To be a successful Research Assistant (RA), you will want to make sure to find the right faculty member and research project, contribute to project completion and publication, and hopefully present your findings to the wider community. Before you can start to do that, you should have a solid understanding of what an RA does and how to become one.
An RA typically receives tuition benefits to offset graduate level courses. Sometimes it means your tuition will be charged at the in-state tuition level. Often the assistantships come with a small stipend. You are not likely to get rich being an RA, but you should not go as far into debt as you might without the opportunity, and you might even get to make a name for yourself within your chosen field based on the research to which you contribute.
Do the time
To find the right opportunity and to make sure you are selected to work on a professor’s research team, you need to do some initial legwork. When you are applying to graduate programs, you should be checking out the individual faculty members associated with your program of interest. Is the department focused on one area of research? Do individual faculty members pursue their own areas of interest? What research are they currently pursuing? How is it funded? Does the faculty member or department have a current grant and for how long? What past research has been published or presented at professional conferences by those professors and their previous and current students?
Armed with answers to those questions, you now need to insert yourself into the equation. What are your research experiences and strengths? What research subjects are you interested in pursuing? How do those answers overlap with what you have discovered about the faculty members in your target graduate school programs? Where the two overlap, you have your best chances of success. If the overlap is not there, what can you do to position yourself more favorably for selection?
Then, of course, you will need to identify whether or not RA opportunities are available. More and more, those opportunities are posted through the institution’s human resources job listings. They can also be found on the departmental website. If you have made a contact with the faculty (especially the one you have identified leads the research) or a current student of the program, they should also be able to tell you about opportunities. You should also check with your graduate school admissions representative. RA positions are also frequently made available through other job search engines through internet research. Those search engines allow you to conduct a search for assistantships by research area, rather than institution. That method will be really helpful if you are using the RA opportunity to help you initially create a list of target schools and programs.
Research assistant vs. Research assistantship
Note the distinction between a “research assistant” position and a “Research Assistantship.” A research assistant is typically an entry-level position that does not have to require enrollment in a degree seeking program. Though this is another direction you could go. As a research assistant, you would be an employee of the university. This usually equates to having tuition benefits, as well, although not always immediately upon starting the position.
There will be competition for these research positions. You do not have to have been a previous student of the faculty member who is leading the research, but they will want to find out through your previous instructors and your other experience that you have the skills needed, along with the determination, to bring something productive to the research team. There will likely be some long days and longer hours, so you and they will want to make sure that you have the passion to stick with it. Professors place a lot of trust in you to bring you onto their team; that research represents their professional credibility and plays into their academic career progression.
The faculty members have most likely received grants to fund their research. They may have previously conducted research on that subject area, or something similar. The RAs will have a variety of roles, largely depending on the scope of the research project, the size of the team, the progression of the research, and the individual preferences of the lead faculty. You could be responsible for prepping and conducting experiments, performing simulations, writing or editing reports, conducting Internet or focus group research, completing a literature review, collecting and entering data, creating surveys, or any other task associated with the research project.
Whether it is just you and the professor, or an entire research team, you will need to find your place working effectively in the group. Do not be surprised if you are not immediately handed larger responsibilities. You will need to prove yourself, and you should find elevated responsibility with a succession of progress in whatever tasks you have been assigned.
Most academic research projects move toward publication in a professional journal. The faculty member will most likely lead the publication efforts, though you may be assigned some tasks associated with turning in items by deadlines. Your name should be listed as a contributor in the published research if you indeed were a part of the team.
Go the extra mile
Hopefully, your supervising professor will be presenting you with opportunities to be involved with different types of professional development opportunities. Make sure that you are ready to embrace those opportunities when they arise. You will also want to use other faculty and student contacts to stay on top of leads for conferences or other avenues to present your findings. These should include networking contacts both inside and outside of your unique program. You need to take advantage of student memberships in various associations related to your area of study. Take a look at social media involvement through LinkedIn groups and other avenues to be made aware of conference opportunities.
Participation in these conferences will likely include a submission and acceptance process of their own, just like getting any research published. There may be a professional association of which your supervising professor is a member. The overall academic department will have associations with whom they have had student participation over the years. Beyond those resources, use your personal network to identify opportunities to present your research findings in a professional setting. You may need to identify funding sources of your own, often available through the college or department, to sponsor your participation in these development opportunities. Travel and registration costs may need to be covered, some out of your pocket, to ensure participation. The presentation could be in the form of a poster, workshop, or panel session. Several universities also host their own celebrations of scholarship where you could present a session to the campus community.
Any chance to hone your presentation skills, network, and gain professional development is a worthy opportunity to consider and for which to be prepared. The RA experience will build your resume, increase your professional network, and start you along a path to your own research credibility. Make the most of it!
Hilary Flanagan, M.Ed., GCDF, is a higher education career services expert, author, triathlete, certified career coach and certified etiquette consultant who is currently Director of the Center for Career Services at John Carroll University.