From Student to Scholar: The Academic Library and Social Sciences PhD Students’ Transformation
Although research concerning the information-seeking behavior of academic library users is abundant, few studies have focused specifically on PhD students. This oversight has had an impact on librarians’ ability to effectively market services such as information literacy instruction and research assistance to doctoral students. In order to investigate both their information-seeking processes and the affective dimensions of their research, the authors conducted three focus groups with 24 social sciences doctoral students and then corroborated their findings with a survey of academic librarians. The goal of this project is to provide academic librarians with insight about the process of PhD education and to suggest possible points of intervention for improving communication with and services to this group.
In addition to providing graduates with the requisite knowledge to teach in their respective fields, the doctor of philosophy (PhD) degree is intended to prepare students to conduct original scholarly research for the dissertation and beyond. Research methodology coursework is a common requirement in doctoral programs, but the instructional focus of such courses tends to be specific methodologies and theoretical frameworks rather than skills in working with research tools such as databases and indexes.1 These topics are more commonly covered in library instruction, but doctoral students are not known to be heavy users of such services.2 Do doctoral students matriculate with sufficient knowledge of the procedures for using the research tools of their field? If not, how and where do they learn to use them? [End Page 199]
In spite of an abundance of research about the behavior of user groups in the academic environment, such as undergraduates and faculty researchers, comparatively little study has been done of graduate students as a discrete group; of those studies, only a small number focus specifically on PhD students.3 As a result, little is known about the information behavior of doctoral students as they progress through their course of study. By virtue of the tasks, responsibilities, demographic characteristics, and goals of PhD students, they differ significantly enough from other constituents of academic libraries, including other graduate students, to justify their study as a separate group. During the PhD program, students not only gain subject knowledge and improve their ability to perform research but also undergo a transformation from student to scholar, a process that includes initiation into faculty and larger academic culture.4
Communication difficulties between academic librarians and the faculty they serve are well documented in the LIS literature;5 it is worth noting from a pragmatic perspective that PhD students are the future faculty of our colleges and universities. Improving understanding of and services for PhD students might provide academic librarians with the opportunity to shape the relationships they will enjoy when these students have moved into the faculty role.
Research Project: Description and Goals
The overarching goal of this project is to illuminate both the information-seeking behaviors and the concerns of PhD students in order to provide academic librarians with insight about possible “zones of intervention” for assisting them.6 Accomplishment of this goal was pursued on two tracks: through a series of focus groups with social sciences PhD students and through a review of the literature related to the doctoral experience.
In the focus groups, students were asked:
• How they embark on the literature review component of a research project
• What are their sources of guidance in the use of the library-related research tools of their discipline
• Whether they ask librarians for assistance or rely on other sources
• How the academic library might provide assistance that would address their concerns and issues as PhD students
During the course of the focus groups, the authors also became curious about academic librarians’ general level of knowledge about the process of doctoral study. Studies frequently point to students’, graduate and otherwise, lack of awareness of the extent of services provided by academic librarians as an impediment to students’ fully utilizing the resources and services of the library.7 If academic librarians were similarly unclear [End Page 200] on the procedures and phases of doctoral study, might that prevent them from offering services to PhD students as successfully as they might with a better understanding of the process? These questions led to a Web-based survey concerning the specialized services being offered to doctoral students by academic librarians.
This project began with a pilot survey of graduate students from the College of Communication and Information Sciences of a large public research university. The survey focused on three segments of doctoral students’ information-seeking behavior, asking them to explain (1) their research process from start to finish, (2) how they prepare to conduct the research that they routinely do, and (3) their approach to the literature review. The survey findings, which indicated heavy reliance on Google and less than consistent or effective research mentoring from faculty, justified further investigation of this group’s information behavior. The ambiguity evident in the pilot survey’s responses indicated that accomplishing the goals of this study called for a dialogue-based approach rather than a static research instrument such as a survey.
Because information behavior can vary considerably between disciplines and in order to compare “apples to apples,” the decision was made to conduct a series of focus groups for social sciences PhD students enrolled at the authors’ home university. Although the academy lacks consensus regarding the disciplines that constitute the “social sciences,”8 participants in this study came from the departments of anthropology, political science, psychology, and communication and information sciences (which includes specializations in information science, advertising and public relations, journalism, mass communications, and communication studies at our institution). The university at which the research was conducted is one of its state’s three universities designated by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education as “RU/H Research Universities” (high research activity), with 178 students enrolled in doctoral study in communication and information science, political science, psychology, and anthropology during the 2006–7 academic year. 9
Because the subjects were from a somewhat specific constituent group, the focus group method was identified for its potential to engender meaningful insights as well as enable interchange among participants. Focus groups have been used extensively in LIS research, both to assess the needs and satisfaction of library users and to study information behavior.10 The focus group literature in LIS can be divided into two broad topical areas: discussions of the merits and drawbacks of applying the focus group methodology to LIS-related study and reports of studies that have used focus groups as a data collection method. Graham Walden provides an excellent and thorough summary of the literature in both areas. Frequently, discussions of the focus group method acknowledge the appropriateness of the method for evaluating library services. Focus groups are often conducted as part of a larger library assessment plan that may include more quantitative approaches such as surveys and can have tremendous potential for positive public relations. Participants may see the focus group as evidence of the library’s commitment to providing quality service, especially if the library in question makes changes to policy, resources, or services that have been informed directly by the study’s findings. In the academic library setting, recent focus group research has been oriented toward studying the behaviors and/or needs of a specific group, such as agricultural [End Page 201] and biological scientists, or users’ experience of a specific library resource, for example, academic library reference service or the library OPAC.11
During April 2006, three focus groups of between six to 10 respondents were held; among the three groups, 24 students participated. In the focus groups, students were asked about their initial steps in beginning a research project, the role of library-related resources (such as monographs, indexes, abstracts, journals, and databases), and services (such as reference, interlibrary loan, and instruction) in that process, as well as their sources of guidance in the use of these tools and possible improvements the library might make in the services offered. Because several of the students in the focus groups were involved in experimental research models, it was important that the student participants understood that the object of interest was respondents’ use of research tools such as those found in the library. Sessions were audio recorded and transcribed. The two researchers used one of the transcripts to create a set of thematic codes, which were compared and applied by each researcher individually to all three transcripts. All transcripts were compared for agreement. After this process was complete, codes were organized into categories in order to identify the larger themes that emerged in the focus group discussion.
