What Does a PhD Research Assistant Do? Duties and Responsibilities of Research Assistants

You may have heard about doctoral level research assistantship opportunities through your department or doctoral program and wondered if you should apply. There are many benefits to being a research assistant while you pursue your PhD — from tuition remission, to earning extra cash, to learning the ins and outs of your academic field and professional research. There are several different types of research assistantships that universities offer. You may assist a professor with his or her smaller scale research project or work with a team of professors and professionals from your field on a larger externally funded project.

This post is mainly for current and prospective doctoral students who want to learn more about the benefits of being a research assistant (RA). The ideas listed here are intended to help doctoral students decide if being a research assistant is worth their time and effort —and in most cases I think it is. For those of you applying to doctoral programs, find out which programs offer research assistantships. Use this information to help you decide which program is best for you and in developing a financial plan for paying for school.

This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) on behalf of Dave Maslach. This is part of the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world. Listen to what Dave has to say about the duties and responsibilities of research assistants in this video:

There are many benefits of having a research assistantship while pursuing a doctoral degree including financial and career development benefits. Here are what I think are some of the primary benefits of being a doctoral research assistant:

Stipends and Tuition Remission

Working as an RA may earn you a stipend and/or tuition remission. Some stipends may be small but better paying research assistantships can greatly alleviate the financial burden of getting a doctoral degree. A research assistantship funded by the university and offered through your department or doctoral program help universities help students fund their doctoral studies. It also helps them support research professors who need staff to assist them with important projects. The amount you get paid for a university sponsored RA may not be that that much, but an RA stipend or paycheck can mean the difference between being able to do your PhD program and not having enough resources do it.

A research assistantship can require anywhere from 7 to 21 hours of work a week. If the research assistantship comes as a package with a scholarship or other university support, you may actually get paid and have your tuition covered. I struck gold when I applied to my master’s degree program. Not only did I earn a paycheck for “21” hours of work per week (I did not do 21 hours of work every week) for a university based research institute, but I also received a family foundation scholarship that covered 100% of my tuition. All I had to pay for was room and board and food. Similar opportunities of course were offered to PhD students (but it was an amazing opportunity to have all of these benefits as a grad student). Investigate what kind of research assistant opportunities prospective program offer as you consider program because an RA could be your key to a fulfilling and financially feasible doctoral education experience.

Contributing to important research

Often there are multiple opportunities to work with individual professors in your department on their own personal research projects. These projects can be quite small and even unfunded, or they may have some university based or limited external funding. Professors often apply for small grants in some programs from their department or university to conduct small research studies. Professors go through a process to request and hire an RA to assist them with their research whether or not the research is funded by the university.

As a research assistant, generally, there are things you should and shouldn’t be asked to do. You should not be only grading papers or developing coursework materials. That is generally the job of a teaching assistant. You should not be doing administrative work. There are usually guidelines for professors to follow about what kind of work they can give a doctoral level RA. You should be doing research work that is sufficiently challenging for a doctoral student including gathering and analyzing data, developing research instruments, or co-authoring reports and manuscripts.

As an RA you should not only be given literature reviews to complete or data to enter; the work your professor give you should contribute to your professional development and build your research skills. You should be asked to participate in presenting research findings at conferences and meetings. You have an important role and the professor should consider you a vital part of the team.

Dave says, “Generally, as an RA, what you should be doing is research, and it should be getting you to 75% of where you should be as an independent thinker.” Here are more thoughts from Dave about what an RA’s duties and responsibilities should include:

1. Write reviews of papers.

2. Collect data or clean data.

3. Analyze data for a paper.

4. Perform interviews.

5. Write the bull-work part of a paper.

Here are Dave’s thoughts about what you should not be doing as a research assistant:

1. Laundry or personal tasks for the professor.

2. Things that don’t take advantage of your capabilities.

3. Things that are outside of your scope or responsibility.

4. Feeling like you are being taken advantage of.

I would also add that your boss should not be stealing your ideas or intellectual property. To hear what Dave has to say about what to do in the unfortunate event that someone steals your intellectual property, watch this video:

Working as a research assistant on a larger externally funded project

There may be opportunities at your university to work on large, externally funded grant project. You may work on a project temporarily as an RA with a limited contract (in terms of hours and duration) or you may hold the title of research assistant but not be a university based RA. Here is the difference: the university may provide the principal investigator of the project with an RA who receives a stipend and other benefits like a university based RA, or you may be hired directly by the grant funded project as a staff member. Often large projects employ both student RAs and doctoral students who work as staff. As a staff member you can earn a decent paycheck and perhaps even have full-time work. You may also be considered a full-time university staff member and be eligible for tuition remission and other university benefits.

