Career Strategies for Librarians
Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Getting a Second Master’s Degree*
*but were afraid to ask
by Jennifer Starkey
Many personal and professional considerations factor into the decision to pursue an advanced degree
in addition to the MLS. I hope that this article will provoke discussion about library education and subject
expertise. But even more importantly, I hope that this article provides librarians who are considering
entering a master’s program a more complete disclosure of the costs and benefits.
Career Advancement Potential
The most obvious reason to earn a second master’s is the potential for career advancement. (OK, and
the potential for more pay, but I will talk about that later.) Let’s start with public library careers. In public
librarianship, a well-chosen second master’s degree may prepare you for library management or
director positions. A master’s in public policy or public administration will set you apart from other
management or director candidates. Of course, you should be aware that it may also price you out of the
market for some public library jobs, especially in smaller communities. If you are interested in public
library leadership or management, a master’s in public administration is no substitute for experience,
but it can certainly enhance your job qualifications.
In academic library jobs such as subject specialist, supervisory, or library management positions,
employers often prefer (and sometimes require) a second master’s degree. If you aspire to a
management or subject specialist position, then a second master’s will help you get the job you want.
Even for non-specialist positions like mine, employers often prefer a second master’s degree.
Academic institutions tend to view librarians with a subject master’s as having greater depth as
scholars. In other words, a second master’s can indeed lead to better job offers.
Considering your professional goals is the most important first step toward a decision. What is your
ideal job? Where do you want to live? What are some of your strengths and interests? For most newer
librarians, the answers to these questions are a moving target. Most of us don’t have clear answers to
these questions, but it’s essential to do some serious soul-searching if you are indecisive about a
second master’s. Do you aspire to a career in management or administration? Can you see yourself
as a subject specialist at a large university? Are you in a tenure-track position, or do you anticipate
having a tenure-track position in the future? If you answer “yes” or “maybe” to any of these, a second
master’s can help you get the job you want or advance in the job you have. And let’s not forget that a
second master’s degree usually means a higher salary.
However, a librarian can be successful in a tenure-track position or in public library administration
without a second master’s. It could help grease the wheels, but it is not a prerequisite for success. That
is precisely why this is such a difficult decision. Depending on your professional goals, you might be
perfectly successful and professionally satisfied without an additional degree. Ask yourself: How much
more incremental success, salary, and professional satisfaction would this degree bring me? Is it worth
the cost in time, money, and energy?
Beyond the professional benefits, a second master’s can also be very fulfilling for you on a personal
level. Is there an area of study that could satisfy your intellectual curiosity? Have you always wondered
about how the human mind works or how the world has changed as a result of globalization? Librarians
are generally inquisitive and curious; do not feel constrained to make a decision based only on practical
applications of a second master’s. If it fits with your goals, you might study a subject for no other reason
than to learn more about it.
However, a decision to enter a second master’s program could add stress to your personal life. How
would it affect your family or your relationships? Would it steal your time away from your children or
spouse? If you choose to go to school full-time, would you and/or your family have enough income? If
you go part-time, would you work full-time and take classes on the side? Is this the best time for you to
start school? Unless you have tenure requirements to meet, there is no deadline. If you are not fully
committed to the idea, then you may want to wait until work or life circumstances change. Keep in mind
that if you take one class at a time, it could take three to six years to complete a program. The time spent
working toward a degree may impinge on the time you have to attend professional meetings or to
engage in active scholarship (such as research and writing) in the library field. You will have to make
some sacrifices to make time for classes; how would you do that?
Beyond the practical benefits of career advancement, easing the tenure process, and increasing your
marketability, there may be less tangible benefits. In many communities, public library directors and
high-profile people are integrally tied with community governance. A second master’s may therefore
enhance your status in the community and improve your credentials for participating in community public
life. It may provide you a wider knowledge base, giving you a broader perspective on policy decisions
and the responsibilities of public library leadership. Academic libraries commonly use a liaison system
for communicating with academic departments. Subject expertise will strengthen your ability to
communicate with the departments you work with and may earn you a higher level of credibility and
respect. That department may be more eager to have you provide library instruction for their students or
may even partner with you in teaching a for-credit research methods course. It may even lead to
opportunities to teach courses in the department.
