PhDs in the Library

Dr. Amy Chen

Dr. Amy Chen is the Special Collections Instruction Librarian and Interim English and American Literature Librarian at the University of Iowa. Her Twitter handle is @AmyHildrethChen.

Looking over Dr. Amanda Visconti’s CV before her talk at the University of Iowa a few weeks ago, I realized that part of her success as a tenure-track Digital Humanities (DH) Assistant Professor and DH Specialist Librarian derives from her background. Dr. Visconti received an MS degree in Information prior to obtaining her PhD degree in Literature/Digital Humanities.

So does it matter that Dr. Visconti has both the MS and the PhD degrees? The truth is that obtaining an information science degree may not be necessary in every case for future digital humanities faculty and/or librarians, but it does allow candidates more flexibility on the job market.

I believe Dr. Visconti’s MS degree helped her in four ways:

  1. It highlighted her commitment to a professional orientation beyond a tenure-track job in a literature department. While Dr. Visconti does not have one of the most common library degrees, the Master in Library and Information Science (MLIS) or the Master of Library Science (MLS), her Information MS can perform the same role as these degrees do by formally expanding her identity.
  2. It added value to her Literature/Digital Humanities PhD. The Information MS degree is for students who might wish to work in a variety of settings, including the technology industry. As Visconti went on to have her PhD cross-listed in Literature and the Digital Humanities (DH), she was able to take the broader understanding of technology she acquired from her master’s degree and apply it to the research she was doing for her PhD, increasing her academic exposure to digital methods.
  3. It allowed her to be a more sophisticated doctoral student in Literature. With her first degree behind her, Visconti was better informed when she needed to research graduate schools and choose a mentor. This savviness also allowed her to be better positioned to reshape the paradigm of what the dissertation looked like, and to be able to advocate for her work.
  4. It gave her better timing on the job market. Dr. Visconti got her “additional” certification first. For doctoral students interested in library or DH careers, contemplating—while taking coursework, studying for exams, or writing dissertations—the pursuit of an additional degree can be overwhelming. But waiting until after graduating to consider this possibility can be even worse: at some point, a newly-minted PhD needs to earn a living wage, establish a family, settle down geographically, or simply leave her student days behind. Rather than finding a master’s program to professionalize her doctorate credential, Visconti carried her professional orientation into her PhD research, empowering her literary analysis while also giving her more options on the job market.

Writing this as an academic librarian—I am currently the Special Collections Instruction Librarian and Interim English and American Literature Librarian at the University of Iowa—without an additional master’s degree, I can’t approach Visconti as a model of how to pursue a career in libraries because she is relatively exceptional.

It’s not just that she holds two degrees, but that the order in which she obtained them is important. Acquiring additional credentials so as to move into a different career track after graduating with a doctorate is a much more complicated undertaking, although certainly not impossible, as my career proves. To acknowledge this reality is not to make Visconti’s new role at Purdue seem any less exciting, or to suggest that her research is any less avant-garde, but it does concede that her experience is difficult for many students currently enrolled in PhD programs to emulate.