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Study to see how libraries can help humanities Ph.D. students finish degrees

Fewer than half of all humanities doctoral students finish their Ph.D.s within 10 years. A new study aims to discover if libraries can do something to help them.

The study is a collaboration between the libraries at Cornell and Columbia universities -- two leading research libraries that make up the 2CUL partnership.

"We know libraries play a major role in graduate students' lives, and we want to build on that connection to create the right kind of help that comes at exactly the right time in their careers," said Anne Kenney, Cornell's Carl A. Kroch University Librarian. "The goal of this project is to listen to graduate students' concerns and determine whether the library can develop strategies that will help directly with their research and contribute to their success."

Humanities students have longer mean times to complete their Ph.D.s than students in any other discipline and, according to a recent National Science Foundation study, those times are increasing. In 2003, the average humanities student took nine years to graduate, up from 7.5 years in 1978. Another study shows that humanities students' 49 percent completion rate within a 10-year period is considerably lower than the rates of their peers in mathematics and physical sciences (55 percent), social sciences (56 percent), life sciences (63 percent) and engineering (64 percent).

"It's well documented in empirical studies that Ph.D. students in the humanities have a more difficult time than their colleagues in the sciences and social sciences," said Kornelia Tancheva, director of Olin and Uris libraries at Cornell and a co-principal investigator on the grant. "Many factors -- advising, financial aid, family life, community, job prospects -- have been shown to contribute to this, and we want to examine the role the library might play in supporting their work."

Grants from the Council on Library and Information Resources and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation will support a user needs assessment to determine what academic libraries can do to help humanities doctoral students complete their degrees. Cornell's Graduate School and Columbia's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences are providing additional support. Support from Cornell's Graduate School comes from a grant from the Council of Graduate Schools for its CGS Ph.D. Completion Project.

The pilot project will involve focus groups with Cornell and Columbia's humanities students in all stages of their Ph.D. work, as well as recent graduates. Interviewers will develop a questionnaire based on information from the focus groups and administer it to 20 to 25 students in three or four departments at each institution.

After analysis, the institutions will recommend a course of action to address the findings. Possible steps forward would include partnerships with the graduate schools, writing centers and other campus entities at both institutions. Assessment will be completed by March 2011.

"It is important for academic research libraries to understand how library services might impact graduate student success in terms of degree completion and time to completion," said Damon Jaggars, Columbia's associate university librarian for collections and services and co-principal investigator on the study. "The results of this study could inform the design of more responsive and effective research support services for humanities graduate students -- a core user group for research libraries like those at Columbia and Cornell."

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Blaine Friedlander