practical phd

a transparent source for all things PhD

One missing part of many social science graduate programs is learning how to work with others.  Research in graduate school is predominantly a solo endeavor through the MA and dissertation. Additionally, there are limited opportunities to work on research with faculty, other graduate students, and undergraduates, particularly for those doing qualitative research.  Unfortunately, I’ve found that many qualitative researchers are resistant to working with research assistants (RAs). This resistance means that qualitative focused undergraduate and graduate students are much less likely to have mentored opportunities to learn about research than their quantitatively oriented peers.  This has implications for disparities in mentorship, professional development, and publications by methods. Why is there resistance to working with RAs?  

Concern 1: No one can do the work as well as I can. 

This concern includes things like “I’m the most familiar with the data because I collected it,” “I’ve worked with similar (or the same) data before,” “I developed the study so I know what’s there.”  You are absolutely the most familiar with your data and the most familiar with your study. Any RAs you work with, whether undergraduates or graduate students, will be less knowledgeable than you are.  In fact, this concern is also sometimes expressed as “I don’t have anything for an RA to do,” under the assumption that someone less qualified won’t be able to contribute in any way. However, none of these concerns mean you can’t find RAs who would be helpful on the project.  I’ve found that with training and experience working with the data, RAs can be efficient in their tasks AND contribute to the implementation of the study. As someone with distance from the design and background of the project, they often have a distinct vantage point for viewing the data and project.  Furthermore, they bring their own experiences, expertise, and perspective to the data. This means they might notice relevant data that aren’t captured in a coding scheme, raise questions about how concepts are defined and operationalized that clarify the focus of the project, have a “new” take on what is happening in the data from their perspective, and identify more efficient processes for the work.  Once your RAs are trained, you can delegate tasks that don’t require your full attention such as collecting metadata, and use RAs to expand your work to collect and analyze more data or new data sources.

Concern 2: Training and management take time. 

Training a team and managing RAs’ work takes time.  This is undoubtedly true. You will have to train your RAs including orientation to the broader project and specific training on the tasks they will complete, provide them with assignments, monitor their work, run team meetings, conduct quality checks, and give them feedback.  You will be trading some data work for management work, but this can be easily managed by setting up processes for the team and a timeline for things like quality checks and feedback. I recommend having weekly meetings (especially in the beginning), keeping an FAQ list with questions that come up in team meetings, and specifying all steps in the process in a training manual that your RAs can refer back to as needed.  The management work will be an addition to your workload, but it is a sacrifice worth making to get more hands on deck to push your research forward and doesn’t take much more than a couple hours a week once set up and past the training phase. 

Concern 3: I work with sensitive data. 

Interview data in particular can include personal information about research participants.  But the same is true for many survey and experiment projects. By following IRB requirements for CITI training, signing confidentiality waivers, removing personal identifiers, and restricting access to data through password protected computers, you can protect your research participants, while working with RAs.  Reach out to your IRB to get ideas and understand your institution’s requirements for bringing on new team members.  

Concern 4: I don’t have funding to pay RAs. 

Many researchers are doing research without additional funds from which to pay RAs for their work.  But there are several other ways to compensate RAs that they may be amenable to for the opportunity to learn from your expertise and get hands-on experience.  Some universities offer students credit through a research apprenticeship program. If your university doesn’t provide this sort of program, you can build your research project into a course where students learn about the topic and gain hands on experience with research doing work for your project (a la service learning).  For students who work on the project for multiple semesters, you could offer them the opportunity to co-author on a paper, giving them another type of professionalization experience. Finally, there are small tokens of gratitude for their work such as providing career advice, writing recommendation letters, acting as references for job applications, listing their names in acknowledgments on publications, and taking them out for a meal to celebrate the work they’ve put in on the project.  

Concern 5: I don’t know how to integrate RAs. 

Almost none of us were explicitly trained on how to integrate RAs into our research projects.  So what better way to learn than by doing? The first RA I worked with did everything I did so that I could determine what realistic tasks were for an RA to complete.  She collected newspaper articles and compiled relevant information about them into two spreadsheets. From monitoring her progress and work, I identified which part of the process was too difficult for someone new to the project (work I ultimately did myself) and separated the two remaining tasks (data collection and objective data summaries) into tasks for two separate teams of RAs.  As I moved forward with this, I made tweaks along the way and kept a training document that provided detailed instructions for each team including a photo tutorial for my microfilm team on how to scan articles. It was only by working with RAs that I was able to figure out how to integrate them into my data collection and analysis process. Start with one RA and see what works.

Concern 6: It’s just easier not to work with RAs. 

There are certainly cases where just doing the research work yourself would be easier.  I have worked with RAs on projects where my pace is double theirs, but it was still a valuable experience for both of us.  For my RAs, who have all been undergraduates working for credit or pay through a university program so far, they got exposure to the other side of what their professors do, insight into grad school, career advice, a job to put on their resume, me as a reference for jobs and a recommender for graduate school, and acknowledgments in my future publications.  In return, I got to give a group of predominately women, students of color, first-generation college students, and community college transfers an opportunity to learn about research. It’s part of the reason I wanted a job in the academy rather than returning to the non-academic research career I worked in pre-grad school. These are the moments I get to connect what they learned in their research methods course with an actual research project that they are interested in.  It gives them new ideas about what to do for their theses and sometimes interest in doing a thesis. For some, seeing how the sausage is made helps them make an informed decision that they’re not interested in research or PhD programs. It’s also my opportunity to create a community and safe space for these predominately underrepresented groups. Working with RAs is part of my work as a mentor and role model. It is part of what fulfills me in my work.  

2 thoughts on “Why Not Work with RAs?

  1. Cameron says:

    I’m starting a new TT position in the fall at an undergraduate-focused institution that values undergraduate research. This post gave me a few practical ideas on how to integrate them into my research agenda when the time comes.


    1. Zawadi says:

      i’m so glad to hear that! thanks for reading.


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