Student Research Assistants in Library and Information Studies Research

by Cara Bradley, Teaching and Learning Librarian
University of Regina Library

Student research assistants (RAs) play an important (and often unsung) role in the conduct of academic research. I imagine that many of you, like me, have both been a research assistant yourself (while completing a degree) and also hired student research assistants to help with your own projects.

I’ve been thinking a lot about student research assistants lately. This reflection has been prompted by my recent experience:

– applying for a Tri-Agency Grant*, an application process that emphasizes the “development of talent” and HQP (Highly Qualified Personnel)


– hiring and supervising a student research assistant

To be quite honest, I feel like I’ve done a “good-ish” job at these two endeavours, but not definitely not a great job. I’ve been trying to figure out why, and to learn what I can do to improve in the future.

As I think this through, I’ve been struck by the somewhat unique position of librarians seeking to hire students to assist with their research. Faculty in the disciplines have access to a pool of potential applicants who have studied in their field, and can usually draw a clear line between the student research assistant’s experience and the development of HQP. Unless you work at one of the few Canadian universities with a MLIS (or equivalent) program, you do not have ready access to students with an interest and/or background in your LIS, and the line between the student’s experience and HQP can seem more difficult to draw.

Further reading has led me to the conclusion (a conclusion unfortunately reached after I submitted my grant application) that I’ve been too limited in my thinking about “development of talent.” Rather than stressing about how to create mini-librarians out of those who have no desire to be such, I need to think more broadly about the experience and training that I can provide to student research assistants. Extensive navigation of the labyrinthine Tri-Agency web sites eventually led me to the (well-hidden) Guidelines for Effective Research Training, in which SSHRC asserts that research training should “build both academic (research and teaching) competencies and general professional skills, including knowledge mobilization, that would be transferable to a variety of settings.” The site goes on to list some of these “valuable skills”:

• research methods and theories;
• publication and research communication;
• knowledge mobilization and dissemination;
• teaching in diverse settings and with various technologies;
• digital literacy;
• data management and analysis;
• research ethics;
• interdisciplinary research;
• consultation and community engagement;
• project and human resources management;
• leadership and teamwork; and/or
• workshops and conferences.

Hey, wait a minute! Those are exactly the kinds of skills that my grant-funded student research assistant would develop. This was a light-bulb moment for me. Although the grant application necessarily focuses on the details and minutiae of the proposed research project, I need to take a step back from this when describing the kinds of transferable skills that students would gain through working on my project. This insight will also help me to better engage and communicate with my research assistants, supporting them to realize and articulate their experience in ways that will benefit them in future research and employment environments.

I’ve also benefited from my reading of some of the literature around faculty-student mentoring relationships, as I’ve found that this relationship more closely reflects what I hope to offer student research assistants. In particular, Lechuga’s conceptualization of faculty as “allies, ambassadors, and master-teachers,” strikes a chord with me. He writes that the faculty he studied served as

allies to their students and took a supportive approach in working with them. Participants were apt to focus on the specific individual needs of their graduate students, either academically or otherwise. This finding is in line with other research on faculty-student relationships that has demonstrated the importance of providing personal support through formal and informal interactions

He goes on to describe another faculty role as that of “ambassador”:

In their role as agents of socialization, faculty served as ambassadors of the profession by imbuing students with a sense of professional responsibility and introducing them into the culture of academe.

Lechuga’s research on the faculty/student relationship has inspired me to expand my understanding of how I can support the growth and development of my student research assistants.

Now let’s hope that grant comes through!

* for those outside of Canada, the Tri-Agencies includes the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and are the major government funders of research in Canada.

Lechuga, V.M. (2011). Faculty-graduate student mentoring relationships: mentors’ perceived roles and responsibilities. Higher Education 62(6): 757-771.