Academic Librarians and the Doctorate
Data generated by the focus groups raised additional questions about the generalizability of the participant students’ experiences and the extent to which services are offered to doctoral students at other institutions. In order to clarify those issues, data from the focus groups were supplemented by a Web-based survey of academic librarians that was designed to assess the respondents’ familiarity with the process of doctoral study and the types of services that their libraries offer to doctoral students.
Although between 50 to 60 percent of U.S. institutions of higher education offer faculty status to their librarians, it is relatively uncommon for rank-and-file academic librarians—even those with faculty status and tenure requirements—to hold the doctoral degree.12 Those in administrative positions in academic libraries are more likely to have an earned doctorate (in LIS or another field) than rank-and-file academic librarians are, but this, too, is not considered a requirement for many administrative positions.13 It is possible that one reason for a lack of specific focus on PhD students in the LIS literature stems from many librarians’ unfamiliarity with the nature of doctoral study. In a recent survey, when asked about their level of familiarity with the process of doctoral study, 82.6 percent of respondents stated that they were either “not at all” (19.4 percent) or “somewhat” (63.2 percent) familiar with the doctoral study process at their institution, whereas 69 percent of respondents were unfamiliar with the process in general. Although 43 percent had [End Page 202] undertaken study for an additional master’s degree, only 16 percent had participated in doctoral study, and only 4 percent had completed the degree.14
W. Bede Mitchell and Bruce Morton attributed the frequent communication difficulties between academic librarians and faculty to the librarian’s lack of a research background and not having experienced the sequence of doctoral study that serves to acculturate students into the academy.15 According to the authors, the result of this is not only that librarians are unprepared to conduct research on their own behalf but also “lack an empathetic appreciation of the rigors and methodology of research.”16 Whether or not this assertion is true, familiarity with the nature and process of earning the PhD would give academic librarians helpful insight about opportunities for providing services and assistance to those enrolled in PhD programs.
The PhD: Complexities and Issues
In spite of the tendency of LIS researchers to lump all types of graduate students into one group for the purpose of studying their information behavior requirements, the expectations and objectives for graduate degrees vary widely.17 For example, the flagship research institution of one southern state offers 15 different graduate degrees, including master’s degrees that require research-based written theses; master’s of fine arts degrees that require theses in the form of art exhibits, recitals, written works of poetry or fiction; and those that do not require a thesis at all.18 Doctoral degrees’ requirements also vary. Although professional degrees such as the EdD and PsyD require a dissertation, these generally do not involve empirical research, instead emphasizing a literature review or evaluation.19
This project focuses on doctoral students working toward the doctor of philosophy (PhD) in one of the social sciences. In the United States, the PhD generally follows a two-stage sequence: first, the student completes two to three years of proscribed coursework, mastery of which is determined by success on the comprehensive examinations. After passing “comps,” the PhD student moves on to writing and defending a research project proposal; students who defend the proposal successfully are admitted to doctoral candidacy and enter the final phase of doctoral work—writing the dissertation.20 All told, the PhD can constitute a lengthy process; according to a report by the National Science Foundation, the average time to complete the doctorate in the United States is seven and a half years.21
A major component of the dissertation is a review of the literature relevant to the research topic. It is here that the greatest intersection of the PhD student and library resources and services should occur.22 The format of the dissertation itself has many variations, as does the role of the faculty advisor.23 Whereas some advisors take a handsoff approach to their role, others provide regular guidance and mentoring throughout the process; it is not uncommon in certain social sciences fields for dissertations to be based on data collected by the faculty advisor.24 Perhaps in recognition of the small percentage of dissertations that are ever published in another format, some PhD programs are experimenting with alternate formats for the dissertation such as a collection of publishable articles. 25 [End Page 203]
One of the more well-kept secrets of academe is its high rate of attrition, which, according to several studies, hovers somewhere between 40 and 50 percent.26 Surprisingly, lack of academic ability is not the cause of most students’ leaving doctoral programs prior to completion; studies have shown that there is little difference in qualifications between those who complete the doctorate and those who do not.27 Most researchers who study doctoral attrition attribute it to a combination of factors, not the least of which is the student’s integration into the culture of the local department and larger discipline of study.28 Ann Austin calls upon research in organizational socialization, describing the graduate study period as a time when students learn about “the culture of the group, including its values, attitudes, and expectations.”29
Doctoral Students’ Information Needs and Behavior Reported in LIS Literature
The information needs and behavior of PhD students have received only minor attention in the LIS literature. Although the literature addressing instructional needs of and initiatives for undergraduates is voluminous, similar studies involving graduate students are much fewer in number and generally treat “graduate study” as a monolith, not as a collection of degree programs with diverse requirements, methodologies, and students. Despite this, several studies have provided valuable insight about the information behavior of graduate students in general as well as doctoral students in particular. Carlette Washington-Hoagland and Leo Clougherty described the University of Iowa Libraries’ survey of graduate and professional students’ satisfaction with library services and gathered data about students’ use and perception of the library. The authors found that, although their respondents acknowledged a need for assistance in utilizing library resources, they were unaware of the full range of services available to them.30
