Allison Rand is the Student Success Librarian at Park University in Parkville, MO. Her research focuses on first year students, information literacy, and being an early career librarian. She lives in Kansas City with her dog Charles Wallace, and can be found on Twitter.
Research is hard. There’s a reason so many institutions grant research days to their faculty — it’s time-consuming and brain-draining. When I entered my first professional academic library position, I assumed I was prepared for their expectations of scholarship. Just four months prior, before I even had my degree in hand, my first peer-reviewed article had been published. Despite all of this, I felt like I had been pushed into the deep end. The scaffolded structure of library school was gone, and though my contract stipulated that I should engage in “scholarly activities,” I didn’t know where to start.
Coming into my first job, I had what most LIS students don’t get in school: real, published research experience. My research journey started just after my first year of library school when I saw a call for research assistants posted in a Facebook group. It was an unpaid, but for credit, position focused on first year instruction, the niche I had discovered for myself. I applied and talked up the fact that I had already done IRB training for some data entry, and got the gig alongside another grad student. We began research in July, presented our initial findings in October, and submitted a manuscript for publication in December.
I’m not naive enough to think that any of this — the fact that I co-authored a paper as an LIS student, or the quick timeline for research — is typical. I know that it’s not. But although it’s atypical, LIS professionals are still expected to engage in scholarly research from Day One of their first tenure-track position.
I attended the iSchool at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for my MSLIS. UIUC is an R1 institution, and the iSchool is consistently top-ranked, but in my two years, I never had the opportunity to take a class on research methods. It was in the LIS course catalog, but it was never offered in the time that I was there. There was an annual LIS research showcase, and we were assigned “research projects” (really, literature reviews) in some classes, but there was a never a formal opportunity to ask all of the questions I had about doing research in the “real world.” How do I even start? What the heck is an IRB? What do people in LIS do research on? How do I find my research interests? I resorted to a meta-cognitive approach: I thought about all the things I consider and discuss with my colleagues on a daily basis and worked to develop those considerations into researchable questions. I stayed engaged with discussions on Twitter, subscribed to far too many listservs, and formed a group chat with my librarian friends.
“If jumping into research in your first academic job is like a roller coaster, doing it as a graduate student is like a kiddie coaster. Same ups and down, but the scares are smaller and the stakes are lower.”
The real benefit of doing research as a graduate student was that I wasn’t doing any of this alone. I had a faculty mentor who helped me figure out the right questions to ask, and guided me to help find the answers. She let me mentally unpack when I felt overwhelmed, and gave me a safe space to do so. If jumping into research in your first academic job is like a roller coaster, doing it as a graduate student is like a kiddie coaster. Same ups and down, but the scares are smaller and the stakes are lower. I was able to ride the kiddie coaster and have the experience before deciding whether the huge looming thrill ride was right for me at all. Instead of getting to my first job and figuring out whether I have a love or hate relationship with research, I already had an idea of how I felt and what it would be like.
I can’t say that doing research as a graduate student prepared me for absolutely everything because it didn’t. Having someone set due dates and benchmarks for you is vastly different than the sluggish pace of self-motivation. I still feel overwhelmed about setting goals, figuring out what to do with my time, and what’s considered “research” at my institution. But if nothing else, I wasn’t going in blind. I knew going in that there would be highs and lows, because I’d felt them before. Perhaps the single greatest benefit of doing research as a graduate student is that doing something the second time is almost always easier than the first time.
How Does All This Translate In My Job?
One of the struggles that new professionals may face is librarian identity. As Melissa DeWitt recently discussed in her ACRLog post, librarians are often not perceived as practiced experts in our field, but rather, as academic faculty helpers. When you are being told that your role is to serve the research needs of others, it can feel impossible to figure out your own research interests. Many (if not most) new librarians enter the field without an established research portfolio. We spend most of our graduate school experience helping others with their research and have no time to consider our own, but are hired as faculty, often with the same research expectations as academic faculty with PhDs and established research.
“…don’t let your past professional experience (or inexperience) define your professional path.”
don’t let your past professional experience (or inexperience) define your professional path.This brings me to my takeaway: fake it ‘til you make it. I realize this is cliche, but the fact of the matter is, you may never get over the imposter syndrome you feel when thrown into a new job. I know I haven’t. I know in my heart of hearts that I’m qualified for my job, but that doesn’t stop me from dismissing faculty members who tell me they’re excited to have me on campus or to feel like all the work I do all day is futile. In some ways, because I came into my job with a publication, I feel as if I will be considered a failure if I don’t continue to produce at the same rate. And so I must constantly remind myself: don’t let your past professional experience (or inexperience) define your professional path. For me, this meant letting go of my own expectations for my knowledge. I had to accept that although my resume boasted experience, the reality was that I was still figuring out all the practical aspects of academic identity and research from scratch.
Expectations of LIS research can be fraught; we are expected to know what we want to research, and how to do it, but are rarely given the opportunity to learn to do so. We are expected to publish, all the while we are helping other people publish. But through these fraught expectations, there is also an opportunity to learn, grow, and to try new things. I tell people often that the thing I learned in library school that I was never taught is that you just have to ask. Ask to join a project, ask for help, ask for everything you need.
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