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Career Strategies for Librarians
Tips from the Trenches:  How to Survive (and Even Enjoy) Distance Learning
by Jen Ferguson

Ah, spring! It’s that wonderful time of year when the earth starts thawing, the days start growing longer,
and glad tidings from graduate schools arrive in the mail. Perhaps some of you are gearing up to begin
a distance program in the near future. I can remember my excitement when I got the good news, as well
as the occasional feeling of terror at trying to add graduate school into the mix with an already busy
family life and career. Now that I’m in the trenches myself, I’m happy to say that it can be done. It
demands dedication and stamina, but it’s possible. You might even enjoy yourself!

In that spirit, I thought I’d share a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way. There are some ideas for
what to do before classes start to help ease the transition back to school and some suggestions for
helping the semesters go as smoothly as possible. I’ll close by mentioning a few things that have
surprised me about distance education.

Before You Begin

Do you fit the stereotype of the super-organized librarian? Now that you’ve received your acceptance
letter, are you chomping at the bit while you wait for your courses to begin? Here are a few things you can
do now to make your life a bit easier in the coming months.

Stockpile supplies.

I suggest getting the fastest printer you can afford, if you don’t already have a good, reliable model. Pick
up a couple of spare toner cartridges and a lot of paper. You will not believe how much printing you’ll do.
Case in point: I just plowed through a ream and a half of paper while printing out the assigned reading
for the first half of one of my spring courses.  

I’d also suggest getting a thumb drive to use for backups, especially if you’ll be traveling or working from
more than one computer. I do most of my coursework from home, and wireless Internet has really been
a lifesaver. Homework is a lot more fun when you can do it from the couch or the deck!

Consider your schedule.

Give some thought as to how things will work once you’re in school, especially if you’re fortunate enough
to have some job flexibility. Can you get any coursework done at your job? Are you planning to do all your
schoolwork on the weekends? Should you try rearranging your work schedule, or maybe even consider a
reduction in hours to free up time for school? It’s best to think these issues through as early as possible
in case you need to get management on board with your plan.  

Obviously, every situation will be different, but I’ll share what’s been working for me. I am lucky to have a
very flexible work schedule. I’ve arranged to have one full weekday at home without any distractions. I
spend this time on tasks that require focused concentration, like watching lectures, composing complex
or lengthy message board posts, and working on longer projects and papers. I’ve found that in addition
to this one long stretch of uninterrupted time, it’s helpful to also have several smaller chunks of time for
school. For example, I often do course reading and catch up on class message boards during my lunch
hour at work or while making dinner on weeknights.

I can’t stress enough the importance of having at least one scheduled period each week for coursework.
Having a scheduled time set aside for school—and keeping that time sacred—will go a long way
towards getting things done. Without that dedicated time, it’s all too easy to get wrapped up in daily life
and let school slide into last place on the priority list.

Brush up on computer skills if you’re rusty.

Schools often have minimum technology requirements for their entering graduate students. Scrutinize
these, and if you’re falling short in some area, now’s the time to get current! At a minimum, I’d say it’s
important to know enough HTML to be able to put together a basic website, in addition to being intimately
familiar with Word, PowerPoint, and perhaps a drawing program.

Familiarize yourself with relevant issues.

Finally, I suggest subscribing to a Listserv or two and reading some library blogs. It’s a great way to
learn about current events and glean the hot issues in the field that you’ll be discussing in your courses.
This is something I regret not doing before starting my program.

During the Semester

Here are some ideas to help keep your head above water once courses start.

Organization, self-motivation, and time management skills are the keys to success in distance learning.
If you can conquer those three things, you’re most of the way there!

Get a jump on things. Order any texts before the semester begins. Get the syllabi for your classes as
soon as possible. If the syllabus is not yet available online, a nicely worded email to the professor will
often yield a copy. Before the semester really gets going, I suggest writing all course deadlines and due
dates on a calendar. Include the deadlines for next semester’s course registration; popular classes can
fill up quickly, and it’s hard to keep registration in mind when dealing with the demands of the current
semester. You can even start printing your required reading before courses begin. (Did I mention that
you won’t believe how much time you spend printing?)

