Alleviating Research Anxiety in Graduate Students: A Librarian’s Prescription for Success

Kelle Rose, Reference and Instruction Librarian for Theology, recently presented at SCIL Works 2019, an annual conference that offers librarians the opportunity to share their best practices, innovative pedagogy, and creative solutions with colleagues. The 2019 conference focused on the ways in which instruction librarians help students from a variety of backgrounds overcome library anxiety. The following was written by Kelle Rose.

The theme for this year’s SCIL Works 2019, the Southern California Instruction Librarians conference, was “Instruction RX: Prescriptions for Helping Students Overcome Library Anxiety.” I presented a lightning talk titled “Alleviating Research Anxiety in Graduate Students: A Prescription for Success” based on my experiences working with graduate students in Theological Studies and Yoga Studies at Loyola Marymount University and incorporating experiences of my colleagues in Reference and Instruction who liaise with other departments as well.

Here are 5 treatments for library anxiety in graduate students:

1. Diagnose

Every discipline is different, so assess your students’ specific needs and tailor your treatment. Learn the demographics of the cohorts (especially age and how long they’ve been out of school, which can sometimes play a role in research and technology anxiety; and whether they’re full-time students or full-time professionals/part-time students), whether and when they’re on campus, and their research assignments.

2. Aggressive treatment

Make heavy contact early in the school year to establish yourself as a helpful and friendly resource: give a presentation during departmental orientations, schedule instruction early in their required foundations or methods class, and attend other new student events.

3. Get out of your office, get in with the admin

Be a presence throughout the year by getting out of your office and into the department by scheduling office hours in the department, being active on their group discussion channels (listserv, Slack, Facebook group, etc.), and attending events in the department. How do you do these things? Get to know the program administrator! That person is your key to access. Make sure they know you, and build a good rapport with them.

4. Teach students to read…academic work

Sometimes librarians take it for granted that we can scan a work to quickly determine its relevance to our research. But that’s a learned skill. Grad school is reading heavy, and sometimes students don’t know that they don’t always have to read everything word for word, cover to cover. Reassure them that even the greatest scholars skim. Teach them pre-reading and surveying strategies for efficiency like scanning tables of contents and section headings; reading abstracts, introductions, and conclusions; and reading scholarly book reviews.

5. Consult and counsel

Students might not know how to name their anxiety. In individual research consultations, the librarian isn’t a counselor, but they can take a moment to talk to students about imposter syndrome and reassure them they would not be in the program if the department didn’t think they could handle it. Let them hear from the expert (the librarian) that library resources can indeed be confusing and difficult to navigate—it’s not just them! But they will learn them with practice, just like anything else.

Since grad students are not on campus as frequently as undergrads, it can be a challenge to get them all in a room together outside of class, even when they request a workshop. Recorded or live online tutorials or web conferences can be helpful to teach them specific skills or tools, or to address library resources for a specific assignment. Send out a recording link after any live sessions, both for students who couldn’t participate live, and so all students can review with the ability to go at their own pace.

Side effects may occur, so respect your time!

  1. Know when to let go, and when to refer—to the writing center, to IT, to counseling services, or maybe even to a private tutor. And learn about options for off-campus, remote access to those services.
  2. Watch out for students who are accustomed to delegating their work to others in their day jobs, and want you to do their research for them.
  3. Don’t spend too much time trying to teach tech solutions they are not ready for—like citation management software, which they might think will solve all their problems but might be a steeper learning curve than they are ready to undertake on top of school.

In the end, like many things in life, it’s all about building relationships! Treating library and research anxiety for grad students boils down to being a helpful and friendly presence the students meet right away and encounter regularly, and whom they trust as a colleague.