The MLS is really a professional degree (emphasizing practice), not an academic degree (emphasizing
scholarship). Most bachelor’s degrees provide a broad, general education, while master’s degrees
offer greater depth into a single field. It could be argued, then, that librarians without subject master’s
degrees have not had the experience of studying an academic discipline (as opposed to a professional
field) in any significant depth. Depth of scholarship in any field will give you greater insight into the
language and practices of that field. That knowledge can enhance your collection development skills
and can help you understand the challenges that students are facing when they approach you at the
reference desk. And, of course, a second master’s could help promote your image among your
colleagues as a true academic rather than administrative staff.
First, you must consider whether to go back to school full-time or part-time. The main benefits of going
back full-time are completing the program sooner and being eligible for financial assistance, including
graduate assistantships and teaching assistantships. Part-time students are usually ineligible for
these positions. If you are currently enrolled in an MLS program or if you plan to get an MLS, you might
want to investigate dual-degree programs, where you would work toward two master’s degrees
simultaneously. This could be much easier, because it can be much more difficult to imagine being a
student again after you have been away from school for some time.
If you decide to return to school part-time, you should find out how supportive your supervisor or library
director is, and talk with him or her about the possibility of working around your course schedule. To
minimize the burden on your work schedule, you could seek out programs that offer evening classes, or
summer classes if you are in a library that is less busy during the summer. Use caution when bringing
up the issue with supervisors or library directors, however, because your interest in a second master’s
degree could be interpreted as a desire to leave your current position. Most libraries would be
supportive of your decision, but be aware that you may encounter resistance.
Graduate school is not cheap. If you currently have a job, find out whether your employer offers any
tuition benefits. If you are employed by a university, is there a discount on tuition rates for employees?
Keep in mind that having a second master’s degree may not have much impact on your salary. Most
jobs that require a second master’s tend to have slightly higher salaries, but your current employer may
not be willing to increase your salary when you complete the degree. Those of us who already have a lot
of student debt need to think seriously about how the costs and benefits compare.
In some recent discussions on NEWLIB-L about the monetary value of an additional degree, some list
contributors thought that the difference in salary was negligible. When I look over job ads, it seems to
me that positions that require a subject master’s tend to pay more. Recently someone posted on a
listserv that they estimated a second master’s to be worth about an extra $1,000 a year. Whether that is
or isn’t true, the monetary payoff of a second master’s degree is not great enough to make salary the
only reason to get a second master’s. The decision should be made through consideration of personal
goals and career goals.
A Master’s in What?
Most librarians have broad intellectual interests, so choosing a subject for a second master’s is like
being hungry at a buffet where you can only pick one food. The most important thing is to choose
something that you are passionate about and that will sustain your interest and energy for years. If there
is a remote possibility that you might change careers in the future, consider a degree that would prepare
you to work in another field that interests you. You might want to take into account the job outlook for that
field. Look at job ads in American Libraries or The Chronicle of Higher Education to see what types of
degrees employers are looking for. A carefully chosen degree can make a big difference in whether your
resume ends up at the top or the bottom of a stack. Some of the more desirable subjects for a second
master’s degree include natural and physical sciences, engineering, public administration, business,
law, and educational technology. These are just a few of the specializations that seem to be in demand
in our field right now.
I hope that you now have a clearer picture of the many things you need to consider while deciding
whether a second master’s program is right for you. If you are struggling with the decision, you may
want to investigate the many mentoring programs for librarians that are available, or talk with librarians
in positions like the ones you are interested in. You can also talk with other newer librarians who are
thinking about this issue through discussion groups like NEWLIB-L or NEXGENLIB-L. Trust yourself.
You’ll make the right decision.
About the Author:
Jennifer Starkey is a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Alma College in Alma, Michigan. She has
been thinking about getting a second master’s degree, but she has not yet made up her mind.
Article published Dec 2006
Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.