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Career Strategies for Librarians
To Cohort or Not to Cohort: An Essential Question to Ask When Considering an Online MLS Program
by Maureen Gaspari

A prospective library student searching for the right school to attend faces many questions.  What type of
program will be best for me?  Do I enroll in an in-state or out-of-state program?  Should I apply to a state
or private school?  Will I enroll in an online or on-campus program?  These are all questions I had to ask
myself when I began applying to MLS programs a year ago.  Distance education is growing in popularity,
as more and more students each year are choosing to enroll in online programs due to flexibility,
location, and cost.  I too decided that an online MLS program would be the most beneficial choice for
me.  Once I decided to apply for a distance education program, I breathed a sigh of relief. However, I
soon realized that there is another question that those interested in distance education programs have
to ask themselves: to cohort or not to cohort?  

I Have to Decide What?  Clarifying Cohorts

The term cohort can be defined as a group of people gathered together for a purpose.  A cohort in the
distance education sense is used to describe a group of students who move through an educational
program together.  Students in a distance education cohort program usually progress through the same
courses together in a specified sequence each semester and over time develop an online community.  
These students begin the program collectively and graduate collectively.  Cohort programs put an
emphasis on the importance of interpersonal relationships and on the support that can be achieved
from interacting with the same individuals throughout a distance education program.   

How Do I Know If a Cohort Program is Right for Me?

Because distance education MLS degrees are becoming more common, discussions now seem to
focus less on whether they are credible and more on what can be expected from an online program.  
The debate on enrolling in an off- or on-campus program continues to be prevalent, but with so many
choosing a distance education program, a new question is emerging:  do I want to earn my online
degree by enrolling in a cohort or non-cohort program?  Having just finished my first quarter at Drexel
University, I was faced with this question not too long ago.  I was accepted into three online MLS
programs, two of which were cohorts.  When applying to these programs, I naively thought very little
about the cohort aspect.  Until faced with the task of choosing among the three programs, I didn’t even
know this was something I would really need to take into account.  After much consideration, I decided
not to enroll in a cohort program, but it was not an easy decision.  During the process, I discovered
advantages and disadvantages to cohort programs that had never been brought to my attention.  A
cohort program can be ideal for some and disastrous for others.  It truly depends on where you are in life
and what you want to get from the program.  “Is a cohort program right for me?” may seem like a simple
issue to address, but the type of distance education program you select can have significant effects on
your happiness in an MLS program.  There are several questions to consider when making such a
choice.

How Flexible Do You Want Your Program to Be?   

A cohort program usually locks you into a track when you are accepted.  This means that your schedule
is predetermined for your program.  The classes you will take and the semester in which you will take
them in will be presented to you when you are accepted.  This option does decrease the stress of
scheduling and the trauma of desperately trying to get into a class that just filled up.  In a cohort program
you are guaranteed a spot in the classes you need at the time you need them and are usually
automatically enrolled each semester.  Being locked into a schedule has its advantages, but on the
other hand, you are locked into a schedule.  Most cohort programs do not offer flexible scheduling.  A
cohort program often waits for no one; it is by definition “a collective group.”  If an individual needs to take
some time away from school for personal reasons, or if one does poorly in a class, the cohort continues
on. In these cases, students who fail a course or are unable to complete a class are often forced to drop
out of the program because the group needs to move on to new courses the next semester.  Since a
cohort moves as a group, a student often cannot retake a class and must therefore re-enroll in the
program when the next cohort begins.

How Sure Are You of Your Professional Goals?   

Have you asked yourself what your career goals are?  Do you want to be a systems librarian, work in
youth services, or become a school media specialist?  Do you see yourself in an academic, public, or
corporate setting?  What if your professional goals change while you are in school, and you want to
specialize in a different area?  What if you want to pursue an internship or full-time job during your
studies?  These are questions you have to ask yourself.  It you are unsure of which path you want to take,
a cohort may not be the best option.  You may want to apply instead to graduate programs that allow you
to begin with required courses and add electives as you determine the path you will pursue.  In a cohort,
everyone is required to take the same courses, so you usually can’t pick and choose classes and there
are few or no electives.  If you already know the area of librarianship that you want to pursue or are
looking for a broad view of many different aspects of librarianship, it may be beneficial to look for a cohort
program that offers what you want.   

How Quickly Do You Want to Complete the Program?   

The amount of time it takes to complete a graduate program may not be a big concern to some, but to
others it can play a large role in determining which school to attend.  I was financially secure enough to
work part-time while going to school on a full-time basis.  I am taking three to four classes per semester,
but had I decided to enroll in one of the cohort programs, I would have only been able to take two
classes at a time.  The pace I have set for myself will allow me to finish a full year earlier than the cohort
programs I considered. Cohorts are, however, often considered to be done at an accelerated pace.  For
people who are working full-time while attending school, two classes can be a hefty course load.  
Therefore, a cohort may be a good option for them.   

Do You Thrive on Diversity or Prefer a Close-knit Community?

One of the biggest arguments in support of a cohort program is that it fosters close relationships among
those in the cohort and provides a support group.  A cohort provides maximum interaction between
students as they move through a program together and offers a ready-made professional network upon
graduation. However, if you thrive on diversity, you may grow tired of working with the same people and
hearing the same classmates’ points of view each semester.  Although a cohort may consist of a
diverse group of individuals, the opportunity to meet new students each term is absent.   

Finding the Right Fit

To cohort or not to cohort?  Both options have their advantages and disadvantages, so it is wise to study
the pros and cons of each before making a decision about which MLS program to enter.  One type of
program is not better than another, but one may be a better fit based on your personal academic needs
and objectives.  If you decide to pursue an online degree in library science, seriously consider what you
want out of an MLS program, ask yourself the questions discussed in this article, and then narrow down
the schools that offer the courses and learning environment that will best meet your career goals.        

About the Author:

Maureen Gaspari is enrolled in Drexel University’s MSLIS online program.  She received her bachelor’s
degree from West Chester University and has recently become a new member of ALA, NJLA, and Drexel-
SLA.  She currently works part-time as a library associate in the Burlington County Library System in New
Jersey and hopes to become a children’s librarian.  

Article published Feb 2007

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