Hack Your Program: The University of Texas at Austin School of Information
02/06/2011 § 24 Comments
The above image is the philosophy of information science of the UT iSchool, one that manifests in its approach to curriculum and preparing students to enter the workforce. I began the program in the fall of 2010 and expect to graduate May of 2012. My decision to attend the UT iSchool was influenced by in-state tuition (my parents live in Texas), the reputation of the school, and the versatility of the program. I am kind of in love with the program, though it isn’t without its flaws. Needless to say, these opinions are strictly my own!
The UT School of Information (colloquially, the iSchool) was founded in 1948 and offered a Masters of Library Science. The School of Library and Information Science was founded in 1980 as a response to the increased focus on information science as a discipline and profession. To fully reflect the interdisciplinary focus of the program, in 2000 the school removed its Masters of Library Science and instead only offered a Masters of Information Science, which is what it still offers today. In 2002, the name of the school officially changed its name to the School of Information.
The UT iSchool offers two degrees: a Master’s of Information Science and a PhD.
The iSchool Master’s program prides itself on an interdisciplinary approach that combines the theoretical with the applicable, which is reflected in its coursework. The Master’s program requires 40 credit hours to graduate, 24 of which must be in the iSchool. The core requirements are currently in flux, with the incoming class having a different set of requirements than those already in the program. For those entering the program, the core courses are: Information in Social and Cultural Context, Perspectives on Information, and Understanding Research. For those currently in the program, we are subject to a somewhat more involved set of core requirements with 5 courses instead of 3: Understanding and Serving Users, Organizing Information, Managing Information Organizations, Introduction to Research in Information Science, and the nebulous Introduction to Information Science. Many students, myself included, are unhappy with the core requirements we have to complete: 5 courses is a lot, the focus is wildly different depending on the instructor, and they are often “blow-off” courses. The new core requirements do a good job of eliminating the more ambiguous courses (ahem, Introduction) and combining similar courses (such as Organizing and Users), but are so theoretical that it will likely take a few years before there is a consistent focus. In fact, some professors I’ve spoken to are a bit confused about what the courses are meant to be about.
Beyond the core courses, the only other mandatory course is a Capstone in the final semester. The Capstone can be an academic paper (either a thesis or a report) or an internship. Most students choose an internship and the career services coordinator does a wonderful job of advertising positions and helping you search. We are free to do just about anything for our Capstone so long as we can find a faculty advisor to support the project; in fact, we’re encouraged to find internships that either fulfill an interest we couldn’t otherwise fulfill with courses or supplement courses we’ve loved. I think the Capstone requirement is crucial for the program, giving students an opportunity to explore the discipline and expand their resumes.
There are three areas of study in the iSchool: Information Architecture, Librarianship, and Preservation and Archives. While there are no course requirements for these areas of study (though there are suggestions), there are many course offerings aligned with these area. In addition to those three areas, the iSchool offers 3 specializations which do come with their own set of requirements: a Certificate of Advanced Study (intended for individuals who already have a MIS or for students who want a little more coursework without a PhD), an Endorsement of Specialization (which allows a student to tailor his or her coursework), and a School Librarian Certification (the state of Texas requires all K-12 school librarians to be certified). Finally, the MIS program offers several dual-degrees with Women’s and Gender Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and a Juris Doctor.
The elective courses vary in subject matter, from reference services to information policy and law to programming. Everyone is encouraged to take a more “technical” course, with the most popular choices being Database Managment and Usability. I took digital media collections and web design and loved them both. There is a definite switch towards information architecture and digital studies in the course offerings which can leave us librarians feeling a bit left out; you just won’t find more “practical” library courses like Metadata and Description in the course guide anymore.
The Master’s program boasts an impressive U.S. News Ranking, rated #8 in Library and Information Studies, #1 in Preservation, #13 in Digital Librarianship, and #3 in Law Librarianship. Additionally, the program has a bit more competitive admission standard than other programs, admitting only about 50% of applicants in 2009.
Funding for the iSchool, like many other programs, is difficult to get. There are a few iSchool scholarships, the applications for which are due about the same time as the application, and Teacher’s Assistanceships, but those are both difficult to obtain. Because the iSchool is involved with many professional associations (see below), many funding opportunities exist within those organizations; for example, I was awarded a small grant from the Texas Library Association for the 2011-2012 school year. Because the iSchool is an ALA-accredited program, ALA scholarships are similarly available. If you are unable to find outside funding or need more help with tuition, the University of Texas offers in-state tuition after one year of residency, making tuition (relatively) affordable.
The iSchool is home to a few active professional groups: the ALA/TLA Student Chapter, Society of American Archivists, CHIPS, ASIS&T and ArTex, to name a few.
The iSchool JobWeb is one of the best information-related job search sites in the country (I’ve seen it listed as a resource for many different universities). In addition to round-the-clock access to the JobWeb, our career services director sends out weekly emails with job and internship opportunities, useful and interesting articles, and words of encouragement.
Though the iSchool only offers a few distance-learning courses in its offerings, it is a member of WISE (Web-based Information Science Education), a consortium of several top-tier information schools “to provide a collaborative, cost-effective distance education model that will increase the quality, access, and diversity of online education opportunities in Library and Information Science.” Basically, qualified students are admitted to WISE, which provides the opportunity to take really fantastic courses from member schools around the country for credit.
One of the biggest perks of the UT iSchool is its location. The Austin area is home to several universities including St. Edward’s University, Texas State University, Southwestern University, and Austin Community College. In addition to the Austin Public Library, the small town of Georgetown, Cedar Park, and Round Rock are nearby and have their own libraries with volunteer, internship, and employment opportunities. Finally, the UT campus is home to the world-renowned Harry Ransom Center, the Briscoe Center, the Blanton Museum of Art, and several libraries. If you’re looking for something in the for-profit world, Austin has Dell, Google, and about a dozen video game studios. Being in the Capitol isn’t all bad: in addition to having dozens of government employment opportunities, Austin has the Texas Film Commission and Texas State Library and Archives. If you can stand the heat, Austin is a great place to live.
Being an iSchool (as opposed to a library school), often the course offerings feel a little esoteric or unapproachable. While the faculty is committed to providing a well-rounded information program, students often complain that we leave without any good applicable skills. Increasingly, the curriculum is moving away from a traditional library curriculum and towards a information architecture one–a move which is understandable given that it is, after all, an iSchool, but frustrating for those of us who want to work in a library setting. Similarly, because the program is doubling up on core requirements in the Fall (due to half the program having new requirements), there are fewer elective offerings because the instructors are tied up teaching the cores. The curriculum is undergoing quite an overhaul, though, so time will tell how it evolves.
As the saying goes, it works if you work it. Course offerings vary in content, theory, and focus: you will find courses each semester that are challenging and exciting and fun (most of the time, in fact, you’ll have a hard time narrowing it down to a manageable course load). I’m sure once I’ve completed my degree, I will feel confident and prepared to begin my information career. Please contact me for more information about UT, the iSchool, or Austin!