Dr. Sandra Hirsh Urges Us to Never Stop Learning

Photo looking up into the silhouetted branches and green foliage of sycamore tree
Published: Friday, October 21, 2016 by Kate M. Spaulding

If you're familiar with the iSchool, then you're familiar with (at least) the name of Dr. Sandra Hirsh. She's our director, as well as a professor, writer and researcher. In her career, Dr. Hirsh has explored several branches of the LIS tree, and all of this experience made her a great fit for her current position. You can read more about how she juggles work and life over on the iStudent Blog, where she chronicled a day in her life. I'm so grateful she agreed to answer my questions, and I'm happy to share her thoughts about growing your networks, constantly educating yourself, and participating in professional associations. Thank you, Dr. Hirsh!

Ca​n you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do and how you got to this place in your career?

I am professor and director of the School of Information at San José State University, and I have served in this role for the last six years. As the leader of the iSchool, I am responsible for the school’s fully online graduate programs, which includes two master's degrees, one credential, three certificates and a gateway PhD program.

I am also responsible for 13 staff, 25 full-time faculty and 100 part-time faculty – many of whom live in different parts of the United States and around the world. I work with faculty members and other key stakeholders to set the strategic direction for the school. As the public face of the school, I travel regularly to speak to prospective students, meet alumni, establish partnerships, host school receptions and attend conferences. I also frequently give invited presentations at conferences and events.

While I don’t teach, I am expected to continue my research and publication activities and to engage in various service activities. These commitments include board positions within the university, leadership roles in professional associations (e.g., the ALA, ASIS&T, and IFLA) and other initiatives (e.g., co-founding/co-chairing the Library 2.0 virtual conference).

I arrived in this position in an indirect way – starting my career in academia as an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, and then moving to the Silicon Valley where I worked in research and development at HP Labs and in user experience research and management on consumer products at Microsoft and LinkedIn, and then finally taking on the role as director of the iSchool at SJSU. You can read more about my career path in a recent chapter I wrote, “One MLIS degree: Many career possibilities” in Anderson and Pun’s Career Transitions for Librarians: Proven Strategies for Moving to Another Type of Library, published in 2016.

I also have been active professionally and in the community, serving in various leadership roles in professional associations like the American Library Association and the Association for Information Science & Technology and in my local community as the chair of the Palo Alto Library Advisory Commission. I also served for a number of years on the SJSU’s School of Library and Information Science International Advisory Board. All of these experiences contributed to my preparation of serving as the director of our School of Information!

What ​do you think most helped you get your current job? 

There are many factors which can influence a person’s selection to serve as the director of the School of Information. At a minimum, a director must have a PhD and a respectable research and publication record. Depending on your career path, this can be challenging.

In my case, since I did not spend my whole career in academia, keeping up my research and publication contributions was something that I had to consciously maintain. I always knew that I wanted to someday return to academia.

Research and publication, especially while working in product development positions, is not recognized or rewarded so it requires you to go above and beyond your day-to-day job requirements to keep up your record (and on your own time). I purposely focused on staying active in the scholarly and professional world through active participation in and research presentations at the Association for Information Science & Technology and through consistent research publications.

I think some of the other factors that helped me get the director position at San José State University were my experience of working in both academia and industry (especially given that SJSU is located in the Silicon Valley), my experience of managing distributed global teams, my experience of working in a range of library and information environments, my previous teaching experience, my leadership experience in major library and information science associations, my many years of service on the school’s International Advisory Board, my cover letter which addressed each of the qualifications in detail, and my presentation during the interview which outlined my vision for the school over the next four years.

As you can see, it is not a single aspect of my background that contributed to my getting this position – but the combination of experiences.

Given t​he curre​nt state of the LIS profession and all its different potential career paths, what skills do you think will be most in demand in the next 5-10 years?

There are several skills that will always be in high demand within the information field, as has been demonstrated through the various employment trends reports – such as communication skills and the ability to organize and make sense of information. These skills will remain in high demand across all types of jobs and industries. Big data, data management and assessment in research, and user experience will be foundational in the work of information professionals – and will become an invaluable skill for information professionals.

For those working in the service sector of information science, knowing how to engage and serve diverse communities will also become a highly-valued skill. While teamwork will remain a highly in-demand skill across all organizations, collaboration skills will become an essential skill of the future as organizations, and more specifically information professionals, will need to collaborate on providing resources, services and knowledge in order to fully serve their communities.

It will also be important to not only be technologically savvy, but also be consistently innovative in how to use and engage with these technologies. Technologies will change – it’s a given. And many of the technologies we are seeing today will find new applications in the near future. Staying abreast of technologies on the horizon and being aware of how these technologies can change how we use, organize, share and create information in the future will help information professionals become change agents for the future within their organizations.

What career advice d​o you have for students?

Be engaged as a student. Get to know your instructors, actively challenge yourself and your classmates in discussions, take the lead on projects and build confidence in taking on an innovative approach to all your work.

Be engaged within the profession. Whether you are employed, volunteering, or pursuing internships or assistantships, actively participate in committees, pursue leadership activities and take on opportunities to learn a new skill – even if that skill falls outside your professional pathway.

Also be engaged beyond your job. Go to conferences (locally, nationally, virtually), network with professionals across the field to gain a bigger perspective, and join and actively participate in committees, councils and task forces. Your degree is a substantial part of your learning, but the field is always changes – there are always new things to learn, new technologies to explore and new ways to engage with our community. It is nearly impossible to predict the future – but by equipping ourselves with the many opportunities today, we exponentially open up new opportunities and career pathways for ourselves.

Any last words of wisdom?

Read widely and build your personal learning network. Read books, trends reports, research articles, RSS feeds and become engaged in professional social networks to understand various perspectives, insights, ideas and knowledge. And never stop learning!

There are many professional development opportunities here at the iSchool (e.g. open classes, certificate programs, etc.) to help support you throughout your career and the changes ahead. There is no single path to success in this field and the more exposure you have to learning and engaging with your peers, the more successful you will be.

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