Conversations with Colleagues: Working with Student RAs, Part II

By Katya MacDonald
University Library, University of Saskatchewan

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

In part 1, we heard from researchers who spearheaded our conversation by sharing their experiences and learnings from involving students in research. Their experiences sparked questions and commentary from other attendees, focused around a few overlapping discussions:

Funding agencies are increasingly interested in seeing meaningful student research experiences built into grant-funded projects. But who benefits most from having a student involved, and how can researchers maximize the benefit for students and researchers alike?

The amount of support that students need can vary a lot, depending not only on their level of study, but also on their existing general research knowledge and transferable writing and citation skills. Involving a student may not always be a direct time-saver in the research process, but laying out clear guidelines and a plan for frequent communication lay a foundation for successful work with student RAs.

Since the University of Saskatchewan doesn’t have an MLIS program, students who work on librarian research projects are likely to be unfamiliar with at least some of the researcher’s particular needs or approaches. Hiring a student from an analogous discipline can be a starting point for bridging those gaps, but perhaps more importantly, students with good organizational, communication, and other general work skills are likely to be well placed to integrate into the research project and their specific role.

Even once you’ve got a capable and dedicated student on board, it’s still challenging to translate tasks and gauge students’ comprehension before they get too far into the work. Session attendee Carolyn Doi highlighted a method of shadowing your own work alongside the student, to demonstrate and compare what you’re looking for, but also to train yourself how to communicate how you got the result you were aiming for. In other words, the first days and weeks of training a student are a test of students’ and researchers’ communication skills alike, and session attendees noted that they generally had to check in with students more often than they had expected to, and that being available to answer questions early on helped to build efficiency later.

How do you involve students in authorship or other scholarly outputs like conference presentations or co-authored articles?

Some grant funding (notably Tri-Agency grants) encourages meaningful research experiences for students. What can those look like in practice, beyond the day-to-day of the students’ work on the project? Session attendees reported that students experience a warm reception at academic conferences, and that the process of preparing and attending the conference strengthens teamwork as well as students’ sense of agency in the work. On a very practical level, students are also sometimes able to access additional travel funding from the conference, which eases the strain on researchers’ travel and dissemination budgets.

The session attendees noted that visions for student involvement in authorship may evolve over the course of the project. After getting to know a student and their work, expectations may change, or the student’s (or researcher’s) availability and enthusiasm may look different as the project moves forward. In the end, funding availability or the student’s general writing ability may dictate whether co-authorship is an idea to pursue.

There are also avenues that can afford students the experience of publishing, beyond the realm of a co-authored peer-reviewed publication – one option is for students to write a report on their experiences working on a research project and submit it to a journal that makes space for pieces like this.

What do you do if you need to let a student go, or the arrangement just doesn’t work out?

Research evolves, and so do students’ university lives. And in some cases, these changes may mean that a student is no longer a good fit for the research project’s needs. The student’s availability or other commitments, expectations about the work, level of experience, and time management skills may all become part of the evaluation about whether to continue the working relationship. Parting ways with a student doesn’t always need to be an uncomfortable or unilateral decision, however. As part of ongoing communication with the student about the work, you can ask the student to think honestly about their availability to continue the work, and come to a mutual agreement about whether the student will stay on.

What opportunities do you make for check-ins and debriefing, both during the research and as the project concludes?

The importance of clear communication was a theme that permeated our discussion. That communication can help to inform researchers’ future work with other students, too. The session attendees generally agreed that it would be helpful to debrief at the end of a project, to hear from the student about their experiences and what they had learned from the process. In practice, though, that may not always happen within the limitations of availability and comfort level (students’ and researchers’) with having this type of frank conversation. To lay the groundwork, it may be helpful to hold regular conversations with the student throughout the project about their expectations and experiences. But overall it’s challenging to know how to create an environment in which students are comfortable sharing feedback with their supervisor!

Any other considerations that we haven’t talked about yet?

In the context of librarian research, it’s also worth acknowledging that student supervision looks different and has different goals than for researchers in other disciplines. Librarians don’t have their own grad students, so don’t get the same recognition in tenure and promotion contexts for their work with students. Balancing funders’ expectations with researchers’ own value for money and time looks different for librarians than for other academics.

To preserve the anonymity of the students that session attendees had worked with, I’ve summarized the discussion mostly in aggregate, but I hope that within this post, you’ll hear the diverse perspectives and experiences represented, and consider this dialogue an invitation to add additional insights. How has your experience been with student RAs? Were there surprises, insights, and successes along the way? What would you do differently next time?