessary intellectual orientation and fortitude to take it.

Additional Resources

When asked where to go for further information about determining whether or not to enter a Ph.D. program, interviewees gave several suggestions. Robert L. Peters' Getting what you came for: the smart student's guide to earning a Master's or a Ph.D. was cited a number of times. The iSchool's very own Associate Dean of Research, Harry Bruce, wrote on the subject a few years back in “The PhD process – torture, tension, and triumph” (Education for Library and Information Science: Australia. 15(2), 1998, 57-60). Finally, Assistant Professor Wanda Pratt has written a “Graduate School Survival Guide,” which can be found right here in the “Advice” section and is applicable to graduate students at all stages of their careers.