How to get a Research Assistant position

When I started my Ph.D. as a part-time student, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to accept my Teaching Assistant (TA) positions given my other responsibilities: a full-time 9-5 job, extracurriculars, course work and my own research, and spending time with my friends and families.

At the time, there weren’t many opportunities for distance education TA positions (although this may have changed because of the pandemic) or half TA positions, which would have been more manageable for my schedule. Knowing TAing wasn’t a great option for me, I spoke with my advisor about other ways to earn some extra money while also gaining relevant experience. She suggested that a Research Assistant (RA) position could be beneficial and she put me in touch with someone looking for a grad student to work as an RA on their project—and I ended up working as an RA on the project for about two years.

Here are some of my tips on how to find an RA position—and what you can expect.

How to get a Research Assistant position

The best tip I can give when looking for an RA position is to speak with your advisor or committee members. Ask if they know of any open or upcoming opportunities. As cliché as it sounds, your network is your biggest asset. 

I found my first RA position through my advisor—she let me know a new faculty member would be looking for an RA the next semester, and I emailed him to ask if he’d be interested in chatting about it. Likewise, a friend of mine got their first RA position through a friend who’d heard from a faculty member that they needed an RA. The friend then put them in touch with the professor and a few weeks later, the paperwork was signed.

Some RA positions will be posted for students to apply to—job boards or circulated in the department, for example. But knowing someone and/or having a conversation with them can help ensure you’re selected for the role or kept in mind for future opportunities.

And once you’ve found a potential research assistant position, make sure you learn more about the research. Does it align with your interests? Will you learn something helpful for your dissertation? What experiences have other students had working with this professor? Are they someone you would be able to work with? The most exciting RA position in the world will not be worth it if you don’t get along with the person you’re working with.

What to expect from a Research Assistant position

Now, these insights are based solely on my experience and conversations with friends and are certainly not universal. 

Some RA positions will be very structured, and you’ll have certain assigned work to complete each week or month, depending on your agreement and the professors you’re working with. Mine has been less structured, partly due to my work situation (working a 9-5 job) and partly to allow me the flexibility to explore areas I’m interested in. 

But generally, as an RA you should expect to discuss and have clear expectations set regarding when you will work, how many hours you will work, and what you will work on. It’s a contract and you only get paid for the hours you’re contracted to work—meaning that you also need to keep track of your hours, the work you’re completing, etc., and make sure you’re meeting your hours but not going over. Many RAs work independently and being able to manage your time and prioritize your workload are key skills you’ll need to develop. 

An RA position is also a great learning opportunity for grad students. You should feel comfortable asking to work on areas that interest you or will help in your own research. This will be easier to do if your RA work aligns in some way with your research. 

Benefits of a Research Assistant position

This may seem a bit obvious, but some of the key benefits of holding an RA position are the research experience you’ll get, the ability to do interesting work and, of course, the income. This isn’t to say you’ll necessarily get paid a lot, but it’s always good to have an extra income source when you’re in grad school. 

An RA position not only provides you with experience, income, and interesting work, but it can also lead to other opportunities. For example, RA positions allow you to build stronger relationships with the professors you’re working with. For me, this has resulted in one of the professors supervising an independent reading course and joining my committee, along with offers of support or guidance when I’m looking to publish, and offers to connect me with others in my field who are researching similar topics. Their support, guidance, and kindness habe been invaluable to me throughout the Ph.D.

My RA position has also led to opportunities for co-authorship and co-presenting research at a major conference. It’s also led to other creative-academic opportunities, and allowed me to meet other like-minded individuals, which has helped build my sense of belonging to the community at my school. 

For me, being an RA has been extremely rewarding and has truly been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my Ph.D. program. 

All in all, RA positions can be a great way to learn more, get to know professors, and be exposed to new research or opportunities while making some extra money in graduate school. 

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