Falling behind is deadly in a distance program, especially falling behind on your reading. There is a LOT
of reading. I have a master’s degree in biology and thought I did quite a bit of reading for that degree—
ha! When you're reading 100 pages or more per course per week, getting even a little bit behind can be
like getting mired in quicksand. I try to keep a week ahead on course readings. It’s been a huge help
when the inevitable real-life crises pop up.

Another reason to finish things ahead of time: technology has a way of failing when you need it most.
Internet connections go down, databases go offline, laptops refuse to boot, power outages happen on
either end … be prepared. Having backups and submitting projects with at least a few hours to spare
will alleviate most potential problems.

Round out online learning with contact with real-life librarians. This will be easy for those already
working in the field; for those entering from a different career, more creativity and initiative may be
needed. Luckily, librarians are very approachable folks, and I’ve learned a lot about what different
librarians do (and what I might like to do after graduation) just by talking with them. Graduation and job-
hunting may seem a long way off, but the more networking you can do, the better. You may need to find a
good place to do an internship, and the contacts you make now will help you find those opportunities.

While it is very important to rest and recharge during school breaks, it’s also wise to invest some of that
time in your future career. School breaks are great times to update your website (you can add projects
completed in the previous semester to your online portfolio), volunteer at a library, talk informally with
local librarians working in the areas you're interested in, attend meetings and conferences, and catch up
on reading the library discussion lists and blogs that you couldn't get to while you were swamped with
coursework.

Following a friend’s suggestion, I attempt to designate at least one day per week to be 100%
schoolwork-free. I first tried this tactic last semester and found that it worked wonders to keep me from
getting too burned out.

Here’s my best advice in a nutshell. Work ahead as much as possible: this will help you keep on top of
things when the inevitable crunches come in the form of work, life, or other courses.

Surprises

A few things have surprised me about distance learning. The coursework is not generally difficult, but it
is incredibly time consuming. As new students, we were told to expect to put in about ten hours of work
per week for each class. I scoffed a bit at that figure at the time, but you know what? Between reading,
keeping up with course message boards, and watching lectures, not to mention actually doing
assignments and writing papers, I think that figure is a pretty accurate reflection of my experience.  

One thing I was looking forward to about distance learning was the ability to set my own pace. I
assumed that I’d be able to speed through things that were easy for me while spending more time on
concepts I found difficult. In my experience, that has not really been the case. My courses have been
much more deadline-driven than I expected, and there has been more time pressure than I anticipated.
There is still generally the opportunity to work ahead a bit (which is a lifesaver if you have, say, a trip
coming up), but classes move so quickly that there isn’t much extra time to spend revisiting prior topics.

You can’t hide online! Confession time: I was always one of those students who sat near the back of the
class, didn’t actively participate, and just absorbed. You can’t really do that online. Participation in the
course boards is carefully monitored, often counting for a fairly significant chunk of the final grade. Plus,
the more you participate in the discussions, the more you’ll learn about the field.

My program includes much more group work than I expected. While working with different kinds of
people is a great way to cultivate leadership and teamwork skills, it can also present an interesting set of
challenges. Everyone can probably  remember suffering through some less-than-ideal group learning
experience; now imagine a group project situation in which that group doesn't ever meet face to face and
may be scattered across the globe. It can be hard to discuss topics with a time delay, and it can rather
scary to rely on someone several time zones away to deliver his or her promised piece of the project.
Luckily, I’m happy to report that I've had great experiences in my group work thus far.

I hope you’ve found some of my tips helpful. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a course message board to
read.

About the Author:

Jen Ferguson is a distance student in the MSLIS program at Syracuse University. She lives in suburban
Boston and currently works as a molecular biology research assistant at Wellesley College.

Article published Mar 2007

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