LIS Education: Sara Westhead on juggling study and family

Juggling by mandykoh, used with permission under CC BY-NC 2.0

Juggling by mandykoh, used with permission under CC BY-NC 2.0

Sara is one of our regular ILN participants and lives in Bermuda. Here she shares her story of going back to study for a career change:

When I decided to go back to school, it was not a decision our family took lightly. I had been working in journalism for 13 years and was fairly successful as a freelance writer for multiple publications. Working from home allowed me the flexibility to care for my two sons, stay actively involved in the executive board of their school Parent Teacher Association, and also participate in a number of other activities both through our home church and a few charitable organizations. Not to mention the fact that I was now 37 and it had been more than 17 years since I had graduated from university. (I actually graduated with my BSc in Religion exactly one week after I turned 20.)

I will frequently joke that my interest in becoming a librarian stemmed from the influence of a dear mentor friend under whom I learned the folk art skill of oral story telling through an apprenticeship programme. Before she retired, she was the head of youth services in our national library service, and through that capacity had known me as a pre-teen when I attended activities and classes with her, including a novel writing workshop. Throughout my apprenticeship, she would continually drop hints about how I had what it took to be a great children’s librarian, and her hints brought back to memory things I did as a child – like labeling all my books and creating my own cataloguing system (at about age 6 or 7!), so that when any of my friends borrowed my books, I could remember exactly which book they had!

Making the change, as I said, was a big risk – my husband and I needed to know there would be opportunities for employment and we needed to find funding to help pay tuition, so we kind of sat on the idea for a while when suddenly “Librarians” were listed in the annual Public Service Bursary Awards advertisement. Because of a growing shortage of librarians and further upcoming retirements, the government was offering bursaries to students pursuing Masters degrees in Library Science. Well, that certainly lit a fire under me and in the space of just a few weeks, I applied and was accepted to Robert Gordon University’s online programme and put in the application for the bursary (you could only apply if you had at least been accepted into a programme).

By July, I found out that I had been awarded a two-year bursary, which meant that I could actually start the programme that September, but I had also just accepted a part-time post doing the marketing and public relations for a local charity (the interviews for the job and bursary were on the same day, just two hours apart!). My life was about to change drastically and quickly, and in August 2013 I started a new job, in the beginning of September helped my oldest start middle school, and at the end of September started pursuing my Masters degree.

Let me just say that doing your Master’s degree online is NOT for the faint of heart! I have always been a bit of a techy (thanks to having a father who is a self-proclaimed computer geek), so the learning curve for navigating Campus Moodle was not nearly as steep for me as others, but still there were so many things to contend with. I had to get used to how the programme was set up, figure out the best ways to deal with challenging professors from a distance who could just as easily ignore emails, hope that I was submitting papers correctly and that I was giving professors what they were looking for. I had to work out a new work-school-family balance – I had to get used to a brand new job, figure out when I was going to do school work, and make sure that all the household chores were completed (my kids and husband now do more chores than they used to!).

I also had to make sure that my kids, now at two different schools, were getting the assistance they needed and staying on track at school. My oldest son suffers from chronic migraine and therefore misses a lot of school, so that provides a challenge making sure he doesn’t get too far behind. As for my youngest, not long after I began my studies, we began pursuing testing and have since received a diagnoses of Asperger’s and sensory processing disorder; and although he his considered ‘very high-functioning’, he still requires intervention services and assistance.

Some how, some way, with the help of family and friends, I have now completed two years of the three-year part-time programme. I have successfully navigated through the course work with a PgDip with Merit and am now commencing my dissertation, “Developing Learner-Centred School Library Collections in the 21st Century – A Case Study: Sandys Secondary Middle School.” In my research, I anticipate surveying the entire student population of a (my son’s) middle school (approximately 250 students) as well as the entire teaching staff (approximately 35 teachers) to demonstrate the importance of student-input in developing a collection development plan that fulfills the curriculum and meets the needs, real and perceived, of students, while also addressing issues of accessibility, etc., in a public school. Needless to say, I’ve got a lot of work on my hands!

