Hack Your Library School Application – Pratt SILS

04/08/2011 § 6 Comments

John Tomlinson

John Tomlinson

John Tomlinson is an MLIS candidate at the Pratt Institute in New York City (degree expected in December 2011), and communications manager at Synergos, a nonprofit organization that fights poverty around the world. He’s also website manager for SLA@Pratt, a student chapter of the Special Libraries Association. He’s realized that library school exacerbates many of his neuroses, and is now trying to really own those neuroses rather than fight them. JT has mainly lived in the Northeastern US, and also spent a couple of years working in China. He has a BA in East Asian Studies from Harvard College and an MA in International Relations from Yale University.

It may sound silly, but the main reason I went back to school was for intellectual stimulation – I’ve worked at the same place (a small, global nonprofit organization) for more than 15 years and was a little bored. I also was interested in learning more about knowledge management, which would be useful in my job. And I’ve always loved books and classification schemes.

So I toyed with the idea of going back to school for a few years, and when the economy turned bad I decided I’d apply in case I got laid off and needed something to do for a few years. As it happened, I wasn’t laid off, and went to school part-time when I got in.

I only applied to one library program – for an MLIS at Pratt’s School of Information and Library Science – because I wanted to go to school in Manhattan, where I live and work.

Before applying I went to an open house at the school. The dean made the courses sound interesting, and also made some comments about strong job prospects that were perhaps a bit of a stretch. Still, what she said about the skills of librarianship being useful in many situations was certainly true, even if jobs in libraries themselves are growing scarce. Just as importantly, the mix of potential students in the room gave a very positive vibe – they seemed really smart and diverse – and I got the impression that the faculty was diverse and interesting too.

I don’t know why I didn’t apply to St. John’s; I think I had the (somewhat mistaken) impression that classes would be in Queens. Queens College and Rutgers were too far. I looked more seriously at getting an MS in Business Computer Information Systems at Baruch, which is a few blocks from my office, and went to an open house there. That would have been much cheaper, and the campus has impressive facilities. However, that program was too finance/business-oriented for me. The large student body also made it seem like a less “cozy” place to be than Pratt.

I was confident I’d be accepted at Pratt because my earlier degrees (a BA in East Asian Studies and an MA in International Relations) were from world-renowned research universities. I had one semester of bad grades as an undergrad, but finished with honors, and the MA included full tuition plus a partial living stipend which I mentioned on Pratt’s application.

Getting recommendations was the only part that was stressful. As it was, I got all three from people from my job, including my current boss, a former boss, and a colleague in another office who I knew could write well. My college still had sealed recommendation letters on file from some professors that I’d gotten when I graduated in 1987(!), but when talking with an administrator at Baruch he’d said that letters that old were not useful.

Not having to take the GRE was nice. I’d taken it in my last year of college and done fine, but such old scores were no longer valid and I’d
lost a lot of math ability through lack of practice. I just wasn’t in the mood to study math again. Anyone just graduating from college and even slightly considering grad school should take the GRE just in case – you’ll do better if you take it while still used to test-taking.

I used to write a lot of proposals at my job. I approached the personal statement in a similar way, though I did not spend much space making a case about being smart or experienced (my transcripts and resume would do that). Rather, I described why I wanted to go to school, and how that would help me in my profession. The argument was that while I enjoyed arranging and sharing information, and that I did so moderately well, it was becoming increasingly clear that my (and my organization’s) novice efforts could be improved with some intellectual rigor. That is, I didn’t just say “I want to go to Pratt” but explained WHY in a concrete way. I also pointed to a need for more skill in information architecture, which is something Pratt is strong in. Assuming a school believes you can handle the work, making yourself sound like someone who will really use what you learn, and thus enhance the school’s reputation, is probably a good approach to take.

I should have had another person read a draft of the statement to give feedback, but didn’t. Instead I wrote it, stepped away from it for a few days, and took another look with fresh eyes to make sure it made sense. It did.

So what’s it been like at Pratt? I certainly got the mental stimulation I wanted, though not as much learning specifically about knowledge
management as I’d have liked. Most of my professors are really good and a few are great. My fellow students continue to impress.

In retrospect I should have considered online programs that might have had more course offerings to suit my interests. However, because I didn’t even use email when last in school it didn’t cross my mind that online courses could work well. I’ve since changed my mind about online degrees after good experiences with online collaboration in a couple of classes. Nonetheless, I really enjoy the energy on our “campus” (an office building). I love the buzz on the sixth floor, with students working together on projects and professors running around helping. All in all, it’s been a great experience. If I was just out of college, that face-to-face aspect of school wouldn’t matter as much.

This may sound like faint praise, but I mean it in a good way: Pratt is not a great school, but it’s a good school with the faculty very engaged and aware of trends in the field, and a really interesting student body. And it’s in New York City. You can make a lot out of it if you want.

Is it worth the money? That’s a hard question and depends on your circumstances. I certainly don’t think anyone should go much into debt to
pay for it (or for any library school), particularly in today’s economy, unless you have a strong career path in mind. I also think for that
someone looking to get a job in New York City in special librarianship, archives, cultural institutions, or perhaps new media, the broad range of internship opportunities make it very attractive. (There are also internships in academic libraries, though I’m not sure about job
opportunities locally.) If you can afford it, taking classes part-time combined with several internships is better than rushing through school.

For me, mid-career and looking to learn something new while still working, Pratt is a great place to be.

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