Six ways to optimize your research assistantship

Ask a Candidate | Topics in Higher Education

This post continues our series by a onetime academic job seeker, now academic-at-large, on making the most out of a research assistantship.

So you’re one of the lucky professors who’ve secured funding to hire a graduate research assistant. Finally! Somebody to help you hit fast-forward on the slow process of picking through archives, working on a digital project, or crunching data. But for some academics, especially those working outside of the sciences, the relationship between the professor, the graduate research assistant, and the job can be nebulous. Here are some tips to make sure everyone gets what they need from your research assistantship.

1. Be clear about your expectations, with yourself and your assistant.

This may be harder than it sounds, especially if your project is more open-ended in nature, or your department doesn’t set many guidelines for the relationship. Think about it ahead of time, and then talk it out with your assistant.

2. Decide on the skills you want them to come away with at the end of your time together.

In your initial meeting, discuss the experiences you think are possible to gain from the assistantship, and see which ones your assistant thinks would be more helpful for them to have under their belt when applying for grants and jobs in the future. Some of the work you need them to do will not be negotiable! But if there are choices they can make—”It would be better for me to be able to put ‘has built sites with Omeka’ than ‘fluent in Excel’ on my CV”—find out if you can tailor the work they’ll be doing, so that they come away with experience that helps them as well as you.

3. Find out where they are, and meet them there.

It’s not fair or helpful to set your assistant loose at the archives, when they have never used a finding aid. Talk about what their experiences with research have been; if they don’t have the level of skill you’d like, start them small, tell them how to do things, and help them work their way up.

4. Be transparent about the amount of time you expect the assistant to work, and what structure that work will take.

We’ve heard informal reports that some professors expect more work from their assistants than the number of hours per week that the job officially specifies. Try not to do this—and try not to expect assistants to do last-minute, “emergency” work on holidays or weekends. There may be a culture of exploitation of graduate students in the academy, but there are ways you can avoid being part of it.

5. Let them know how they’ll be evaluated.

Graduate assistantships can feel like a mentoring relationship, which they are, but they’re also a job, and your employee will want to know how they’re doing. Does your department have a structure you can use to evaluate the job performance of graduate research assistants? If so, let your assistant know what it is. If not, you might consider instituting an informal process—perhaps a chat in the middle of the assistantship to review how things are going.

6. Try to help them use the assistantship as a stepping stone.

Wherever possible, introduce them to archivists, colleagues, and staff; mention their work, and talk them up to help them get traction in your field. Recommend conferences, and if your field allows for it, collaborate on a publication, and give them fair credit.


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