In 2006, librarians from Carnegie-Mellon University Libraries published findings from personal interviews conducted with 100 graduate students (64 of whom were doctoral students) that indicated that graduate students rely heavily on the assistance and input of faculty mentors and student colleagues and that information behavior varies dramatically from discipline to discipline.31 Maria A. Jankowska, Karen Hertel, and Nancy J. Young analyzed graduate students’ responses to the LibQUAL+ survey to determine and address the specific needs of that group, whereas Jennifer Knievel described a tutorial created to assist graduate students and junior faculty with the scholarly publishing process.32 Orchid Mazurkiewicz and Claude Potts surveyed a group of 211 Latin American studies students, 189 of whom were enrolled in doctoral programs, about their information behavior. Although the authors’ respondents indicated a high level of confidence in their information-seeking abilities, their responses indicated low awareness of specific Latin America-related research tools.33
In spite of Rosemary Green and Peter Macauley’s assertion that the nature of doctoral study may make PhD students the academic constituent group with the greatest information requirements,34 the authors review of the LIS literature reveals comparatively few studies of PhD students’ actual information skills and behavior or accounts of initiatives and best practices for addressing the instructional needs of this unique group in the academic endeavor. Cynthia M. Corkill and Margaret G. Mann published two occasional papers based on a large-scale mail survey and smaller longitudinal [End Page 204] study with Sue Stone, both of which attempted to document the information-seeking process from the beginning of doctoral studies through degree completion.35 In the early days of the Internet revolution, Christine Barry called for the improvement and adjustment of doctoral students’ information skills to the changes she saw coming to the knowledge landscape.36
Patricia O’Brien Libutti and Mary Kopala provided one of the most extensive examinations of the dissertation writing process and the role of the library.37 Focusing specifically on the social sciences, the authors examined education and LIS literature related to the nature of the dissertation, literature review, student and faculty behaviors in the construction of the literature review, and instructional preparation for the literature review, including assessments of the library’s role. The authors acknowledged that, at the time of writing, most of the LIS literature in this area was focused on instructional efforts for undergraduates, whereas a much smaller group of studies discussed graduate students, and even fewer addressed the concerns of doctoral students.38 Writing in 1995, the authors addressed what the future would look like for the process of conducting research to compile the literature review in the networked environment. They stated that the Internet “presents major challenges in the preparation of students for a dissertation” and expressed concern that librarians’ efforts to prepare teaching faculty for the coming changes to scholarly communication wrought by networked communication had not been extended to doctoral students.39
Maria Grant and Marlowe Berg conducted focus groups to investigate the introduction and applications of information literacy in the doctoral-level classroom, providing both proof of the need for such programs and a helpful template for replication.40 In an effort to reveal the role of librarians or the library in reducing the levels of dissertation research anxiety, Lise Dyckman studied journal entries submitted by a small number of doctoral students, revealing that dissertation-stage students often experience feelings of isolation and high stress.41 Peter Macauley and Anthony Cavanaugh provided examples, based on a pilot project, of advanced library service models designed for doctoral students in specific programs.42 For a study presented at the 56th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Information Science, Nancy Thomas also used focus groups to gather data on the information needs of doctoral students at the beginning of the research process.43 Green and Macauley contrasted the experiences of Australian and American doctoral students and the librarians who assisted them in their search for information, identifying the hallmarks of the doctoral experience and concomitant opportunities for librarians to provide information guidance.44
Vicki L. Waytowich, Anthony J. Onwuegbuzie, and Qun G. Jiao looked at the quality of citations in doctoral dissertation proposals to assess the connection between citation errors, library anxiety, and perfectionism.45 The authors were troubled to note the high number of citation errors in the work of students who were at the end of their coursework, saying “the fact that the citation error rate does not appear to improve as doctoral students advance through their programs calls into question whether faculty and mentors are paying sufficient attention to this issue.”46 Their findings indicated a strong correlation between feelings of library anxiety and citation errors, leading the authors to conclude “interventions that can help to reduce anxiety levels also might help to reduce citation error rates.”47 [End Page 205]
Acknowledging that “students’ information searching skills are initially inadequate, even at the PhD level,” Samuel Chu and Nancy Law conducted a longitudinal study to assess the process by which research skills such as subject term searching develop over a doctoral student’s course of study. 48 The authors found that many beginning students did not understand the requirements for effective subject-domain searching in databases. After coming to understand the necessity for exact terminology, the students were likely to conduct keyword searches. The complexity of the students’ keyword searches also increased as their studies proceeded, eventually incorporating truncation and Boolean and proximity operators. The authors concluded that “research students, including those at the PhD level, do not know how to use certain searching techniques properly, even for those with which they claim to be familiar.”49
The experiences, skills, and needs of doctoral students have been the focus of dissertations, as well. Laurene Zaporozhetz studied faculty advisors’ approaches to preparing students for writing the literature review and found that many advisors provide little guidance in the process of collecting resources for and writing the literature review, considering it both the least important part of the dissertation and the section they were least proficient in themselves.50 Claudia Morner constructed and tested an instrument for assessing PhD students’ possession of the skills necessary for writing the literature review and found that only 50 percent of those who participated in the study successfully demonstrated such mastery.51
Information Behavior of Social Scientists in the LIS Literature
Because the approach to research taken by a discipline forms such a strong part of its culture,52 in order to better understand the norms and expectations of scholars from social sciences disciplines, it is important to have an understanding of their approach to research. A large number of studies of the information behavior of social scientists as a general group and of members of individual disciplines have been conducted over the years; a thorough review of them is beyond the scope of this paper.53 It is worth noting, however, that these studies, in aggregate, establish some distinct hallmarks of social scientists’ information behavior.
