OSU librarians find gaps in support for graduate students

Students pass through the library quad at Oregon State University. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

A study by three Oregon State University librarians has found that graduate students have a strong desire for more support, more resources and better communication networks with their fellow students.

The researchers found that graduate students pose a unique challenge to those who provide university services because they take on multiple roles, including student, teacher and researcher. And depending on the college or department that is supporting them, those students face a range of obstacles in accessing the kind of support they’re looking for, whether that be social, academic or financial.

What began as a focus group to assess how the library could better utilize its space for graduate students led librarians to discover that some of those students struggle with basic research and teaching needs.

“Seemingly small hurdles can add undue stress and frustration to the lives of graduate students,” the librarians said.

In February 2010, an OSU Libraries graduate student services committee gathered 36 graduate students from eight colleges and 26 departments across campus and held focus groups to identify barriers to their success. Librarians Hannah Gascho Rempel, Uta Hussong-Christian and Margaret Mellinger then analyzed the results of those conversations to break down the types of needs identified. Those results are being published in an article in the November edition of the Journal of Academic Librarianship.

The support requests surprised the librarians. Many students had simple needs, like, for instance, a three-hole punch, or access to free copy services so they didn’t have to pay to photocopy items for their undergraduate students on their own dime.

“Some of the graduate students didn’t even have funds available for printing out the handouts they needed to teach class,” Mellinger said.

While some students in the better-funded colleges seemed to have a strong level of support, other students, the “have-nots,” as Gascho Rempel referred to them, talked about sharing one office and two computers with three other graduate students.

“Some of these students are not as well-supported as others and were bearing a substantial cost,” said Hussong-Christian. “That was a little shocking.”

Because of the complex role they play on campus, and because they’re often sequestered in their own departments, outreach to graduate students isn’t always easy.

“You can get ‘siloed’ a little bit (in your area of expertise) and it’s easy to not see where the gaps are,” said Gascho Rempel. “So in seeing this broader cross section of folks we started thinking about a more holistic way of looking at graduate students.”

Among the responses was a request that spanned all students — a way to interact with graduate students outside of their discipline, whether that was a physical or a virtual space where they could communicate with other students, learn about their research and perhaps support each other.

“The desire to communicate with students outside of their own field was expressed by many,” Hussong-Christian said. “And they wanted to learn about what other research is happening on campus and make connections with other researchers.”

Many graduate students wanted to see an online database of the research projects going on across campus, mainly for the opportunity to do cross-disciplinary, collaborative work with other students, or to learn about equipment available in labs outside of their department that might aid their own work.

Other issues, including creating a shared graduate student social space or an online research database, will have to be taken on in conjunction with or by other units on campus.

“While it is important to remove policy and procedural barriers and develop long-term plans to accommodate graduate students, this study alerted us to problems that go well beyond what the library can do alone,” the researchers wrote.

Many of the issues identified in the report have also been noted by the OSU Graduate School, which is working on the development of a new five-year strategic plan. One priority goal identified in this plan focuses on improving the quality of graduate student experiences, including: the creation of a Graduate Student Network for improved peer-to-peer collaboration; a Graduate Student Liaison position to improve outreach to students across campus; and increased financial and mentorship resources. Another goal identified in the plan is providing increased support and resources for interdisciplinary graduate student research.

The Graduate School will be asking for feedback and input from graduate students over the coming year to ensure their voices and needs are reflected in the five-year strategic plan.

The librarians hope to do a follow-up study to look at the difference between the better supported versus the resource poor graduate student populations, and find ways to focus library services on the most underserved populations.

~ Theresa Hogue

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