University of Washington's iSchool graduates information-savvy specialists who don’t necessarily head straight to libraries to work.
Some people still think that if you get an information sciences degree, “you’ll sit behind a desk, saying ‘shh’ all day,” says Wendie Phillips, student services director at University of Washington’s Information School.
“But we had one student who helped Nordstrom launch online, then worked for a consulting company, then went to Netflix for categorizing movies,” Phillips says. “She never stepped foot in a library.”
Andy Herman certainly doesn’t shush anyone. Herman graduated from UW in 2011 with a degree in microbiology and started out in medical school. But he soon discovered an interest in information management and security. In 2017, he graduated from the iSchool with a Master of Science in Information Management (MSIM) degree, and started out as a consultant before making his way into a Microsoft job as a risk program manager.
Herman points to iSchool classes like enterprise risk management as giving a solid basis for a future career. Instructor Annie Searle brought in industry professionals to discuss career experiences aligning with class materials. It was a true opportunity, he says: “How to apply learning in the workplace and network with those people. It was a great experience.”
Many of his cohort ended up at the big tech companies — Microsoft, Google and Amazon — while others became consultants and pursued startups.
UW’s iSchool focuses on information, technology and people; degrees offered range from undergraduate to doctorate. Both the Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) and MSIM include aspects of information science, but the MLIS has a stronger focus on knowledge organization and taxonomy, or classification systems.
However, Amazon and other large tech companies also post positions requiring an MLIS degree. “They want that ability to categorize,” Phillips says. “Because if you think about it, Amazon is one big online catalog.” Other Seattle-area employers seeking MLIS-degreed applicants include Boeing, Tableau and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. One student ended up cataloging videos, recordings and music for Seattle Opera.
The MLIS is offered full time online and on campus, with more than a dozen different tracks, including academic librarianship and user experience, in paths including data, library services, and archive and record management.
Although contemporary classes like “Youth Development and Information Behavior in a Digital Age” or “Libraries as Learning Labs in a Digital Age” are offered, so are classic courses long seen in library schools — storytelling, materials preservation and classification, and cataloging theory.
Courses take on deeper topics, as well. Students might sign up for classes delving into intellectual property and intellectual freedom or information and social justice.
Graduates hold a wide variety of titles, both traditional — children’s librarian, school librarian and university library director — and less so: semantic modeler, knowledge management specialist and competitive intelligence analyst.
The iSchool’s MSIM degree program focuses on information management. It’s a relatively new field, concerned with how organizations collect, manage, preserve and deliver information.
The MSIM is almost an alternative to a traditional MBA or tech degree, where students learn about management and technology, without requiring a business concentration or coding skills. “You can get out of the program without having coding experience, but you will understand coding and be comfortable with it,” Phillips says.
“MSIM students are often aiming for consulting, project management or business careers,” Phillips says, and may wind up managing the creation of a company’s apps or redesigning a website or database for easier use and better information access for customers.
MSIM students can choose to specialize in up to two focus areas from six, including business intelligence (the process of turning data into information), information security, information consulting and user experience. Popular tracks include data science, she says, along with user interface (UX).
Applicants come into the information-science programs from all types of backgrounds, including undergrad degrees in chemistry, history and anthropology.
One of the biggest misconceptions, Phillips says, is that the MLIS or MSIM is a tech degree: “It’s not a tech degree, but a management and information science degree. It’s really more about how people engage with information using technology.”
There are online-only or full-time MLIS tracks, a full-time MSIM program, and an accelerated, one-year, mid-career MSIM option (for professionals with five or more years of experience) that allows students to keep their day job. Applicants are encouraged to attend workshops, speak with admissions advisers, and attend Visit Days, when prospective students are invited sit in on a class and meet a student who shares the applicant’s interests.
The two schools work together, too. Herman undertook research under the guidance of Dr. Hans Scholl with students from the MSIM and the MLIS program, studying how information sharing impacted disaster responsiveness, during Washington’s 2014 Oso landslide.
“MLIS and MSIM student perspectives are different,” Herman says. “But when we’re in the same room, it puts all the pieces together.”
Seattle Pacific University offers a Master of Science in Information Systems degree, geared toward those who work or intend to work in business processes and information integration as an IT security professional, data analyst, project manager, information manager or even as a CIO. And Washington State University’s Carson College of Business has a Management Information Systems doctoral program that aims to develop scholars who research and teach at the collegiate level.