practical phd

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As I worked on my Master’s paper during my second year of graduate school, I felt increasingly isolated.  Sitting in my office in front of my laptop got the data cleaning, analysis, and writing done, but wasn’t a completely satisfactory experience.  From my work in evaluation research prior to graduate school, I knew research didn’t have to be a solo endeavor and in fact is often not that, so I sought out ways to make the dissertation a collaborative experience.  Due to the nature of my research and the presence of the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program, I was able to employ a team of Research Assistants to help me with data collection and coding.  Not only did it help move my dissertation forward, it let me give a group of undergraduates a look into the less visible side of graduate school and faculty work, provide them with mentorship, and be a role model to a group of predominately women and people of color.  We often think of working as a Research Assistant as an opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students to be exposed to the research process, get new skills in data collection and analysis, and expand their resume/cv. But it is also an opportunity for faculty to push forward their research with more hands and minds on deck.  Working with Research Assistants helped me finish data collection and gave me others to talk to about my research who had direct experience with the data. These interactions led to early changes in the data collection protocol and coding scheme, which informed the larger direction of the project. The key to making it a beneficial endeavor for everyone involved comes from choosing good matches and providing training, structure, and feedback.

Choosing your RAs

When I first started looking for RAs as a graduate student, I was advised to look for students with high GPAs as a sign of their ability to perform.  I was surprised to hear that advice given my own experience hiring, supervising, and training recent graduates in evaluation research. GPA is a measure of a student’s ability to study, memorize, regurgitate, apply concepts, evaluate examples, and write.  The only part of this that is relevant for most RA positions is the ability to follow and master a set of instructions. Frankly, GPA is a pretty poor measure on which to gauge someone’s ability to do that given the number of irrelevant aspects of their academic performance that it measures.  

I have found that the best RAs were the ones that were (a) deeply interested in and often personally connected to the topic and (b) had strong skills in organization, time management, and attention to detail.  During interviews I asked applicants why they were interested in the project, whether they would describe themselves as a more detail oriented or a big picture thinker, for an example of their organizational skills, what other activities they were involved in outside of classes, and how they were managing their school, work, and student activities.  This got me a group of RAs who cared about my research topic, could juggle their assignments with their other responsibilities, kept good track of their work, and took the time to implement their task according to their training and instructions.  

Training RAs

After selection, I always lead with training to prepare my RAs as a group for their work.  Now this is something I’m sure everyone working with others on their research does in both formal and informal ways.  Here’s what I’ve found to work best.  

First, I start with a broader orientation to the research project so that RAs can see where their specific research tasks fit into the broader scope of the project.  I share the inspiration for the project, the question(s) I’m answering, and a broad review of the research design. Second, I provide a task specific training on their day-to-day responsibilities.  That includes a review of a living document that serves as a repository for all instructions detailing their responsibilities that they can refer back to at any time. If possible, we visit the site of their work, which could be a physical location like the library or a virtual location like a shared cloud folder.  Finally, we walk through an example of what they will do together, so they see an example of the task carried out with verbal annotations about why I am making the decisions I’m making along the way.  

Structuring their Work

The written instructions detailing the steps in their tasks is core to the structure I provide for their work, but I’ve also found that RAs need systems, processes, and regular check-in meetings to help structure their work and provide deadlines.  Thus, I provided my RAs who were doing coding work with a document outlining instructions for coding, a codebook, a shared folder with their assigned articles, and a spreadsheet to enter their coding and questions all in one location. At weekly meetings, we would review any questions they had from the prior week, as well as discussing changes to the protocol and broad feedback that applied to all team members.  These weekly check-ins also provided indirect tracking of their progress on assignments and informal deadlines for moving their work forward. As they became more comfortable with the protocol and had fewer questions, we reduced meetings to biweekly or monthly to give them more time to work on their assignments, but continued exchanging questions and updates via email.  

The structure you provide your RAs will vary depending on the kind of work they do.  For example, if an RA was doing a literature review for me, I would provide a list of information I want them to compile and questions that I want them to answer about each article they review.  I would format this list of information and questions into either a spreadsheet or a survey instrument like Google Forms to compile the relevant information into an easily accessible format for me to use later.  

Other faculty and graduate students I’ve spoken with also ask for weekly reports of time spent on the project and amount of work completed.  This gives both the supervisor and the RAs data on how long a task is taking and how long it will take to be completed. If you do choose this approach, give your RAs space to document other demands that interrupted their work time such as midterms or final exams, holidays, and illness.  

Giving them Feedback

Finally, all of us do our best work when we have some sort of feedback loop to assess and evaluate our work and give us some advice on how to improve it.  Using quality checks where you or an experienced RA thoroughly reviews a subset of the work done and provide feedback to the RA ensures that your RAs are getting just that.  I like to give my RAs about a month to get familiar with the protocol and process before doing any quality checks. This is usually enough time that they’ve done more than start their assignment, but are also at a point where they have some questions about whether what they’re doing is what I’m looking for.  

At that time, I randomly pick a few of their completed assignments to check, complete the research task myself, and compare my results with what they have.  I give them individual feedback and ask them to revise all of their completed assignments as needed, but also provide the group with information about common errors from the quality checks.  This is work that I often did with a more experienced RA to spread out the work and also give a subset of strong RAs a chance to get some supervisory experience on the project.  

The opportunity to work on a research project is an opportunity that can help an undergraduate student decide what kind of graduate program they want to pursue, give them a resume line that demonstrates their attention to detail and organizational skills, and give them a future reference for jobs.  But it is also an important opportunity for the researcher to advance a research project with the help of others. While I was on the job market, most of the work that was done on my dissertation was completed by my RAs due to the other demands on my time. There is also the possibility of finding co-authors and longer-term relationships through the process as promising RAs emerge.  The benefits of working with RAs go in both directions, particularly if the researcher provides the structure and direction to guide RAs through the work.  

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