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Working with research assistants: My approach and philosophy

One of the reasons my scholarly productivity went up (literally, through the roof) during a previous stage of my academic career was the fact that I had not one, but two amazing research assistants. Whatever I needed done (assemble datasets, create tables, format journal article manuscripts, organize my academic life), they were there. Right now, I have a small army of 6 research assistants (I brought back to my team someone who I had worked with during my postdoctoral years), and while two of them work 50% of their time for me and 50% of their time for another professor (both colleagues of mine), I do consider them all part of my research team (my research students being the other part). They’ve been incredibly helpful in boosting my productivity and helping me with some very tedious administrative tasks (including photocopying, printing, data-entry and assemblage of my SNI submission).

There are very good reasons to be a research assistant, particularly at a prestigious institution like CIDE. In addition to learning about how to conduct research on-the-job, obtaining a very solid letter of recommendation from a respected scholar, being a research assistant pays off because it provides the apprentice with the experience of being one of the building blocks of a solid scholarly programme.

Whenever I have worked with research assistants, I have tried to motivate them and boost their morale because to me, their work is incredibly valuable. They are not only “dataset-assembling-machines”. They’re human beings with excellent brains, who are hard-working and committed to my success. Given the fact that in my RA team I have 5 males and 1 woman, I came up with the metaphor of The Avengers, and had a friend of my cousin design and create small figures that represent my research assistants as The Avengers.

The Avengers

The metaphor works well, because even if I see myself as a superhero, I wouldn’t be able to succeed without their help (hence the Avengers metaphor – they are stronger as a team, whereas one alone is not as powerful). Admittedly, I’m a very challenging professor to work as a research assistant for. I work in a very broad variety of fields, and I work really long hours, at a very fast pace. But I know that I can count on my research assistants to have my back.

My philosophy for working with research assistants can be summarized as follows: all I ask of my RAs is

1) Commitment – The first thing I need from a research assistant is that they can be trusted and that they are committed to helping me. I need to know that they will be there when I need them, even if the work sometimes requires them to stay a bit longer, work a bit after work, or come in on a weekend or on a holiday. I need to know that they have my back and that they’re watching it.

2) Hard work and high quality of work – I need to know that my RAs will take the same approach that I take to my research. While I am a bit of a perfectionist, I don’t expect perfection from my RAs. But I do expect that they will take time to proofread their work, to check for consistency in datasets, to upload clean references to Mendeley, and to be careful and exercise proper etiquette in how they deal with other professors and students.

3) Independence – I strongly believe that the best thing one can do to train and mentor RAs is to show them how to undertake independent work, to walk with them through the process, to teach them the first steps on how to use a particular software or tool, and then let them work themselves out. I am not a micro-manager. I never was when I was a research lab manager, and I never will be. I fully believe in my own mantra: I tell people “THIS needs to happen” and I let them make it happen. I strongly believe this approach really enhances the RA experience.

4) Mutual respect and a team approach to work – This is incredibly important to me (that my RAs respect each other and that they work together as a team). I don’t play favorites with any of my RAs (nor did I do it with my students). I’ve always believed in self-organization (I wouldn’t study self-organizing water governance units if I didn’t!) so often times, I just tell my students what I need done and they self-organize on who can help me do what. This approach enables them to learn better collaborative ways of working together, and it frees my time (and my brain) to focus on my research.

A couple of interesting posts I found while writing this piece – on working with undergraduate RAs in a lab setting, and on working with RAs as translators. Of course, I’d appreciate additional tips on how to work with research assistants if you think of something that you think I missed on this note.

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2 Responses

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  1. Victor Cruz says


    Nice post.
    I have 3 research assistants, and they make life way easier, indeed.

    I’d add that a major incentive that is missing in Mexican universities to apply for such positions – whether there exists any, is a small stipend.
    I had a difficult time finding one in a public university in Mexico. There were no such positions planned, and in the end had to work pro-bono, eventhough I held a postgraduate degree.

    I’d like to hear if such an opening in CIDE centro shows up.

  2. Ines says

    Wonder if you can talk a bit about what kind of tasks you give them, how you set up their time, if you meet with them on a regular basis and how do you keep them committed?

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