[Ask an Archivist]: Would Getting an Archival Degree Overseas Help or Hurt?

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Ask an Archivist Question:

I am considering getting an MLIS but want to be smart about my money and time. I am considering going to the UK where many of the programs are a year long and cheaper than a two year program in the States. In terms of employment opportunities, how would an applicant fare with a degree completed abroad?

Ask an Archivist Answers:

As with any early archives professional, I think your success as an applicant will be based much more on your practical experience–internships, volunteering, part-time work, etc.–than on which academic program you attended.

I don’t have any familiarity with how easy/hard it is to get that kind of practical experience in the UK, specifically while you are in school.  If you can get it though, I think it is more likely to help than hurt your success as an applicant in “the States,” since your experience is likely to stand out from the pack.  If your ideal archival employer is a U.S. or state governmental agency, then you might want to think twice about going abroad since any experience you get there might be deemed less relevant than someone who stayed stateside and got an internship or part-time/temporary work with an agency here.  For just about any other kind of archives though–academic, museum, corporate, religious, etc.–I’d have to think that having a British archives/library/museum or two on your resume will be a sure attention-getter.

If the degree and job titles on your resume do not make your archival qualifications clear, than you likely will want to take the Certified Archivists exam shortly after finishing your program.  But that’s probably true whether your program is abroad or not.

Shaun Kirkpatrick
Corporate Archivist, ACE Group

The smart money should be on the US based MLIS for the US perspective, in my opinion. We all had to pay dearly for our degrees. You get what you pay for, again in my opinion.

I don’t know if I would hire someone who was in it for a quick overseas 1 year degree. Obviously, one cannot learn everything even in several years. You enter the workforce and try to apply what you have learned only to find out that what you learned was so surface based. There is much to say for taking time and massaging the information to make sure one knows enough to be gainfully employed.

Often I see questions from employed archivists that seem so basic to me. I am astounded. Then I say to myself, maybe they don’t have an MLIS or MLS…

Ellen Pierce, CA
Director, Maryknoll Mission Archives

This is an interesting and difficult question. Upon consideration, however, I would be inclined to advise against this path unless you are contemplating staying in the UK for your career. I think there are two main reasons that a degree from a UK program would likely be an obstacle to employment in the US. First, it is unlikely you will cover the same breadth of coursework in a single year as in the 2 (or more) years required in the US. And virtually all your competitors for a job in the US will have graduated from US programs … programs that are more familiar to the hiring committee. Second, the English, particularly, but also to a lesser degree the Scots and the Irish, have theories and methods about archives that are distinctly different in some areas than those in the US. (Not worse, just different.) At the very least I would consider it a marked gamble.

That said, you can probably push the odds at least somewhat more towards your favor by employing some relatively simple methods. Make certain that your cover letter and c.v. address up front the nervousness and reluctance with which some (perhaps many) hiring managers will approach a non-North American degree. For example, your resume and/or your cover letter should clarify where a course with an unusual title actually closely parallels core courses in the US curriculum. Conversely, highlight educational opportunities you took advantage of in the UK that make your education there better than what’s available here. Also, while in the UK you should remain firmly connected to the US archival community through memberships, close reading of journals and newsletters and perhaps even participation in social media.

Of course, not all hiring managers are nervous about non-North American education, but it’s a safe bet that most are not familiar with such programs and therefore extra caution can be understood. In addition to the previous suggestions it might be well, if possible, to take one or more US archival workshops and/or internships. In the end, saving money by having to take only two semesters may not be worth the potential extra difficulty in convincing hiring committees that a UK education is as good as or better than the best in the States. But if you do your homework, prepare for the possible obstacles, and calm yourself with a “cuppa” prior to each interview (English colloquialism for “cup of” tea), it just might be a worthwhile alternative. Best of luck.

Mark A. Greene
Former Director & Emeritus Senior Archivist, American Heritage Center at the University of Wyoming

I would strongly encourage you to consider your end goal.  Look closely at job postings.  Where would you like to be in five years? Ten years? Does the path to your goal require an ALA-accredited MLIS?

Cyndi Shein
Head, Special Collections Technical Services, University of Nevada

I don’t see a lot of applicants with degrees from institutions outside the U.S., although one of my colleagues has a degree that was jointly administered by U.S. and Canadian institutions.

My concern is less where someone trained and more what experiences they have acquired. A short program is a cost savings, but that means you take fewer classes and/or have fewer internship experiences. A longer program allows you to take additional courses that can add to your skill set. It may also provide you with additional internship opportunities. As a prospective employer, I look at internship experience when I’m evaluating applications from recent graduates, since that is where you gain experience applying the concepts you’ve learned in class, and also – very important – learning whether you actually like doing the work. So for me the potential issue isn’t where the institution is located, it’s the length of the program.

Carrie Daniels
University Archivist and Director, Archives and Special Collections, University of Louisville

In my world at the local level, having a degree from abroad would help in many ways. The discipline of MLIS is strong in Europe and would be taken seriously by me and the other Archivists around the Nashville area. You would need to provide an equilvant document illustrating how the European MLIS stacks up against a US one, but that’s not a big deal either.

The only caveat I see is the standard, “you’re overqualified” that tends to hang around the neck of those with degrees from Europe. However, in personal interview would help with that. Also, be sure to follow all the steps for a strong application—cover letter, resume, interview and then email thanks or mail a card of thanks. Actually, cards make a better impression on me since you took the time to do that.

Ken Fieth
Metropolitan Government Archivist, Nashville Public Library

My only caveat for a program in the UK would be to choose one with the equivalent for ALA accreditation.  Many academic libraries in the US want archivists with MLS degrees from an ALA accredited institution. That being said, often times of more importance then the degree is the internships or work experience that you have.

Gerrianne Schaad
College Archivist, Florida Southern College

Archival education is a must to become a successful archivist, and it is commendable that this person is seeking a cost effective way to receive the appropriate education. The type of education sometimes is driven by career goals. If one wishes to work in an archival environment that is connected to a library (public libraries, higher education, etc.), then graduating from an ALA-accredited program may be a requirement. Job postings in many government and non-profit entities (museums, historical societies, state archives, etc.) emphasize education or experience without the ALA-accreditation criterion. The two statements are generalizations, though, and one can find openings with and without such requirements in both groups of job postings. The main idea should be to assess what educational requirements consistently appear in job postings and then move forward seeking the appropriate education and experience to be most marketable.

Cliff Hight
University Archivist and Assistant Professor, Kansas State University

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