Alternative Science Careers: A Response

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Background: I was contacted by a student from an US university working on a project that looked at alternative science careers. The student included a list of headings that formed the basis for this post. It’s a bit of a rush job, so please excuse the poor grammar and odd wording. If you have anything you think would be valuable for the student, please leave a comment.

Job description

As a caveat, I think you’ll find that depending on the science librarian you speak to, you’ll find quite diverse job descriptions. Some are quite specialized, others more generalist. My situation is somewhat unique.

My primary ‘job’ is teaching/instruction. I co-teach a component of the Integrated Science program called Science Literacy, which involves guiding students to understand the elements of science outside of the ‘core’ knowledge. We talk about writing for different audiences (formal and informal), finding and using information, peer-review, presentation skills, poster design, and many other topics. I also do a number of other tasks for iSci. In addition, I do a number of guest lectures in classes, mostly in Biology, Biochemistry and a little Engineering. This instruction is strongly centered around finding scientific literature using databases and organizing that information.

Being a librarian usually involves other project work throughout the library, often involving committee work. At the moment, I’m only on a handful of committees (mostly involving technology), but that will vary depending on what the library is working on. In the past, I’ve worked on promotional videos, staff training, etc. Opportunities to do different things often come up, and so it is possible to have quite a variety in your work.

The other part of my job is Professional Development and Service. The former involves presenting at conferences and publishing in the library literature. The latter involves volunteer type work for the university and library organizations.

Specific ways in which the scientific training is used or helpful

My science background has been invaluable in my position in the library. For teaching Science Literacy, I rely heavily on understanding how science is ‘done’ and drawing on my experience in both undergrad and in my MSc. I also draw heavily on my MSc., where I had lots of  practice searching for information.

Having a science background helps when communicating with other scientists. Understanding the ‘language’ of science is a big part of that, as well as them recognizing you as someone that is part of their sphere.

Type(s) of training/education required for that position

A science background is a huge asset for being a science academic librarian. In the past (and perhaps still), it was not necessary, but I think my job would be very difficult without it. Depending on the position, a Master’s degree (or higher) may be required, or may be considered as equivalent to ‘experience’. In my case, having the MSc. was a major contributor to my getting the job.

In addition to the science background, a science librarian also requires a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) (or Master of Library Science (MLS), depending on the institution). These are graduate programs that are accredited my the American Library Association. They can vary from 1 year long to 2 years long, depending on the program.

Manners in which jobs in that field can be found

There are a number of job boards that list library jobs.
In Canada, I would look at:

But there are lots of these out there.

Starting salaries

You can read about starting salaries for academic libraries here: http://www.arl.org/bm~doc/ss09.pdf (see page 28)

In general, they seem to run in the $40,000-$50,000 range.

Pros/cons of the field

Librarianship (and libraries) are at something of crisis point, and depending on your perspective, this is a pro or a con. The internet has changed the role of the library drastically, and so libraries need to figure out what they are best suited for going forward. This means that bright, passionate people can play a significant role in shaping that future.

For me, a significant benefit is being able to work in academia. I value higher education and believe it does important work in preparing future leaders. I also quite like the culture and being around intelligent engaged faculty, staff and students. Academic jobs often provide excellent benefits and competitive salaries, and usually offer flexible schedules.

Being a librarian involves working closely with people (for me, usually students, but also faculty and staff), and helping them get things done. This can be very rewarding. It also involves wading through information and becoming an expert navigator of the internet. For me, this is a lot of fun.

One downside of librarianship is perhaps the amount of job openings compared to the number of new graduates produced, as outlined below. This means that new graduates are not guaranteed to find work easily, and may need to spend some time filling contract and temporary positions before finding a full-time job.

Prospective job market in the field

This is a more complicated issue. The job market is dependent on two variables: the number of graduates from library programs and the number of retirements/new openings in libraries. The present landscape suggests there are far more graduates of library programs than new openings (even considering future retirements).

Having said that, librarians with science backgrounds, particularly at the graduate level, are rather rarer and will be desired at academic universities. Skills in technology are also an asset, as librarianship moves deeper into a tech field.

Outside of academia, there are jobs for librarians in other areas, including public and ‘special’ libraries. Special libraries encompass law, business, government and health, amongst others.

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