Working on a large grant funded project can be the most interesting, challenging, and beneficial experience of your doctoral program. Professors who lead large externally funded research project are often the principal investigators of the project. They design and lead the evaluation or other type of study. You will learn about the role of a PI when working on a large grant and hopefully learn the ins and outs of a large research project. As an RA, you will assist the PI and research team and have an integral role in the project. You should be doing much of the same work described above, and more including attending professional meetings and conferences, project-wide meetings, collaborating with other universities, and preparing or site visits by the grantor.

As a research assistant for two federally funded grants prior to and during my time as a doctoral student I learned more about my field, and about research, than I did in any of my classes. Of course, coursework supplements your knowledge, but there is no replacing that real world, hands on, research experience that work on a grant funded project can give you. If you have an opportunity to work on a large government or foundation funded grant as a doctoral student, DO IT. You will not regret it.

Finding a mentor

Whether you work on a large federal grant, a smaller state funded grant, or with a professor on a smaller scale research project, you will hopefully gain a mentor who will show you what you need to know about research, your field, or your industry. Pay attention when you interview for a research assistantship. Do you feel like you could connect with this person on a professional level? Do they seem interested in your professional development, knowledge, and accomplishments as a student?

I had an amazing mentor when I worked on two federally funded grant projects. The match couldn’t have been better, and I had sensed a great opportunity when I interviewed for the job. You may not connect 100% with a project PI or a professor you work with, but if you have opportunities to learn from them, and like the work, that is fine too. You do not have to go out for beer together weekly; if it’s a good working relationships and you feel comfortable in your role and that you’re being sufficiently challenged, then stick with this person for as long as you can.

Meeting new colleagues and networking

Working as an RA should provide you with a host of opportunities to meet and work with new colleagues and network with professionals and/or academics in your field. You may have more opportunities to do so working on large grant projects. Often these projects span multiple universities and cities, and even countries. They also may employee multiple professors from your university and outside your university. You will have opportunities to attend conferences and professional meetings and meet key people in your field. You will also hear about inside opportunities to connect with experts in the field or to do additional research.

Take advantage of every opportunity to network whether you are working on a small or very large project. If you are working on a smaller project, ask the professor if she can introduce you to some of her colleagues in the field. Attend every meeting the professor invites you to. Learn about who the professor has worked with in the past and who she wants to collaborate with in the future.

Also, take advantage of opportunities to connect with fellow RAs whether you are working on a large or small project. This may be easier to do on a larger project which employees several doctoral RAs, but a professor may also be able to connect you with students working on similar projects even if he or she does not employ them directly. Attend doctoral student meetings and lunches at conferences and learn about scholarship and presentation opportunities for students in your field. Your professor should be able to connect you with these additional opportunities.

Some other things to consider about research assistantships

As you can see, I’m very big on RAs. Because of the research skills I learned as an RA I was well prepared to jump into advanced research projects as a doctoral student. I felt confident in my skills and had an insider perspective on what it is like to be a researcher in my field. The RA thing worked in my favor big time; but everyone has different circumstanced and there are a few things you may want to consider before assuming being an RA is the right path for you.

First, do you have the time to commit to being an RA? Some RAs require as little as seven hours of work a week, but others require a much larger time commitment. Do you work full-time to support yourself or your family, in addition to going to school? It may be difficult to fit in an RA under these circumstances; but if there is an opportunity for say a seven-hour job that can be done at any time of day or night, go for it. You cannot, however, work full time and be on site at a university one or more days a week.

Also, if your main interest and talent is teaching, then apply for a teaching assistantship position. This type of doctoral level position will benefit you more, develop your teaching skills, and lead to many more teaching opportunities. It may pay just about as much as an RA as well. Know what your goals are and take a university-based position that is in line with your goals and talents. Finally, if you feel that you would be more productive doing your own independent research and pursing your own funding opportunities or scholarships, do that. I do think the experience an RA can give you is pretty unparalleled, but I am in the social sciences. You may be in a field where independent work is better for your CV and for you.

Ultimately, consider your opportunities carefully. Will an RA help you further your career and goals? Does your economic status and the amount of time you have to dedicate to research make an RA feasible? Do what feels right. If someone is telling you to do an RA just because “this is how we advance in this field” but it doesn’t feel like the right opportunity for you, listen to your inner voice and do something that feels more productive and comfortable for you.

Generally, you can get information about RA opportunities from your school’s Dean, the head of the doctoral program, or a professor. Some larger grant opportunities may even be advertised on the school’s human resources site. Keep your eyes open and something great will come your way if an RA is something that you think is right for you!

Check out these other recent posts from the R3ciprocity project:

20 Ways to Make the Most of your PhD Program

16 PhD Program Basics: 16 Things You Should Know Before You Do A Doctorate

10 Myths About Doing a PhD

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