Maurice Line’s INFROSS (Investigation into Information Requirements of the Social Sciences) project was one of the first large-scale studies of social scientists. Using a large respondent group and mixed methods, Line determined that social science researchers rely more heavily on journal literature than monographs and practice citation chaining and consulting with experts and colleagues to seek source materials for research. They do not, however, utilize the assistance of librarians or consult library-generated resources like catalogs.54 Several subsequent studies have indicated similar findings.55
The late 1970s and 1980s marked the “cognitive turn” in information science research, a shift in orientation away from focusing on the resource as research agent to a greater emphasis on the user.56 Studies of social scientists’ information behavior began to reflect this change, as evidenced by David Ellis’ development of a six-step behavioral model of social scientists’ information-seeking: [End Page 206]
1. Starting: activities characteristic of the initial search for information
2. Chaining: following chains of citations or other forms of referential connection between material
3. Browsing: semi-directed searching in an area of potential interest
4. Differentiating: using differences between sources as filters on the nature and quality of the material examined
5. Monitoring: maintaining awareness of developments in a field through the monitoring of particular sources
6. Extracting: systematically working through a particular source to locate material of interest57
Noting that Ellis’ model predates the Internet and Web-based research tools, Lokman Meho and Helen Tibbo updated it to include four additional steps that reflect information behavior in the electronic environment: accessing, networking, verifying, and information managing.58 In both the articles by Ellis and Lokman and Tibbo, the authors point out that these steps do not constitute discrete events, but “features” of an iterative process.59
Meho and Tibbo also point out similarities between Ellis’ model and Carol Kuhlthau’s Information Search Process (ISP).60 “Although Kuhlthau’s model is not focused specifically on graduate students or social scientists, two elements make it particularly helpful for librarians—Kuhlthau’s identification and description of six stages in an information-intensive project like a paper or dissertation and the corresponding points in the process called “zones of intervention,” described as phases “in which an information user can do with advice and assistance what he or she cannot do alone or can do only with difficulty. Intervention within this zone enables individuals to progress in the accomplishment of their task.”61 An equally important point for librarians is Kuhlthau’s assertion that offering assistance outside a zone of intervention “is inefficient and unnecessary, experienced by users as intrusive on the one hand and overwhelming on the other.”62 In other words, understanding the process involved in a specific research process can be helpful in terms of knowing when not to attempt intervention.
The Study in Question: Findings
The focus groups that served as a basis for this project generated a great deal of interesting conversation and observations. Although the student respondents generally indicated considerable confidence in their facility with research tools, several comments indicated misunderstanding of or gaps in knowledge about the appropriate use of the library and its resources (including librarians). Although this type of comment informed the researchers about PhD students’ needs for guidance in their information activities, their descriptions of the transformative nature of the process of earning a PhD provided [End Page 207] the authors a different sort of revelation, emphasizing that the changes in knowledge, skills, responsibility, and the internal and external identity that students experience shape their information behavior.
Several scholars of organizational behavior have identified three phases in the process of socialization to a new role: exploration of the new role, giving up an old role, and adjustment of self and role to each other.63 It was possible to identify two themes in the students’ comments related to this transformation—changing identities and seeking assistance.
Undergraduate to Graduate Student
PhD students’ attempts to separate themselves from undergraduates in terms of skill, knowledge, and purpose reflect what John Van Maanen and Edgar Schein refer to as “divestiture,” or the process of abandoning an old role so that a new role may be adopted (investiture).64 Throughout the focus group sessions, participants’ comments indicated a consciousness somewhere between divestiture and investiture: “I think as graduate students we are between undergraduate and faculty. …We don’t feel quite as proficient as faculty and certainly feel more proficient than the undergrad level.”
When asked about specific differences from their undergraduate experience, participants emphasized changes in their research process: “I think [my research process] is much more systematic. I am much better at narrowing my search much faster—in undergraduate I was inundated.” After years of research, doctoral students know what to expect when beginning a project: “As an undergrad I would get assigned a paper, so I would go and look at everything. Now I think it starts out much more focused.” Participants also described using different sources as graduate students than those they employed in their undergraduate work: “Now I concentrate on journal publications and conference proceedings. When I was [an] undergrad student, I didn’t consider journal publications.” They are also aware of the difference in role they play as PhD students: “Undergrad students are like consumers of knowledge; on the other hand, graduate students are like producers of knowledge.”
