Thursday, September 17, 2015

Worrying About My Post-PhD Life, by Abigail Phillips


At the moment, I’m in the final months of working on my dissertation. This means writing and crying and writing (and if we’re being honest, whining sessions while drinking with fellow doctoral students). When I entered the PhD program, I had the lofty goal of becoming LIS faculty. Now, I’m uncertain. But why else would you get a PhD if not going tenure-tracked? Why don’t you want to work in academia? A not-to-be-named faculty member has asked me this question recently. Unfortunately, I’ve had a few eye-opening experiences while presenting and attending academic conferences. I’ve also had a few eye-opening experiences while living and breathing academia for the past three years. Articles like this one by Oliver Lee about leaving a self-proclaimed “best” tenure-track faculty job, or this one by Claire Shaw and Lucy Ward about the high rate of mental illness among academics, haven’t exactly encouraged me to seek out faculty positions for post-PhD life.

Instead, I’m wondering how or even if I can go back to public libraries. While working on my PhD, I’ve applied to a few librarian positions without much luck. Maybe I talked about my research too much. Maybe my local library system is tired of doctoral students abandoning positions once they graduate. There are a lot of other possible maybes. I honestly don’t know. Before entering the doc program, I worked for six years in a small, rural public library system in Southwest Georgia. First as a library assistant while I worked my MLIS and then as a librarian. I miss you, public library work. I miss you so much. But how can I express this to public library directors? How can I convince you that although I’m probably overqualified and definitely overeducated I still want to work in a library? What do PhD holders offer public and academic libraries? How do we apply to librarian positions?

Here’s where the “selling the PhD” part comes in. I think.

First, we’re trained researchers. We can construct, plan, and carry out an entire project essentially by ourselves (this is also called a dissertation). Often this research involves interviewing people, statistics, community assessments, marketing, and management (aka handling participants and doctoral committees). While academic librarians are known to conduct research, research by librarians is undervalued in public libraries. This is disappointing, because public libraries NEED research. They need more researchers researching them (this is me), but public librarians also need to be conducting research themselves. A recent post on this blog highlights the importance of research for public libraries. Research can mean many different things within the context of public libraries. A few examples: A lot of the wonderful work EveryLibrary does is research-based. Carrying out community assessments is a type of research. Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is research, which more libraries should know about and use (

Second, we are AMAZING at project management. We did complete a dissertation. Our levels of amazingness may vary, but at the very least we successfully defended our dissertation, which means we convinced a small group of people we can manage a project and write about it.

Third, we are trained instructors. We’ve taught and maybe even developed courses while working on our PhDs. Through teaching, we’ve learned the delicate balance of classroom management, lesson planning, evaluation, and incorporating technology into education.

Fourth, we are skilled presenters and great at self-marketing. Okay. Maybe. Maybe not. However, we have presented our research, our passion for libraries, and ourselves during conferences, class sessions, informal meetings, professional networking and weird conversations in bars.

Some final thoughts:

Librarians with PhDs have so much to offer the practitioner world of librarianship. We just have to figure out how to promote our degree as an advantage not a disadvantage. It sounds weird to say that having a doctorate opens a lot of doors, because it closes almost as many. I wonder if there are other LIS PhDers like me out there. We have experience in the field, working as librarians, but then we veered towards academia, and then veered (or are in the process of veering) away. This is another situation when I honestly don’t know the answer. For the most part, everyone around me still seems to be striving for a tenure-track position at a Research I (R1) university. I would love to hear from those who aren’t going that direction or who aren’t sure if they are!

Abigail Phillips is a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the School of Information at Florida State University. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on rural librarians as a source of support for rural cyberbullied young adults. She will defend her dissertation this spring, which means she will be graduating very, very soon and job-hunting in the meantime! You can find her on Twitter (@abigailleigh), her blog (, and Tumblr (


  1. Speaking as a hiring manager in a public library - I wouldn't necessarily rule you out if you had a Ph.D. as long as you could tell me all those above things in your cover letter. Just being honest - I'm looking for someone who's going to stay for a while, and someone who is not going to complain about the pay. Sometimes (not always) people who hold advanced degrees expect more pay, and the reality is we just cannot provide that. Depends on the library, of course, but there are times when public libraries can barely pay their director a living wage. This is a bigger issue when it comes to the MLIS and jobs, and of course I am only one person at one library, but I hope this helps you when it comes to your job search! Best of luck!

  2. Thank you, Cari! I really appreciate your feedback. This is very helpful! I worry that directors will think I'm seeking a librarian position as a "stand-in" until I find a faculty job. Which isn't how it works. Once you leave the academia pipeline, you're out for good. It's extremely hard to get back in once you leave. And honestly, faculty position don't pay as well as we're expected to believe. Maybe at top-ranked institutions or once you reach full professor status. Of course, the perks are great: small travel budget, flexible work schedule, etc. But I worry about doctoral students who think that getting a PhD automatically qualified them for a huge salary. That's just not true.

    Thank you again!

  3. I have a similar problem. I have a MLS (technically two due to transferring from a non-ALA program to another college's ALA-program), but I lack the experience to jump in to a public librarian position, so I've been applying to paraprofessional positions and worry that I'm being rejected due to my graduate degree. I'm not sure how to articulate to hiring managers that I would stay and not jump ship. It's been so long since I studied librarianship, I certainly do not have the skills to take on full librarian position at this point. Thanks for the post, Abigail, and good luck with your education and job search!

    1. It's a hard problem to figure out! I think (maybe) it's a mixture of interviewee personality, "right fit", and knowing how to massage your resumé/CV. I wish I had more words of wisdom, but we share so many of the same concerns. Good luck! Thank you for reading and replying!

  4. "...someone who is not going to complain about the pay..."

    The profession gets enough "be happy you have a job" propaganda from the outside. Is it necessary that library professionals have to preach this to each other? Yes, it is important to be realistic in your expectations and to be circumspect in making inquiries about pay before, during and after the job hunting phase of your career but being satisfied and complacent is a recipe for economic second class citizenship status. We all might be better off if all library professionals got a little agitated about low pay. And for those in management level jobs please remember the more your underlings are paid the more likely you will be compensated at a higher rate as well. A rising tide lifts all boats.

  5. This echos a lot of anxiety I hear about in the History realm (I try to keep one ear in even as I'm working as a librarian). PhD programs in History are turning applicants away because "there won't be enough tenure track jobs for them when they graduate". Of course this assumes that a PhD education exists only as a means for a job qualification, and that the only job desirable is the one your professor holds. Which, when you think about it, is pretty silly. Education is edifying. Aren't people in the humanities supposed to understand this?

  6. This is such a refreshing discussion. I'm nearing the end of my MLS and have been torn between focusing on public libraries or academic libraries as I really love research. It's so nice to hear the merits of research in the public sector, and to hear the praises of doing a PhD! Thanks for the clarity Abigaill.