Article contributed by chief-editor of MyGraduateSchool.com - Sarah Brown Tesolin
Research assistant (RA) positions can be a terrific opportunity for a college undergraduate student. But, does a RA position actually help you if your ultimate goal is to get into graduate school?
In general, I would say that yes, a RA position can be very beneficial to the prospects of getting into graduate school for a number of reasons. However, there are a few pitfalls that you should be aware of before accepting this employment.
Advantages of a Research-Assistant Position
Some of the more obvious benefits include the exposure you will get by being in repeated contact with faculty members, grad students, as well as university staff. Not only do you get an "insider" perspective on what it is like to be a grad student, but you also are building important relationships with faculty members and staff within the department. This can open up opportunities for you to be accepted as a grad student, especially if you intend on applying with the same faculty member that you are working with as an RA. Of course, keep in mind that all prospects for becoming a grad student require you to use good judgment and maintain a good standing relationship with everyone you encounter while working as a RA.
Getting the letters of recommendation you need to apply
Some of the tasks that you may be asked to do as a RA can be very beneficial to your long-term goals. These include helping with a grant application, running grad-level experiments (which sometimes extend into an MA thesis project), opportunities to present at lab meetings and even present posters at conferences. But perhaps the most important opportunity that a RA position can provide is a chance for you to be evaluated. Your work ethic, maturity level, ability to work well with others are all things that are likely to become obvious to your supervisor/faculty member and are likely to be included in a letter of recommendation that you will need when it comes time to apply to grad school.
While an RA job can pay significantly more than minimum wage and sometimes also include additional benefits, there are also a few pitfalls of this type of employment that you should be aware of before making any commitment.
It’s important to keep in mind that in many cases your salary as a RA comes from a research grant that has been awarded to the faculty member who employs you. Usually, you will be negotiating a contract that lasts anywhere from 3 months to a year. Also, be aware that research money does deplete from one year to the next and you are not guaranteed the same income or a repeated contract once the research fund is expended. So if your other options for employment are less attractive from an income perspective, than a RA position may be the way to go. But there is certainly no long-term security in this position.
Tasks that can get in the way of your long-term goals
Tasks, such as administrative ones are an inevitable part of any RA position. Lab supplies need to be purchased, computers need to be reprogrammed, lab web sites need to be updated, and so on. Hopefully, these are tasks that you are able to take care of efficiently, leaving you with the bulk of your time to work on other tasks that are relevant to your ultimate goal, such as running experiments or editing a grad student's abstract.
Be careful, if you are spending most of your time at the photocopy machine or on the phone scheduling appointments as this will not provide you with many opportunities to develop the skills needed for grad school nor will it provide your employer/advisor with the opportunity to judge you on the important aspects of personality and research skills that lead to strong reference letters.
It is important to discuss your expectations as a RA and what duties you are expected to undertake prior to accepting any RA position. Don't be afraid to express that you are interested the position in order to help you build a strong application to grad school and that you hope to be exposed to as many opportunities that will help you achieve this goal.
How much of a workload can you realistically handle?
Many RA positions are part-time; in which case, there should not be any negative repercussions to your ultimate goals. However, if you are in school and juggling classes, perhaps an undergraduate thesis, a social life and many hours doing RA-related tasks, this can impede your ability to prepare effectively for grad school applications.
Take the time to figure out how much of a workload you can realistically handle and make it clear to your employer/advisor before taking on any RA position. Having to back out of this commitment because you cannot handle all the hours, or letting your grades slip because of the higher workload, will only hinder your chances of getting into grad school.
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