Career Strategies for Librarians
Getting Started: Employment Opportunities for Graduate Students in Library and Information
by Charlie Potter and Shelly Franklin

Most librarians agree that library work experience is essential to scoring your first professional library
job. The number one question on many students’ minds is, “But how can I get experience without having
any experience?” Luckily, many opportunities exist for students interested in working in libraries. This
article will discuss the pros and cons of paraprofessional jobs, graduate assistantships, and
internships. We will also address strategies for finding and obtaining these kinds of jobs.

Paraprofessional Jobs  
There are many opportunities for students to work full-time in libraries as staff members. No matter
which type of library you decide to work in, paraprofessional work is a great way to get an insider’s view
of the profession. Many paraprofessionals do some of the same work that librarians do; therefore, a
paraprofessional position can offer the opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience.

Public and special libraries often have part-time paraprofessional jobs that fit nicely into a graduate
student’s schedule. Some of these jobs, like reference positions, might entail working directly with
patrons; others may be more behind-the-scenes, like cataloging, acquisitions, and library technology.
Some libraries even employ library students as librarians before graduation.

Working in an academic library while pursuing an MLIS can also be a great way to get experience that
will help you land that all-important first job. Most academic libraries are made up of many departments,
each of which has staff positions supporting the librarian(s) and the department’s operations. For
example, a large university library will likely have reference, access services, cataloging, acquisitions,
systems, and administration departments, as well as various branch libraries and special collections.
All of these departments have full-time support staff positions that usually only require a bachelor’s
degree. These positions can be a perfect starting point for your career in librarianship. Graduate
students working in staff positions are often afforded some scheduling flexibility.   

Many universities and some public libraries offer partial tuition reimbursement to full-time staff and
faculty.  For example, the University of Oklahoma covers half of the cost of tuition and fees for staff and
faculty enrolled in up to six credit hours. Some libraries also offer release time to employees attending
graduate school, which can be used to attend class or complete assignments.

Another perk of full-time paraprofessional work is that you really get to know how a library works. As a
staff member, you will often be included in departmental meetings and decision-making, which will
provide relevant experience for your first professional job. Also, learning about the work of various library
departments can help you decide what kinds of jobs you want to focus on in your coursework and when
you begin applying for your first professional position. For example, while working in acquisitions you
may discover that you don’t particularly like dealing with vendors, but that working with the public is quite
appealing. You might therefore want to consider a career in reference librarianship and can focus on that
while completing your MLIS and when applying for entry-level jobs. Moreover, working with professional
librarians can foster relationships that can aid you as a job seeker in the future.    

Although working full-time as a staff member at an academic library is not as common as working as a
graduate assistant, it can be a very fruitful arrangement. Work experience, reduced tuition, career
guidance, and professional connections are but a few of the advantages of working in a
paraprofessional capacity while attending graduate school. There are also disadvantages, however.
Working forty hours per week will leave you less time for your coursework and perhaps less of an
opportunity to conduct research. If you are looking to work in a full-time capacity or you are planning to
take your coursework slowly, paraprofessional work might be a good option for you.

Graduate Assistantships
Most universities offer graduate teaching or research assistantships for qualified MLIS students. These
positions can be highly competitive and usually require flexibility in terms of schedule. Generally,
graduate assistantships require ten to twenty hours of work per week in exchange for tuition remission
and a paycheck or stipend. Some schools offer assistantships at the time of admission; others have
assistantship opportunities available at the beginning of each semester. The size of the school in which
you enroll as well as the size of the community where your school is located have a great impact on the
availability of graduate assistantships. You can look for graduate assistantship opportunities on your
department or program’s website.

