Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Going for the Gold: Making the Most of Scholarship Opportunities

by Kathy Elliott

I received a delightful surprise the other day – I was awarded the 2010 Medical Library Association (MLA) scholarship! I would like to encourage all of you to consider applying for financial support, and I thought it might be helpful to share the process. It is worth the effort – my scholarship will cover approximately 25% of my tuition for the entire SJSU-SLIS program.

To begin, where do we find scholarship information? A great place to start is at You will see many options available through SJSU and other agencies. A careful perusal of the lists may generate several possibilities that overlap with your background and specific interests.

But, honestly, that is not what I did! You have always heard that networking is the key for finding jobs. For me, that applied to scholarships as well. My sister, Judy Kammerer, is a medical librarian who inspired me to undertake the adventure of a midlife career change.

I had worked as a molecular biologist and genomics researcher for over twenty years, primarily in biotech companies. I was eager to leave the for-profit scene and redirect my scientific knowledge into a service-oriented information career. The SJSU-SLIS program was the ideal choice. Judy forwarded me an e-mail advertising the MLA scholarship for a beginning MLIS student interested in medical librarianship. At first, I thought that chances of winning the award were pretty slim. On second thought, I decided that I had a unique background I could use to market myself. I was energized by the idea of leaving my job and starting a whole new career. I told myself, do not be shy – go for it!

Once you have found a possible match, the next step is to check the eligibility and application requirements and due dates. The MLA scholarship application required a simple form, transcripts, three recommendations, and an essay describing my career objectives. The first two were easy. Do not forget to submit your transcript requests well in advance of the deadline, since they may take several weeks to process. Requesting the recommendations was a little harder. I needed to think about not only who knew me well, but also who would best describe the strengths I could bring to a medical librarian career. If you are like me, the step of actually asking your colleagues for references is challenging. But everyone was very supportive, and they appreciated the fact that I supplied them with descriptions of the SJSU-SLIS program and MLA scholarship and a copy of my essay. The recommendations were the most difficult of the requirements to get in by the deadline. People get busy and forget, so I sent out gentle e-mail reminders the week before the deadline and followed up by phone a few days later. Even so, one of my references ended up having to FedEx her recommendation for next-day delivery.

Some organizations require an essay on a specific topic of interest. For example, the Special Libraries Association (SLA) Environment & Resource Management Division asks scholarship applicants to discuss issues facing information professionals in the environment and natural resources fields. But the majority of scholarship applications require an essay describing your personal background and professional goals and how these can advance the mission of the granting agency.

To write an essay that catches the attention of the reviewers, you will first need to think carefully about who you are (unique skills and experience) and where you are going (career goals and specific areas of interest). You will also need to read about the scholarship organization's history, mission, and challenges. When you find an overlap, you have identified a theme around which you can design your essay.

For myself, I decided that my experiences performing genomics research and genetic testing were a unique strength. I began my essay by speaking about how the rapid growth in genetic information is changing the practice of medicine. Then I described my academic and professional background and presented myself as a person ideally suited to help communicate new developments in genetics and pharmacogenomics research to medical students, professionals, and patients. All I needed was training in library and information sciences to develop the tools that would enable me to act as a bridge between the two worlds. Once I had identified the “hook,” the essay flowed naturally. If you are worried about writer's block, try devoting a set amount of time to research and thinking before you sit down at the computer. You may discover that the essay is easier to write than you had expected.

Many scholarships, awards, and grants are available for library and information science students. If you are a true funding entrepreneur like my sister, you can find financial support to cover your entire education – Judy paid for her first MLIS semester with three local scholarships and got the tuition reimbursed for her remaining semesters through the California State Library's "Public Library Staff Education Program." So be bold, figure out which options match your background and interests, and apply!

Kathy Elliott just completed her first semester in the SJSU-SLIS program and is looking forward to a career in an academic biomedical research or health sciences library.

1 comment:

  1. Congrats, Kathy on the MLA Scholarship! That is a huge one to win in the field of medical librarianship so you are well on your way :) Great advice, as I won some scholarships doing just as you mentioned. Also, I know your sister! She was one of the contacts that I made before library school and she got me where I am today. Small world!