Most of the focus group participants had teaching responsibilities and wanted their students to visit the physical library: “My students don’t use the library as much as undergrads as they should—they go straight to the Internet first. I had a senior two years ago who had never been to the library. They don’t physically come here.” Ironically, many of the participants indicated themselves that they do not visit the physical space of the library, choosing instead to leverage technology in order to conduct research and “barely…leave my little computer room at home.” Unfortunately, few of these instructors reported organizing library instruction sessions for their students.
Although many of the students were involved in experimental studies or fieldwork, they relied heavily on journals, especially electronic journals for the purposes of a literature review. Many of them indicated that they rarely visited the physical library, relying instead on personal print libraries, advisors’ personal libraries, and journals that could be accessed remotely, only coming to the library as a “last resource” or to “use the [End Page 208] library resources in the later stages to pick up some extra references.” The approach of these students can be summarized in the comments of this respondent:
I love the electronic capabilities that I have now at this university as compared to my undergraduate university—it’s phenomenal. Unless it is a certain really old source, I barely have to leave my little computer room at home nowadays for the kind of information that I access.
Discussing the process of reviewing the literature for his dissertation—a project that represented a more historical approach than he had been using in other research—one student speculated that his work would “require a trip to the library and talk with the librarian and relearning how to find those things and learning how to search databases that I’m not familiar with. Down the road, I will be more of the traditional library user”; presumably, using the library more in the manner of an undergraduate than graduate student.
From Generalist to Specialist
A major component of the transformation that occurs during a doctoral program is socialization into the discipline of study.65 Ann Austin stresses the importance of the research structure of each discipline in shaping the experiences of its members,66 for example, the professional life of a psychologist who collects data for research by conducting experiments as a member of a team differs significantly from that of a historian who spends hours consulting historical documents in archives. Jim L. Turner, Matthew Miller, and Claudia Mitchell-Kernan have gone so far as to outline “cultural” differences between “lone-scholar” disciplines such as history and “collaborative” disciplines such as the laboratory sciences.67
Within the academy, pronounced research specialization within an academic discipline is regarded as highly desirable,68 and respondents reported that faculty mentors emphasize the importance of developing a focused research agenda in the course of the PhD program, leading to the development of specialized research skills. Unsurprisingly, respondents’ optimism about embarking on a particular research project or using a specific resource seemed to be affected by their experience with the topic or resource in question, as demonstrated in this comment:
Whether I feel excited or if I feel “Oh, my god, where do I start?” depends on my experience in the area. But I am taking a course that I haven’t taken before, so I am having to look in different resources, and that’s really kind of thrown me for a loop because what usually works for me and I am confident in [doesn’t work]. …[Now] I have had to learn a whole new process for this different facet of my field.
Another student’s comments echoed this situational unease:
For certain classes… we can’t really choose to do things we love and enjoy and know about. So, often times we’re thrust into new venues, and that, for me, creates anxiety.
Statements made by respondents regarding approaches to locating material, preferred types of material, and sources for assistance with information-seeking and location corroborate [End Page 209] findings of earlier studies of social scientists’ information behavior,69 including a heavy reliance on the “citation chaining” technique of building a bibliography: “If I can find one good article on my topic, that’s all I need. Then I can go to the bibliography. …It’s like a snowball effect.” The comments of focus group respondents suggest that JSTOR has done an excellent job of branding its product; it was by far the resource mentioned by name most frequently by students of all disciplines. The Latin American studies students who participated in Mazurkiewicz and Potts’ survey reported a similar affinity for JSTOR, a trend the authors considered problematic, pointing out that JSTOR content is typically heavily embargoed and lacks points of entry to the material beyond keyword searching thus making it, in their opinion, a less than ideal stand alone research resource.70
From Student to Scholar
Although several studies have shown that a strong relationship with a faculty mentor is the single best preventive for doctoral student attrition,71 examination of the facultydoctoral student dynamic has shown that faculty advisors provide PhD students with little guidance in acquiring the nuts and bolts information skills needed to complete the literature review effectively.72 The effect of this lack of guidance was evident in comments by several focus group respondents that indicated that the confidence students feel at the beginning of a research project flags quickly once the information search is underway. As sources accumulate, several respondents indicated that they begin feeling overwhelmed and find that determining the relevance of sources to the question at hand to be particularly difficult: “I have a hard time figuring out…what is the important stuff and what is the stuff I should be filtering out.” For some, this difficulty extends to processing the gathered information: “I guess I start to get nervous when I start to try to integrate everything I found. …I have a problem figuring out how to integrate all the articles, what’s most important, what I should leave out, [and] what points are most important.” Another student expressed frustration with what he perceived as unreasonable expectations on the part of faculty, saying, “I don’t know why it is presumed as a doctoral student you are comfortable doing literature review, and after two years you will be confident enough to write your dissertation.”
