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Applicants to graduate school encounter fierce competition for admission and funding in today's competitive market. How can you increase your odds of acceptance, and better yet, funding? Get research experience by assisting a faculty member to conduct his or her research. As a research assistant, you'll have an exciting opportunity to do the research rather than just read about it -- and get important experience that will make you stand out in the graduate admissions pile.
Why Become a Research Assistant?
Aside from the thrill of generating new knowledge, assisting a professor with research provides many other valuable opportunities including:
- Gaining skills and knowledge that aren't easily learned in the classroom
- Working one-on-one with a faculty member
- Exposure to methods and techniques that will help you complete your research and dissertation.
- Get writing and public speaking practice by submitting papers to professional conferences and journals
- Develop a mentoring relationship with a faculty member
- Get outstanding letters of recommendation
Engaging in research is a worthwhile experience, regardless of whether you choose to attend graduate school, because it provides you with the opportunity to think, organize information, and demonstrate your commitment, reliability, and capacity for research.
What Does a Research Assistant Do?
What will be expected of you as a research assistant? Your experience will vary by the faculty member, project, and discipline. Some assistants might administer surveys, maintain and operate lab equipment, or care for animals. Others might code and enter data, make photocopies, or write literature reviews. What general tasks can you expect?
- Collect data by administering surveys, interviews, or running research protocols
- Score, code, and enter data into a spreadsheet or statistical analysis program
- Conduct general library research including literature searches, making copies of articles, and ordering unavailable articles and books through interlibrary loan
- Develop new research ideas
- Use computer skills such as word processing, spreadsheet, scheduling, and statistical analysis programs
- Assist in preparing submissions for local or regional conferences and, if accepted, work on a poster or oral presentations for professional conferences
- Assist faculty in preparing a manuscript to submit the results of your collaborative research to a scientific journal
So, you're convinced of the value of research experience to your graduate school application. Now what?
How Do You Get Involved as a Research Assistant?
First and foremost, you should perform well in class, and be motivated and visible in your department. Let the faculty know that you're interested in getting involved in research. Approach faculty during office hours and ask for leads on who might be looking for research assistants. When you find a faculty member who is looking for an assistant, carefully and honestly describe what you can offer (computer skills, Internet skills, statistical skills, and the number of hours per week you're available). Let the faculty member know that you're willing to work hard (be honest!). Ask about specific requirements such as the duration of the project, what your responsibilities will be, and the length of commitment (a semester or a year?). Remember that while you might not find anyone working on a project that you find fascinating, you will obtain excellent experience; besides your interests most likely will change as you gain more experience and education.
Benefits for Faculty
You're now aware that there are many benefits to getting involved in research. Did you know that there are benefits for faculty too? They get a hardworking student to do some labor-intensive parts of research. Faculty often depend on students to further their research programs. Many faculty members have ideas for studies that they don't have time to conduct -- motivated students can pick up projects and help to further faculty research programs. If you develop a relationship with a faculty member, you might be able to help him or her conduct a project that may otherwise remain shelved for lack of time. Involving undergraduates in research also offers the opportunity for faculty to witness a student's professional growth, which can be quite rewarding.
As you can see, student-professor research relationships offer benefits to all involved; however, the commitment to become a research assistant is a big one. It's your responsibility to ensure that aspects of the research project get done. The faculty member will count on you to get it done right. Your performance here can give faculty members lots of good things to write in letters of recommendation. If you complete tasks competently, you might be asked to take on more responsibility and you will earn excellent letters of recommendation. However, there is a positive payoff from conducting research with faculty only if you perform competent work consistently. If you don't take the commitment seriously, are unreliable, or make repeated mistakes, your relationship with the faculty member will suffer (as will your recommendation). If you decide to work with a faculty member on his or her research, treat it as a primary responsibility -- and reap the rewards.