Last night, I was lucky to have dinner with a professor of mine from grad school. I’ve been feeling a bit homesick lately, in a way that has nothing to do with wanting to be somewhere else and everything to do with craving familiarity. It was just what I needed to see a face I know and trust, and we had a wonderful evening.
Among other things, she asked if I felt that the program at University of Michigan prepared me for my job. I told her that I was very well prepared for my job, but with the stipulation that I was an extremely proactive student. I am often frustrated by people who think that education is a passive process. There is no program anywhere that is exactly perfect in its entirety for every student. I read and hear a lot of complaining by library school students about how their program is falling short or even failing them. Criticism is necessary for programs to change and continue to be relevant, but students are ultimately responsible for their own education, especially at a graduate level. Ask for what you want from your program, but be prepared to get it another way. Sometimes going off-road requires sacrifice, but it will pay off in the end. You cannot simply show up to class and expect a good result.
Here are some pro-tips from my experience for getting the best out of grad school:
- I knew what I wanted. I went into graduate study with intent. Before I even accepted at position at the University of Michigan, I had done my research not only into the different options for getting an ALA accredited degree but also into the field of libraries. I did job shadowing at 3 different places before the ink on my application was dry. I wanted to fully understand what it meant to be a librarian and in what kind of library I would be happiest. One of these job shadowing experiences led to an unpaid summer internship before I even started school. I got no school credit, no money, and I commuted 1.5 hours one way twice a week, but the experience was completely invaluable. In contrast to other students who didn’t really know why they were in graduate school but were hoping to find out, I walked through the doors on the first day of class with a direction.
- I read job ads religiously. I cannot overstate how important this was to my education. At the beginning of graduate school, all of the requirements in job ads looked completely overwhelming. I felt like I would never be qualified. As the semesters went by, I was able to understand how classes that looked less relevant on the surface could contribute to the knowledge and skills required by the ads, and I was able to direct my class choices and internships to address the gaps I noticed in my skill set.
- I said yes. I talked briefly before about saying yes when talking about starting a new job. The “yes” is metaphorical, mostly, but it can also be reality. Be interested. Be excited. Don’t let others bring you down. Say yes to office hours, to study groups, to being an officer in a student organization. Say yes to that intriguing project that you know nothing about but that makes you think. Saying yes isn’t a blanket to pull over legitimate questions or a push off the high dive but rather an attitude of positivity and making the best of it. Say yes.
- I went the extra mile. Have a paper or project that you spent a lot of time on for class? Turn it into a workshop, presentation, or poster and find an avenue to show it off. There are plenty of opportunities at local and national conferences, webinars, or even student-run conferences. Often, there is support available from your program to help with costs, but you have to get accepted first. You may even find the opportunity to present as professional development to faculty and staff within your school or university. Need to design a poster for a class presentation? Take the opportunity to move beyond a tri-fold, scissors, and construction paper. Design and print a poster in a program like InDesign. Not only will your poster look super professional, but you will have learned the basics of designing a conference level poster and you’ll be able to put “graphic design” and “InDesign” on your resume and a jpeg of the final design on your portfolio website. And that in-class poster presentation? Treat it as professionally as if it was at a conference. Consider it free practice.
- I kept an open mind, even when it was hard. Neither life nor grad school is all puppies and rainbows. Plans will fall through. You might not get that incredible internship that would be absolutely perfect. Be prepared for plan B, and be prepared to make the most of it. Those classes you hate? Those classes that really aren’t your thing but you’re stuck with it? There is still something to be learned, even if it’s just the ability to talk somewhat intelligently with the people whose thing it is. The world of information is vast and deep and it is no longer ok to ignore the parts you wish would disappear. You need to know a little bit about everything, even those things you dislike.
The most important piece of advice I can pass on is something we tell our students all the time. Ask. Just ask. Ask for what you need. Ask often and ask repeatedly. Ask administrators and professors. Ask other students. Ask the blogosphere. Ask local libraries and organizations. Go out and get what you need. It’s your education, after all, and you’re in charge of it.