These statements echoed findings in higher education research; PhD students do not receive significant mentoring from faculty.73 The students’ descriptions of the research tool-related instruction and guidance offered by faculty indicate that faculty believe students’ research skills should be well-honed at the point of matriculation. Very few respondents described specific guidance or instruction offered or encouraged by their faculty. This student’s statement was typical:
I was pretty well drilled as an undergrad on how to use PsycInfo. They don’t do anything formal in the Psyche Program here to teach you, not even in research methods—they don’t do anything formal as far as teaching you how to use it. They expect you know how to use it.
The view that the beginning of the academic career has shifted from acceptance of the first tenure-track appointment to the doctoral program certainly had traction with the [End Page 210] focus group participants. An increasingly more competitive marketplace has made them aware of the importance of their doctoral performance in the overall academic life-cycle.
I think it is different for me now because there is more pressure with the research I am doing now; it is building my career for the future. In undergrad, I didn’t care about the quality of my research because I wasn’t considering publication. Now there is pressure to make it very innovative or make it very perfect. The entire process is to make it so it will help your career. …In undergrad, it was make it so you will make a good grade.
PhD students seem especially concerned about their performance on the dissertation because they see its impact on the future. Because of this, some of them reported that “thinking that you need to create and be original enough, and yet still [be empirically grounded] to support whatever hypothesis you are working on…and thinking about dedicating two years of your life writing this paper that will theoretically work” left them feeling “panicked, overwhelmed.”
Most focus group respondents reported seeking limited assistance from faculty, more significant assistance from colleagues, and negligible assistance from librarians. Several respondents seemed to have the attitude that the time for instruction in research tools and techniques was behind them, that showing a lack of research skill and knowledge at the point of doctoral studies would be inappropriate. “As a master’s student, it wasn’t so much expected that you knew what to do. At that point, I would have felt very comfortable asking, but now…it is just pretty much expected; it is something basic we should already know how to do.” These statements are consistent with findings that have been reported in studies of graduate students’ participation in library instruction.74
None of the respondents reported a formal library instruction session having been arranged for them by faculty or faculty requiring or even suggesting that students make an appointment with the liaison librarian. One student did proudly report that “the department head (anthropology) used to come into [the] research methods class and speak to…[us] about using the library and online databases. He…[told] us to be nice to the reference librarian, who is…[our] best friend.” In spite of the endorsement, this faculty member did not invite the liaison librarian to meet his students or provide instruction for them. Respondents’ reluctance to ask for assistance from faculty, even when needed, recurred throughout the focus groups. Although respondents expressed excitement at “the prospect of striking out and doing something fairly big,” they seemed acutely aware of the importance of presenting themselves as competent researchers and felt that the stakes for their producing successful research are higher than they were earlier in their academic careers. Therefore, they are reluctant to ask faculty for assistance with “nuts-and-bolts” [End Page 211] aspects of research tools, such as the operation or capabilities of a database. In the words of one respondent, “I can’t fathom going to my advisor and asking, ‘Where do I start?’ I would ask if they know of a new source that is coming out,…but I can’t imagine now asking where to start. It is the evolution of being a grad student.”
This perceived development of skill was echoed by several students, many of whom indicated they considered asking assistance with research tools to be more acceptable early in doctoral studies but that faculty expected their research skills to improve as they progressed through the program stages.
When I first started, I…[often] went to my advisor, “Look at this. …What do I look at?” and he would hand me some sources. Now, I think if I went in and asked him, he would… [say], “You can find that on your own.” It has definitely evolved over the course of my studies. Now I would only go to him if I got stuck.
Students referred frequently to asking colleagues for research assistance rather than pursuing help from faculty or librarians:
I go to my colleagues when I am embarrassed to ask my mentor if I feel like [it’s] a question that I should know the answer to already. …I am very confident talking to my advisor, but I don’t want him to think I’m clueless, so it is easier for me to talk with older students.
Cultural differences in the students’ experiences of libraries and librarians play a large role as an influencing factor in students’ information-seeking process. Several of the international students in our focus groups echoed this: “For research stuff, I have never experienced asking the librarian. In Korea, the librarian doesn’t have the specific knowledge of research area[s], so I don’t have to ask them about the research process.” These students may also rely on compatriots for assistance, a happening that’s facilitated by electronic communication. “Sometimes I e-mail to my friends in [my] native country, “Please tell me how.” He will give me the name,…and I will get it at the education library. …I ask him, my friend in my native country, not here.” International students may also feel less at ease with faculty than their American counterparts. “Sometimes asking the professor, I feel like [I] don’t want to bother my professor. There may be a cultural difference.”
Some respondents seemed unaffected by their colleagues’ reluctance to approach faculty for assistance and reported a more collegial environment, as in this student’s experience: “Faculty members sometimes come to us; they’ll have to ask us, ‘Have you seen this?’ It has happened a couple of times. They’ll say, ‘This isn’t really something that I have looked at, but I think you have, do you have some suggestions?’” Some saw faculty as a continued resource: “I don’t see going to them meaning that you aren’t good at the research [but] more as if they could…save me time. I’m not going to be determined to spend 20 hours on something they could help me with in five minutes.”
Others focused on what they see as the collegial culture of academe and see asking faculty for guidance as being part of a collaborative relationship. “I don’t think it is showing incompetency [sic]. As a PhD student, especially, you should be working in a collegial environment, and, if you were in a faculty position somewhere else, you would be approaching your faculty members in the same way, throwing ideas around. So I [End Page 212] think it would be showing your…[intelligence] that you are willing to discuss topics.” This is probably highly dependent on the culture of the individual program in question. Said one student, “Learning from someone who knows things better than you is one of the…[benefits] in the way our department is set up.”
