How to Work Effectively with a Research Assistant

11 March 2015, 1935 EDT

So you’ve finally received research funding to hire a research assistant….now what? Attaining resources to get research support is a wonderful thing, but figuring out who to hire and how to work with them can be a challenge. While I have been very fortunate to work with some excellent research assistants, I’ve also experienced difficult situations where I’ve hired someone with the wrong skill set, or clearly not mentored or managed the relationship well. These different experiences have taught me a few things about working with research assistants that I hope others find useful. Since I’m relatively new at managing a research team, I’d also love to hear some of your suggestions on this topic. So, here’s my list of frequently asked questions about research assistants:

1. Who do I hire? Once you have funds to hire a research assistant (RA) it can be exciting- and daunting- choosing the right person. If you are new to an institution, or you don’t know anyone who isn’t already working at their max, it can especially be challenging. Before you can choose the right person, it is important to determine what types of tasks you are seeking an RA for. I used to think that the most senior graduate students would necessarily make the best research assistants. I assumed that they would have the highest level of skill and maturity, so it made sense to seek out available PhDs, if possible. While PhD students are often excellent RAs, there are several types of tasks that aren’t necessarily suited to advanced graduate students. I’ve found that simple work like data collection, editing, entering information, and organizing data is better suited to advanced undergraduates. This is a huge over-generalization, but undergrads can be much less grouchy about doing some of the the more tedious work that some of us need RAs to help with. PhDs often want to work on more macro-level thinking, which could include synthesizing data or writing briefs. This makes perfect sense. In some cases, it is useful to hire both an advanced undergraduate and a PhD student to work together on different aspects of a project. Both get to build skill sets that are useful, and you get the results you need in less time.

2. How can I mentor while I get research assistance? This question is linked to the first one. I see hiring a RA as a form of mentorship. If you can figure out what skills different potential RAs have, and also what skills they want to refine and work on, it can help you not only hire the right person, but also to mentor them. Students who are working on a Masters degree who are looking to work for an NGO, for example, will want to attain different skills than a PhD student who wants to be associated with a potential publication. I have found that if students feel they are being mentored, they work better and are happier than when they simply feel like ’employees.’

3. How can I manage the work flows, deadlines, and assignments associated with one, or more, research assistant? Ok, so I’ve come to this the hard way. Using tools to manage a research project- especially when you have a RA- is essential. Relying on notes, memory, and email chains, is a recipe for missed deadlines, misunderstanding, and a lack of clarity on the overall project. I spent some time doing research on tools to manage a smaller research project and found a great, open source, *SIMPLE* project management tool at The site lets you map out a project, set milestones, link tasks and set timelines for each- so you can get a realistic idea of how long a project will take- and assign sub-tasks to different people. It seems much easier to use that Microsoft project or other complicated project management tools. It’s worth checking out as a way to map out and organize any project- with an RA or not (no, I don’t work for them, I just seriously love this tool!). I also now have weekly meetings with my RAs where we set weekly goals, check in on overall progress, and discuss challenges or changes to the project.

4. How can I manage the power dynamic between myself and a RA? In order to ensure that RAs feel valued and to ensure that there is no abuse of power (overt or inadvertent) I follow a couple of rules: a) I don’t hire my own PhD or Masters students as RAs. This can be a real drag since I tend to attract students that have an interest and expertise in gender (which is what I often want in an RA). However, I think employing one’s student can place the student in an awkward power dynamic. In other words, it is a conflict of interest. If students feel overworked, want to quit, or have an issue with the project, they may feel reluctant to raise their concerns  lest they jeopardize the supervisory relationship. If a student is working and being supervised by the same person then their letters of reference, guidance, mentorship, and paycheck are all tied up in one person. In a perfect world, faculty would be able to avoid these situations, but I think- for me- it’s best to separate RA work from supervision. b) I try to set up a monthly or bi-monthly coffee with my RA without a detailed agenda. This is an opportunity to check in, make sure they are getting what they need out of the role, see if they are feeling overworked, bored, or if there is anything we could change about the arrangement to make it work better.

I’m still learning…. What are your tips for working with RAs?