Today was devoted to editing a draft of the report that resulted from an ethnographic study of Yale humanities doctoral students. The study involved 11 Yale librarians: 6 serving on the research team and the other 5 doubling as researchers and authors of the report. I served on the research team. Since I have a background in English, I was also invited to edit the report.
The idea for the study resulted most directly from a 2011 Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) report. GSAS had reviewed its doctoral programs to try and improve graduate rates. Their report found that the average percentage of students in the humanities completing their degree was 68%, as compared to 79% in the natural sciences and 74% in the social sciences. Humanities students also took slightly longer to complete their programs. The findings were consistent with the results of similar reports from all over the United States. Moreover, other recent studies examining the research habits and practices of graduate students, in addition to the obstacles they face, help explain these two trends. A particularly revealing report resulted from a joint study of humanities graduate students conducted by librarians at Columbia and Cornell University Libraries (known as 2CUL for short). Together the GSAS and 2CUL studies suggested the potential value of conducting a similar study focusing on Yale’s humanities graduate students in the hope of finding ways that Yale University Library could help these students stay in their programs and complete their research more efficiently, thus helping to reduce their time to completion.
With permission and funding from Yale’s University Librarian (our director), the lead co-principal investigator issued a call for librarians interested in participating in the study. The research team described above came together as a result. Not surprisingly, we were all public services librarians whose jobs involve significant outreach to and contact with Yale’s humanities graduate students: we had a vested interest in the results of such a study. After having a proposal approved by the Institutional Review Board, the lead co-principal investigator enlisted the help of the Assistant Deans of the Graduate School to identify students willing to participate. Then all team members attended a two-day training session on ethnographic research methods conducted by anthropologist Dr. Nancy Fried Foster.
In total, the team surveyed and interviewed 26 current humanities doctoral students, 5 former students who had completed their doctorates, and one student who had withdrawn. For evaluating the interview responses, a five-member working group was convened because having the whole research team involved would have been less efficient. After identifying common themes in the responses and dividing these into five sections, each member of the working group chose a section to write up. The sections were 1) identifying research materials; 2) accessing materials; 3) organizing materials; 4) research habits; and 5) Yale Library study spaces. Transcribing, analyzing, and writing up the results proved to be a time-consuming process; in fact, from start to finish the study took roughly a year and a half.
Now that all the sections have been drafted, my job as editor is to make each of the five authors’ sections, all written in distinct voices, read like a unified report. I also have to edit some of the quotations taken from the interviews in order to preserve the students’ anonymity, define library jargon for a general audience (since we want the report distributed as widely as possible), tighten up the list of recommendations that emerged from the study, smooth out the introduction, and review the list of references for accuracy, consistency, and conformity to APA Style.
The final report, “Understanding the Research Practices of Humanities Doctoral Students at Yale University,” offers significant insights into our students’ experiences. It has proven well worth the time and effort involved. It has garnered praise from many interested readers, from fellow librarians, to teaching faculty, to members of the administration. And we at the library are committed to doing our best to act on as many of the report’s recommendations for improvement as possible.