Whether or not they preferred to seek assistance from colleagues or instructors, most respondents were disinclined to consult librarians for help. Even if they did not consider seeking assistance from an advisor, several respondents dismissed the idea of consulting a librarian. “I couldn’t imagine ever going to the librarian. …I think I have done that twice in my life.” Though there was sometimes no clear explanation for this disinclination (“I know I should…at the same I don’t go to the librarian.”) some respondents seemed afraid that asking a librarian for assistance would be akin to “someone else is doing my job. …I am trying to make this person work for me,” while others questioned a librarian’s real helpfulness in specialized research. At times, this attitude stemmed from prior negative experience: “I remember one time in high school going to librarian for help on a research project I was doing and… my topic was specific enough [that] she didn’t even know what to tell me.” Some students at the doctoral level may feel that their research is so specialized that a librarian lacks the knowledge necessary to provide assistance: “I am in such a concentrated area I feel like I know how to use the library well enough. I definitely do ask other students in the program.”
Follow-up Study: Survey of Librarians
The localized nature of the focus groups raised questions about the generalizability of findings. Were library-related services to doctoral students being offered at other institutions with more success? To answer this question, the focus groups were followed up with a Web-based survey of academic librarians. In order to prevent self-selection, the initial invitation did not mention doctoral students specifically. The survey itself, however, focused on the kinds of specialized services being provided for doctoral students as well as the respondents’ own knowledge of the doctoral study process and attainment of advanced degrees beyond the MLIS. Librarians were invited (via ILI-L and ULS-L listservs) to participate in a survey about “the extent to which specialized services are being offered to individual groups of academic library constituents.”75 Ultimately, 148 librarians completed the survey.
In response to the question “Does your library offer specialized services and/or programs that are EXCLUSIVELY designed for and available to doctoral students?” 63.5 percent of respondents answered no or “I don’t know.” Very few of the services described by respondents who indicated that their institutions provided specialized services seemed truly designed to suit the needs of doctoral students, instead reflecting more generic library services such as course-related instruction and individual research consultations. These findings, considered with reports from other studies that graduate students in general do not take advantage of specialized services, demonstrate that this is a systemic problem for PhD students and the librarians who would serve them.76
Some respondents described programs and services that were more customized for doctoral students, such as dissertation workshops, collaborative arrangements with on-campus writing centers, and for-credit, librarian-taught courses in the research tools [End Page 213] of a specific field. The successes of these programs indicate that there is room and potential for improving services to doctoral students at schools not currently addressing this group’s needs directly.77
Recommendations for Librarians
The focus group discussions indicated that, whereas several of the participant students would benefit from the type of information and guidance in the use of research tools that librarians can provide, they are reluctant to seek assistance for a variety of reasons. Although all were open to services the library might be able to provide, they were extremely specific about what might be useful to them. If librarians attempt to expand their concept of the PhD from a single project (the dissertation or another paper with which they might provide assistance) to a collective information search process, which encompasses the entirety of the transformation from student to scholar, the role of the library and the librarian (as established through Kuhlthau’s zones of intervention) looks entirely different.
Become Known…and Trusted
One of the consistent findings in studies of graduate students’ use of the library, its resources, and services, is the students’ lack of awareness of the library’s offerings.78 The focus group respondents in this study confirmed this claim; in many cases the students we spoke to seemed open to receiving assistance from librarians but did not know what—or even if—services were available: “I wouldn’t actually know what to ask the librarian, even if I had constant access. I wouldn’t know what that person could offer. …I need an introduction to what that person could offer.” This lack of understanding of the librarian’s potential helpfulness reinforced our belief that librarians must assertively establish contact with doctoral students and explicitly and frequently explain both the credentials that qualify them to provide assistance to doctoral-level researchers and the range of services they are prepared to offer. In response to a question about their openness to a liaison librarian holding in-department office hours, one psychology student said, “In the psych department, [it] is how well known that person is within the department, [and] we all know who to go to for specific things, like statistics…[and] autism. We trust them, and they have to have a good reputation within the department. But if they are just a person sitting in an office, then, no, I wouldn’t go.” Another student suggested, “I think the librarian should be introduced during student orientation, ‘Hi, my name is, here is my office. …’ Occasionally send out e-mails, ‘Here’s some cool stuff.’ [They] have to remind people that they are there.” Several students were open to the idea of their department’s liaison librarian being invited to “come in one day and even teach a workshop and incorporat[e] them into the department.”
Librarians who expect teaching faculty to refer doctoral students to liaison librarians may find themselves waiting a long time; very few respondents reported faculty having mentioned seeking assistance from a librarian or arranging librarian-led skills instruction for their doctoral-level classes. Consequently, focus group participants from departments for which liaison librarians had not made a specific effort to communicate [End Page 214] with doctoral students did not know them. In fact, very few student respondents were aware of the existence of such a program, let alone the identity of the specific liaison librarian for their discipline.
