Book review: Supporting Research Students
Reviewed by Niels Ole Pors, Professor, Royal School of Library and Information Science
Title: Supporting Research Students
Author: Barbara Allen
Publisher: Facet Publishing
The book contains nine chapters, a short conclusion, a list of references and a bibliography. It has also a good index. As usual Facet Publishing has produced an attractive book with an easy to read font and an attractive set-up.
The target audience is library and information science professionals primarily working in libraries. The author feels that many of these professionals would benefit from a guide to the world of PhD work as many of the professionals do not possess a personal insight into the numerous problems that confront PhD students. Another reason is the introduction of the professional PhD that requires other types of support.
The book is written as a guide that ultimately should give professionals a deeper insight into the problems facing PhD students making it easier to serve their information needs. It is a very considerate objective and the idea to analyse the needs of a group hitherto often considered as self-supporting is very good and at least it emphasizes the fact that the needs of the different segments of students are very diversified.
Chapters 1 and 2
The coverage of topics and themes is rather broad as indicated by the main content of the chapters. Supporting Research Students starts with an overview of the book and there is also useful information about the PhD-degree situation in UK, stakeholders on the scene and a brief discussion on how PhD students ought to be supported.
The next chapter is an overview of the research process and selected research methods. The chapter aims at outlining the general issues and the most widespread and common methods and methodological discussion. It is a very general chapter and it is hard to envisage that a reader familiar with research literature will find new information. However, the chapter is precise and concise and it is probably more relevant for librarians working in the fields of humanities and social sciences than librarians working in the science field.
Chapters 3 and 4
The third chapter is directed towards some of the challenging tasks that a student is confronted with such as designing the study, focusing it and outlining the work process. The chapter also has an interesting section about the role of supervisors and the process of supervision. It is a valuable chapter that covers many of the challenges that face both students and supervisors, and the many links to online resources are helpful.
The fourth chapter continues with an introduction writing of the thesis including illuminating sections on writing strategies, structuring the information and advice about other parts of finalizing the document. I do think it is a useful chapter with a good balance of advice concerning the personal work styles and the academic requirements.
The next chapter focuses on research skills training. The chapter includes a useful case study. Overall, it is a good chapter that focuses on the changing information needs in relation to the progress of the PhD-thesis. It is valuable to be reminded of the fact that the need for information and the need for specific information resources changes during the process.
The chapter lay a solid basis for the next chapter that more specifically looks into the different approaches library and information service staff can take to support PhD students. This chapter is based on an investigation into how academic libraries in United Kingdom actually support the students. This way, it gives a kind of state-of-the art analysis of the current situation.
There are many examples of different modes of teaching and examples of courses, case stories and even a self-assessment survey librarians can use to evaluate how they do the job. There is no doubt that the analysis of the different approaches could be very inspirational and I find that it is a good example of knowledge sharing and it would be worth discussing before one or more approaches to support PhD students are employed in the library.
This useful chapter is followed by an introduction to Virtual Graduate Schools (VGS). The author gives an introduction and also examples of existing networks and virtual schools and advice on how social technologies can be incorporated in the virtual networks.
Chapters 8 and 9
The last two chapters concern PhD students and their induction into the academic world and their possibilities to develop their qualifications and competences through professional development. The students and their relationships with other groups are analysed using concepts of communities of practice and communities of interests and I found these concepts interesting in this context. It is a good reminder to supervisors and librarians how many contexts PhD students have to participate in and be introduced to during a rather short period of time.
I must admit that my first thought about the book was that it was not that necessary as it did not contain many unknown issues. However, a careful reading of the book changed that impression. As a matter of fact, the book will be very useful for PhD students. It will provide them with a good overview of challenges, opportunities and possibilities in relation to information resources and similar issues.
I also think that librarians would benefit very much because the outline of changing needs in relation to the different steps of the research process is very useful and it is quite evident that support has to be differentiated and planned in close cooperation with the students and the academic community.
Finally, as a PhD supervisor I found it illuminating and it was interesting to see how well the author succeeded in making nearly tacit knowledge explicit.
The book is a good read. It focuses on important problems and it is recommended for all the different groups involved in supporting and teaching PhD students.