Graduate teaching assistantships take many forms. Most teaching assistantships require that you teach
credit-bearing courses in an undergraduate library-related program. Sometimes, positions are available
that involve assisting a professor with the grading, group discussion, or lectures in his or her classes. In
addition to teaching assistantships in your library school, you might also consider looking for
assistantships in your undergraduate degree area. Sometimes, especially if you already have a master’
s degree in that discipline, you might be able to find an assistantship outside of the library program in
which you are enrolled. If you are interested in these kinds of positions, be sure to consider what kind of
teaching load they require you to carry. Some programs will ask you to teach one course per semester,
while others might ask you to teach two. This should be a major consideration when applying for
teaching assistantships, especially if you have never taught before. The first year of teaching can be a
very time-consuming experience, and you don’t want to overload yourself. Plus, you want to be able to
focus on your own coursework.  

Research assistantships can vary greatly from program to program. In many cases, a research
assistant will assist a professor with his or her research. This can sometimes result in excellent
research and publication opportunities. Research experience is very valuable, especially to students
who hope to become academic librarians. Other research assistant positions might involve participation
in more administrative-type tasks in your library school; for example, you might be involved in
maintaining the school’s website. These types of positions are more likely to have set schedules for the
graduate assistant, as he or she will generally be working directly with a professor or administrator in
the program.

In addition to assistantships at your library school, assistantships can often be found at the university
library, even though there is no direct relationship between the library and the library school. For
example, you may be able to find a graduate assistantship in the reference, acquisitions, or interlibrary
loan department at the campus library. This type of arrangement is fairly common and can provide you
with invaluable on-the-job experience. The hours for these types of positions, especially public-services
jobs, can be erratic and may involve weekend or evening work. Some positions can offer opportunities to
take part in information literacy instruction; this is particularly useful experience with which to enter the
job market.

Overall, a graduate assistantship can be a very rewarding and useful experience. The benefits include
the opportunity to gain on-the-job library or teaching experience, the possibility of being involved in library-
related research, tuition remission, and generally flexible hours. Possible disadvantages include the low
level of pay compared with working a full-time position, the fact that the experience you gain may not be
considered professional-level by future employers, the temporary nature of the job (i.e., it won’t be
around once you graduate), the absence of summer employment opportunities (in many cases), and
possible evening and weekend work hours. If you have few obligations outside of your schoolwork and
are willing to be flexible with your work schedule, a graduate assistantship is a great idea, especially if
you are planning on working in an academic library upon graduation.  

Internships are a great way to get work experience while you’re in school. Unfortunately, most library
internships are unpaid. However, many internships can count toward your credit requirements for your
degree. Professors or administrators of MLIS programs generally arrange internships. If you are
interested in, say, archival work, contact the professor who teaches classes related to archives,
digitization, and preservation. He or she might be able to put you in contact with a local archivist who
would be willing to allow you to serve as an intern in his or her library. Internships are possible in virtually
every kind of librarianship, and they are a great way to learn something new about a type of work in which
you might be interested. Like graduate assistantships, internship hours are often more flexible than
those of paraprofessional work. In addition, interns are often trusted to do professional-level tasks. In
other words, just because you might not be paid as an intern does not mean that you won’t be doing
something specialized or important.  

The benefits of an internship include the opportunity to get hands-on experience in a specialized area of
librarianship, flexible hours, and the potential to earn course credit for your experience. The major
disadvantage of internship work is that it is generally unpaid or poorly paid, so you will likely have to hold
another job on top of your work as an intern. If you are interested in a specialized type of librarianship or
you are looking to gain work experience without having all of the commitments of a regular job, an
internship might be a good option for you.

Although juggling work and graduate school can be difficult, leaving your library program with work
experience is truly invaluable. In addition, working in a library will give you a better idea of what kind of
librarianship is right for you. Most importantly, flexible work opportunities exist for library students, and
who knows—the job you have in graduate school job may lead you to the career of your dreams!

About the Author:

Charlie Potter is a Reference Librarian and First-Year Experience Coordinator at the University of
Montana–Missoula. During graduate school, she held both professional and graduate assistant

Shelly Franklin is currently in her final semester of library coursework at the University of Oklahoma,
where she is employed as the Lending/Borrowing Supervisor in the interlibrary loan department.

Article published May 2007

Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in LIScareer articles are those of their respective authors and do not
necessarily represent the views of the LIScareer editors.