One librarian was well known to students from her department in spite of having only been its liaison for two years. Respondent students from her department remembered both her identity and the services she provided; each of them specifically mentioned the e-mail newsletter this librarian sent to them on a regular basis. This illustrates an essential recommendation: librarians must endeavor to communicate directly with the doctoral students they serve, not rely on faculty to pass information along to them. As illustrated by the efforts of the well-remembered librarian in question, e-mail can be quite effective. It is important to emphasize, however, that, although it may not be wise to rely on faculty to convey messages to their students or encourage them to make research appointments, it is essential that librarians be known and trusted by faculty as well as their students. A faculty member’s endorsement of a librarian’s ability or helpfulness may be one of the most important factors in encouraging PhD students to approach that librarian for assistance.
Most importantly, librarians should not expect to serve doctoral level students in the same manner as faculty, undergraduates, or even master’s-level students. Doctoral students have unique problems and concerns and are highly skeptical of services that they fear may be irrelevant.
Make Services for Doctoral Students Efficient and Relevant
A recurring theme in discussions with these students was the need for time-effective and relevant services and resources. For example, they are skeptical of “drop-in” library instruction sessions and library workshops that seem too general. Said one student, “If I know that a workshop is going to be offered, and I have a paper due using that resource, then that would be helpful. If I don’t, then I don’t think I would be very likely to attend.” They are also wary of investing valuable hours attending an instruction session that may turn out to be irrelevant to them. “The only way it [library instruction] would be helpful is if it were tailored to psychology. My experience in group things is that they are not talking to me; they are talking to master’s-level students.” Another student, who as an undergraduate had been “forced to go” to library instruction sessions by an enthusiastic professor, echoed this fear: “It was pretty useless every time I went. I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know. …They gave me the impression that they were trying to tell us everything about using library resources.” This comment underscores again the effect prior experience with libraries and librarians can have on a student’s [End Page 215] willingness to revisit librarian-provided services. Even those who were familiar with their liaison librarian were unlikely to make a research appointment. Rather, they might approach the reference desk, e-mail the librarian with a specific question, or try to “catch” someone.
Roy Tennant’s assertion that “only librarians like to search; everyone else likes to find”79 was confirmed by comments made in the focus groups; some of the respondents indicated a willingness to forgo “the best” resource in favor of something that was easier or more convenient. One student said that receiving “[information about] changes to databases would be helpful because if I don’t find something one time I am not likely to go back.” She was also unlikely to seek out developments in research tools in her field, saying that it would be helpful to receive notice of new resources: “I would have no idea if no one told me.” Another student expressed interest in receiving notification of programs and services electronically because “if it is something that I am interested in, I will immediately pull out my planner and put it down. If something is posted, then I don’t have my planner, or I don’t have time to stand in the hallway and write it down. If it is posted on the Internet, then you need to remember to check for it.” Agreed another student, “I never remember to go to Web sites and check periodically.”
Doctoral students, especially those in the dissertation stage, are highly likely to conduct research from locations other than their home university. The focus group respondents indicated that they are heavy users of library-provided electronic resources and indicated interest in participating in workshops and instruction from a remote location. In part, this interest in technology reflects a desire to fit the library into their schedules: “Having a workshop is helpful, but finding the time to attend would be hard, so having a link with technology, so I could watch it in my room at two in the morning when I can’t sleep would work.” If this sounds daunting, an e-mail newsletter is a great place to start.
Although our respondents were skeptical about the usefulness of their departmental liaison librarian holding in-department office hours, they were quite positive about the idea of “virtual” office hours via chat or IM software. It is important for librarians to note that, because institutional policies may make it difficult for doctoral students to secure convenient on-campus parking or office space, many spend little time on campus while writing the dissertation. Some may, in fact, have moved on to a faculty position with the understanding that the dissertation will be completed shortly.
Both phases of this project revealed a great deal about the behavior and needs of PhD students as well as the complex nature of PhD study and the negotiations and adjustments PhD students contend with. In many ways the academic career does, indeed, begin during doctoral study. Through the process of earning the PhD, students not only learn how to do research but also become acculturated to the norms and customs of the academy at large and the discipline they have chosen to study.
In order for librarians to reach faculty effectively, it is important that they demonstrate their ability to provide assistance and support to doctoral students—the faculty of the future. PhD students appear to need guidance, especially in developing facility [End Page 216] with research tools such as databases and online catalogs in preparation for the literature review, and further research is needed into the “zones of intervention” particular to PhD study. It is possible that librarians could provide that guidance and gain a new generation of loyal users and advocates who are positioned to help the academic library maintain relevance in the 21st century academy.
Rachel Fleming-May is instructor, School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, Alabama; she may be contacted via email at:email@example.com.
The authors are grateful to the reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions. We also wish to thank portal: Libraries and the Academy Managing Editor Marcia Duncan Lowry for her assistance with this manuscript.
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23. Libutti and Kopala.
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28. Golde, 199–228.
29. Austin, 96.
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39. Ibid., 18.
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58. Meho and Tibbo.
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70. Mazurkiewicz and Potts, 170-1.
71. Laura Gail Lunsford, “Mentoring and Talent Development: Doctoral Advisors and Their Proteges” (PhD diss., North Carolina State University, 2001).
72. Zaporozhetz; Boote and Beile, 3–15.
73. Austin, 113.
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76. Fleming-May, unpublished data.
78. Washington-Hoagland and Clougherty; Stein et al.; Kristin Hoffmann et al.; and Zaporozhetz.
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