The Portfolio, or Ending with a Bang and Not a Whimper

by Madeleine Mitchell

Let’s just say that you’re in your final semester of library school. It’s an exciting time, the end is near, you’re anxious to start the big job hunt, or if you’re lucky enough to have a library job, maybe you’re looking forward to moving up the library ladder. Nothing stands in your way now, except for one thing. The culminating experience – the academic gatekeeper that vets your qualifications and once and for all declares you ready to enter the world of paid (hooray!) librarianship. No pressure.

In the SLIS program at San Jose State University, we have our choice of two possible routes through the culminating experience, which is what our department calls the final, cumulative project of our LIS career. Any SLIS student wishing to graduate may either write a Master’s thesis or complete a portfolio, which is a comprehensive overview of your work in the program. Though I was tempted by the in-depth nature of writing a thesis, I decided early on that it would make more sense for me to do a portfolio because it would explicitly tie my strongest accomplishments together while requiring me to review everything I had learned in my courses, thus helping prepare me for job interviews along the way. It sounded like a no-brainer in my first semester, and it was definitely the right choice for me, but it’s a lot to bite off – an amazingly-lot to bite off – and it’s best to lay the groundwork early and often.

So, for those of you in the middle of your culminating experience, whether it be a portfolio, a thesis or something else entirely, here is what I’ve learned (so far) about keeping your sanity through the process. And, for those of you have yet to tackle this wily beast, read on for a little advice about how to start preparing for it way, way, way in advance.

1. Start early

In a recent post, Alison resolved to start keeping a professional portfolio. This ties into one of the best pieces of advice I received during my first semester of library school. It came from a student assistant who was just finishing her final project. The advice was this: If you’re going to do a portfolio, START NOW. This might come a bit late to those of us already hip-deep in the culminating experience, but for the folks just starting their programs, it really is a lifesaver.

What does STARTing NOW look like? It’s a lot of little things. If you have a choice, decide what you want your final project to be by the end of your first year. Look at the requirements. Do you need to show evidence of professional competency? Review the competencies after every semester and jot down a couple of notes on how each of your courses fulfills them. Keep your course work organized in a way that makes sense to you so you can find it when the time comes. I even made little annotations on the big projects to reference later, and it’s proving to be unbelievably helpful now.

In all honesty, the end of semester organizing and note-taking got to be a pain at times, but stay strong, stay focused and stay organized – your future self will thank you when it’s time to support your understanding of library demographics and you could swear you wrote a discussion post on that two years ago, but you can’t find it to save your life.

2. Get organized

When you’re staring at a terrifically large project that must synthesize everything you’ve learned in the past 2-3 years, and it’s due in roughly 2-3 months, even the most organized future librarian might panic. The key is to stay organized. This is where all of that starting early comes in handy. If you’re lucky, your past self will have your coursework, lecture notes, discussion posts and readings filed away so you can sift through it all by category, skill or semester. If you’re not so lucky, all is not lost. Give the entire amorphous heap a quick look. Then look at your project requirements and start sifting according to what you’re most likely to need. Just beware that you will need to account for this in scheduling. Which brings me to….

3. Make a schedule

Look at your final project requirements and start breaking the work down into discrete parcels. Be realistic and leave room for mishaps, illness, and dismemberment, but for the next 2-3 months, let that schedule rule your life. For example, for the fourteen competencies supported by my program, I need to complete fourteen 2-3 page competency statements, plus evidence, summaries and miscellany in 3 months. That means I need to write roughly 2 competencies per week. Keep in mind that you’ll need more time early on while you find your rhythm and get organized. With five competencies under my belt, I’m able to work faster now, but I’m really glad I accounted for that learning curve early on.

4. Pace yourself

Most final projects are marathons, not sprints. You might come out of the gate flying but if you’re not careful, it’s easy to start lagging before you’re halfway through. Take it one step at a time and try to maintain as much balance  as you can. This might sound strange given that I just harped for a paragraph about sticking to a schedule, but schedules work two ways. Yes, they keep you from falling behind. But they can also keep you motivated, and even more importantly, they keep you from burning out. Trust me.

Here’s another example from my ongoing experience:

Early on, I finished my scheduled work early and decided to make a push. I pushed so hard that I lost sleep, got stressed out and became really unpleasant, all while producing work that I ended up rewriting later. If you finish your work early, that’s great. If you want to get a bit ahead, wonderful. But make sure you go outside and get some fresh air. Go to a movie. Do whatever it is that you do that reminds you that you’re human and not just a grad student desperately trying to finish your degree. Your work will be there when you get back, and you’ll do it better for the break.

So, that’s what I’ve learned so far from working on my portfolio. As my big deadline looms, we’ll see if I can follow my own advice, particularly in regards to balance!

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