What is a Research Assistant?

What is a Research Assistant?

Research assistants are employed by research institutes to assist with academic or private research. The primary responsibility of a research assistant is to provide support to either a research fellow or a research team, through collecting, analysing and interpreting data.

Institutes which use research assistants include universities, research centres (e.g. the Russell Group) and private organisations. Research assistants usually operate on a temporary basis, though permanent positions exist. In an academic setting, research assistants work under the supervision of research fellows.

Research assistant roles are often undertaken by postgraduate students who are completing their PhD programme. This provides income for the doctoral student, but also prepares them for an academic career once their programme is complete.

What are the Typical Duties of a Research Assistant?

Duties of a research assistant can vary throughout the life of a research project. In the early stages, you may be required to look for grants or funding opportunities. Many research projects cannot be undertaken without funding from an overseeing body such as a government department, research council or private company. Research assistants can be asked to prepare supporting material and help develop a proposal to secure funding.

Research assistants may also be responsible for planning the research project, coordinating tasks, preparing surveys, scheduling interviews and identifying statistical models and analysis techniques to use. In the middle stages of the project, research assistants may collect, analyse and interpret data. To do this, they will use data analysation techniques and use graphs, tables and charts to present key findings.

Finally, towards the end of the project, they may need to prepare a written discussion of the findings and help produce reports or articles. The research team may need to present the outcome of the research project at a conference to the funding agency or any other interested parties. Research assistants commonly help prepare material such as presentation slides and posters for these conferences.

In summary, the core duties of a research assistant include:

  • Preparing materials to support grant applications
  • Reviewing published literature and producing literature reviews
  • Data collection and storage
  • Assist in lab work, ordering of materials, inventory management and preparation of samples
  • Conduct analysis of data
  • Statistical manipulation and graphical presentation of data
  • Assist with the recruitment of staff and performing interviews
  • Regular note taking (e.g. meetings, interviews, lab results)
  • Attending internal project meetings, seminars and external conferences
  • Supervision of undergraduate researchers
  • Preparation of reports, presentations and posters
  • Review of reports produced by others
  • Presenting findings on behalf of research team
  • Management of research project finances
  • Liaison with funding agency
  • Project correspondence and website management
  • Development of research protocols
  • Management of project programme
  • Evaluation and development of new tools and practices

This is a non-exhaustive list, and there will be several day-to-day tasks specific to your job.

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What are the Benefits of becoming a Research Assistant?

Becoming a research assistant is a great way to get hands on experience and prepare yourself for a career in academia or applied research. You will get to experience many aspects of research life, and develop skills such as data analysis, communication and problem solving which can be applied to any industry. Being a research assistant allows you to ‘earn whilst you learn’ and is ideal for those who want to bring in additional income to support their studies.

Beyond this, the short-term nature of research assistant positions suits those looking for flexible working arrangements and those who want to get a taste of research life without committing to a full-time career. For this reason, many research assistants are recent Bachelor’s or Master’s graduates who are looking to experience a research project before deciding on whether a PhD is right for them.

Another advantage of this is that it allows researchers to move from project to project and get experience working in different environments and teams.

As a research assistant you will have the opportunity to become involved in publishing papers. If you have been involved in the research study and made a significant contribution, then you should be an author on the paper. As with all papers, if you lead the research and write up the manuscript, then you should also be the first author.

What is the Salary of a Research Assistant?

Due to the wide variety of environments research assistants can operate in, salaries are varied. That being said, the typical starting salary for research assistants in the UK is around £20,000 to £25,000. Funded PhD students usually receive a tax-free stipend as their salary, typically worth £15,000 to £20,000.

NOTE: It is important to remember that research assistant roles are a stepping stone to full-time research roles for which salaries are significantly higher.

Who are the Typical Employers?

The most common employer for research assistant positions are Universities. However, other employers include the NHS, charities and trusts, private research companies, and public/government research councils.

What are the Entry Requirements for a Research Assistant position?

Most research assistant positions will require you to possess a good (2:1 or above) undergraduate degree, preferably a Master’s degree, in a relevant subject. Some positions require candidates to either possess a postgraduate degree or be enrolled on a PhD programme. Regardless of the qualification requirement, you will need to have a thorough understanding of the subject area, and be able to show examples of research skills such as data collection and analysis.

Some universities run undergraduate research assistant programmes which allow undergraduates to engage in academic research with the support of university staff and prepare them for a career in academia. An example is the University of St Andrews whose scheme pays undergraduate students £54 for each 6-hour block worked.

Key Skills for a Research Assistant

There are several key skills employers look for when assessing the suitability of candidates for research assistant jobs. We have outlined these below and you should highlight them in your application to make you stand out.

Beyond the skills listed above, identify any experience you have in carrying out any tasks listed in the core duties outlined under ‘What are the typical duties of a Research Assistant?’. For example, have you ever interviewed anyone or used laboratory equipment?

What is the Typical Day of a Research Assistant?

The typical day of a research assistant will vary depending on the field of research you operate in and institute to work for. However, there are some things which most research assistants can expect in a typical day.

They are responsible for basic administrative tasks such as record keeping and account management. Since research assistants are likely to be working under the supervision of a lead researcher, they will be required to support their supervisor in their day-to-day tasks, and provide them with regular progress updates.

If working in a large research team, research assistants can be asked to check in with various members of the team, coordinate tasks and ensure progress is on track. Similarly, research assistants are responsible for planning and scheduling and may organise interviews and meetings on behalf of others.

Research assistants can expect flexible working hours, which vary greatly depending on the project they are involved in. Working hours tend to increase as the deadline approaches, and many research assistants frequently work on weekends.

Most research assistants will operate from either a laboratory or an office. Occasionally, they may go ‘onsite’ to conduct fieldwork.

How to find Research Assistant Positions

One issue with research assistant jobs is that they are not well advertised. The best place to start is to search our extensive database of PhD programmes to see whether there are any research assistant positions available, or browse the research section on the websites of the universities you’re interested in.

Beyond this you can speak to university staff who can advise you on the best course of action to take for applying to research positions within their department. Some organisations advertise on social media, so joining facebook groups and following twitter accounts (e.g. alumni and department pages) is a good idea.

Interview Tips for Research Assistants

Before attending your interview, have a good idea of the current state of knowledge in the field of research you are applying to. Has there been any recent breakthroughs? What are the current gaps in knowledge? What research is being undertaken and what is the direction for the future?

It is also an advantage to know the institution you are applying to. Specifically, how does the research department operate, what equipment does the lab have, is the department currently involved in any noteworthy search projects?

You should also expect to talk about your interest in the research field, your career plans and what makes you a suitable candidate for the job.

Some example questions you may face include:

  • How does this research assistant position align with your long-term aspirations?
  • Do you have any previous experience?
  • What relevant skills do you possess?
  • Do you have any skills beyond research? (For example, foreign languages)
  • What was your dissertation or thesis title and what did it involve? (If you have done one)

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