Conversations with Colleagues: Part I. Working with Student RAs

By Katya MacDonald
University Library, University of Saskatchewan

Editors Note: This is part one of a two part series. Catherine Boden, C-EBLIP Director

On April 9th, as part of what was originally meant to be a four-part series of lunch hour conversation sessions at the University of Saskatchewan Library about themes in librarian research, a group of researchers gathered to discuss their experiences of working with student research assistants (RAs).

The original description for the session read:

Hiring student research assistants can be an important support for research projects, and is a growing category of assessment for grant applications. But at times, managing student RAs is a separate experience from the actual research experience. Join librarians as they discuss the ins and outs of working with student RAs, incorporating their work into your research plan, and the strengths and challenges of involving students in this way. Bring your own questions and experiences to this open discussion.

The vision was to bring colleagues together for an opportunity to share, question, and reflect through conversation: conversations that can be hard to come by in the day-to-day of individual research endeavours. When it became clear that the conversation would not be able to proceed in person, the researchers leading off the session with their remarks, Vicky Duncan (Health Sciences Librarian) and Jaclyn McLean (Electronic Resources Librarian), agreed to share their conversation via WebEx instead. All the participants gamely persevered through some technological hindrances to share valuable insights.

Vicky and Jaclyn introduced the session by sharing their processes of learning and experience when involving student research assistants. They shared what are common experiences for faculty members seeking to hire students: that it’s hard to know where to begin and proceed with the hiring process, especially in the context of the library and not a specific department with its own cadre of students to approach. They found, though, that researchers in other disciplines working on complementary projects were happy to recommend students or suggest possible avenues to explore

The next challenge is choosing the right student, and determining an effective training process for that student. There’s often background guidance required, not only in the specific research tasks, but also in complementary skills like citation styles or knowledge of databases. If that initial training has gaps, it can be time-consuming later on to fill in additional knowledge for the student. It’s better to err on the side of giving too much detail and direct instruction than too little.

At the same time, grad students in particular can bring methodological experience and disciplinary knowledge that can complement the research. Regardless of the student’s level of experience or self-sufficiency, holding regular meetings and maintaining an archive of the meeting minutes creates a useful reference and foundation for future work for student and researcher alike.