So, what are my tips for doing your MSc online, particularly for those going back to school after an absence?

  1. Make sure it is what you really want to do – Unless you are totally in, you will quickly become discouraged and more likely to drop out.
  2. Make sure you have your family’s support – If your partner and family do not support your decision to go back to school, or you don’t have a support system in place, your life will be that much more difficult.
  3. Carefully compare programme requirements – Different schools have different requirements. One of the reasons I chose Robert Gordon University was that I didn’t have to visit the campus for orientation, something that physically and financially was not an option for our family.
  4. Get organized – This is vital! Set aside a specific time or times to do your reading, writing, studying, etc.; write it down on the family calendar, put a sign on your shut door, or do whatever it takes to make sure your family knows that you cannot help right now because you are working. As soon as you know what papers or projects you need to do, record the dates they are due and break them down into pieces so you can tackle them strategically without overwhelming yourself (and making your family crazy in the process).
  5. Take time for yourself and learn to say no – Make sure you take time for yourself. Schedule breaks and nights out, if that’s what it takes. The old adage, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” is only partially true. In reality, especially for women, it can make them a bit crazy!
  6. Communicate regularly with your family – Women, especially, are notorious for expecting their partners and children to be mind readers, and then get upset when no one else seems to understand why mummy is slamming doors and pots in the kitchen. If you need help, you have to ask for it – and be specific! “Honey, can you please wash the dishes before you go to bed tonight – I’m going to busy working on my paper?” tends to get a whole lot more done. Also, give your family fair warning when an intense time is coming up: “My paper is due in two weeks, so I need to spend extra time making sure it is ready. I will need everyone’s cooperation to make sure our family keeps running smoothly and it will prevent CRAZY MUM from making an appearance.”
  7. Don’t be a perfectionist – This was particularly difficult for me, with my type-A personality. When I completed university, I graduated at the very top of my class with Summa Cum Laude and a 3.95 GPA, so when I started my MSc, I had to retrain myself that I did not need to push myself for straight As, especially as it was a pass-fail programme. That is not to say I don’t do my best in everything I turn in (I have had straight Bs over the last two years), but I only do what I know I need to do and try not to drive myself crazy about not doing all the extra bits. 

Sara Westhead is currently pursuing her third and final year at Robert Gordon University in their online MSc Information & Library Science programme. She has been married to her husband, Andrew, for 15 years this January, and they have two sons, Tommy (13) and Jonny (9). She is anticipating starting as a school librarian in a middle school in the near future after working as a journalist and public relations/marketing consultant for the last 16 years. She has participated in ILN for the last 3 sessions and is from Bermuda.

Posted in Discussion topics, Round 2015B and tagged , , , , .


  1. Sara conguratulatios on this ambitious journey to achieve set goals, LIS education in time of challenges. I started as a Bookbinder after Senior Six A-Level at Makerere University Library, did my Bachelors (BLIS), but now am completing an MSC (Info Sc) at the same institution but currently heading a campus library at Busitema University in Uganda.
    Thanks for this determination and we welcome you to the LIS profession.

  2. Thank you Sara, for sharing your experience. Funny how much of your story is similar to mine, except that I began an online Bachelor’s degree, not a Master’s, and MUCH later in my life since I’d not had the opportunity before that. As an expat, the online option was the only option to fulfill a dream.
    Our son was diagnosed with Asperger’s at 27, (he moved back in with us as he was not coping with day-to-day living) 2 yrs before I completed my degree. The trauma we went through with him in that year was indescribable. But my course-work kept me focused.
    Your tips for online study are spot-on. However, I would add volunteering at a local library, if possible, for practical experience, and consistently engaging in conversation and discussion groups on forums available to you.
    Wishing you all the best for your final stretch and for the future.

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