Working with Your Librarian: Advice and Resources for Doctoral Students

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Guest post by Sharon Ince, Digital Services Librarian/Associate Professor, Seton Hall University Libraries and Christopher Hoadley, Associate Professor, New York University

Scholars, whether established faculty or new PhD students, are in the job of producing knowledge. The way they do this involves a lot of activities that are based in their disciplines: running a psychology experiment or examining a collection of texts for a historical analysis, just to name two. But there are some more general activities that cut across disciplines that most scholars engage in: locating and reading relevant prior literature, managing data, documents, and citations, and publishing and sharing their work. These types of activities often involve making use of resources via some combination of the internet, libraries, and other colleagues. Increasingly, these types of activities happen with the help of technology tools and in collaboration with colleagues, whether a student, a mentor, a coauthor, or a reviewer. We have conducted research on the ways both junior (doctoral students) and established scholars (faculty) build workflows to accomplish their scholarly goals and below we highlight some advice for doctoral students.

Finding and selecting relevant resources: Your professors will be introducing you to literature in your area, but inevitably you’ll have to go beyond syllabi or faculty recommendations to find and select relevant literature, whether to solve a particular problem, learn a new area, or to stay current with advances over time. And, in many cases there are sophisticated tools available to make this easier. Your subject librarian is your best ally to assist you in your research journey. Each library will have a subject librarian for your area of study and a research guide to get you started. It is beneficial to establish a relationship with your subject librarian early, as she/he will be able to support your research throughout your time as a doctoral student. Why is this important? Tools like Google Search or Google Scholar are invaluable for general searches, but every discipline has more specialized ways of looking for what you need. Librarians can not only guide how you use, for instance, a specialized database or catalog, but also help teach you why you might need it in the first place. Subject librarians are cross-trained in library science and in your subject discipline, and will help you locate the best resources and teach you how to do relevant searching to dig through this information. They can also help you to flesh out your research questions and refer you to new sources or connect you with others in your research area. Accessing resources is getting easier with internet search and open repositories of various sorts, but the majority of scholarly literature still costs money—unless you use your library. Additionally, your subject librarian can help you with finding and using citation management software. Libraries frequently provide training on, or licenses for, tools to manage bibliographic information with freely available tools such as Zotero or Mendeley, thus allowing you to maintain your bibliography beyond your doctorate.

Saving and organizing your resources: Piles of PDFs, dozens of different versions of spreadsheets or manuscript drafts, snippets of bibliographies scattered across multiple documents: the clutter produced by academic work can become overwhelming quickly, and more importantly, can hamper your success. Being able to make connections across materials over the long haul is essential in the life of a scholar, but unlike in undergraduate programs, you may never know when something you encounter will be necessary in the future, and nobody wants to be the person who loses their PhD thesis when a laptop is stolen or a folder is accidentally deleted. While collecting data and/or literature you will need to think about how you save and organize information, whether literature, archival sources, datasets, video, audio, images, etc. Creating habits and systems that help you stay on top of these things may require effort up front, but these will pay off handsomely over time. Again, there are both general-purpose and specialized tools to help you. Many university libraries offer Research Data Services (RDS) within the library. This team of librarians/data analysts/IT specialists will be able to teach you best practices for data management that help balance concerns like reliability, access and sharing, legal and ethical obligations, and ease of upkeep. You will most likely be able to have a consultation or attend a workshop.

This will teach you proper ways to back up your data, which is a necessary skill when applying for grants. Your RDS service could also help you identify what type of storage is needed depending on the sensitivity of your data. Additionally you can seek out help from your RDS team to learn data analysis software and skills or obtain new skills—RDS will often offer classes and/or consultations. As you move through your scholarly career, different collaborations will likely require adapting your systems to align with other researchers’ workflows. Librarians can help provide an overview of ways different scholars organize resources as their needs change or suggest specific ways to migrate from one set of tools or practices to another.

Sharing your work: Publishing is the beginning, not the end, of sharing your scholarly work. There are more ways to ensure that people find and use your work than ever before, and it is becoming easier and easier to help people connect to you. From posting a CV or scholarly page online to participating in discussions on Twitter, there are many ways to be part of the larger conversation in your field. For instance, you will want to consider having an academic presence online through a scholarly web page or profile where you can share your work. A complicated landscape of directories and repositories exists to help scholars find one another, with varying policies and degrees of openness. Librarians can help you identify the ones that are most relevant to you, whether it is an institutional repository that can keep a PDF of your publication available in the same place online in perpetuity or a service like that allows you to establish a unique ID so people know all your publications are yours and which may be required for publications or grant proposals. These tools can even help with things like maintaining your CV over time or helping people find you via co-authors or web searches. And, both faculty and librarians can help you learn the rules and best practices for things like establishing co-authorship or requesting permission to reuse a published diagram from a journal.

In our research on academic research workflows we have seen some general trends. First, researchers tend to use tools on the internet because they often are free and easy to use, but may overlook powerful tools provided by their libraries; be sure to look into tools that others use at your university or in your field. Second, collaboration often changes how people use different tools, so even if you are planning to work alone, consider whether you might need to collaborate with others in the future and what their tools and workflows may look like. Third, it can be difficult to move information from one tool to another, so give preference to tools that integrate with other parts of the research workflow or those that allow you to export everything to import elsewhere. Fourth, workflows face changing pressures, both in terms of shifts in technology tools and their capabilities, and in terms of how your own research processes shift over time. Early career scholars have more innovative practices and may adopt technologies more rapidly, while more senior scholars may have more established routines and resources that are well honed over long use. Anticipate that your own systems will evolve; librarians can help you do so mindfully and save a lot of effort. Your workflow is where you will “live” in your scholarly life, and just like a home, you want to make sure you set it up well in a way that suits you, with room to grow.

Sharon Ince is Digital Services Librarian/Associate Professor at Seton Hall University Libraries in South Orange, NJ. Her research primarily focuses on educational technology, instructional design, user centered design, and scholarly communications. Ince is a PhD candidate at the Open University of the Netherlands and holds an M.A. in Educational Communication and Technology from New York University and an M.L.I.S. from Rutgers University.

Christopher Hoadley is a faculty member at NYU in Educational Technology. You can follow him on Twitter @tophe.