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What Does a Research Assistant Do?

by Paul McDaniel, Demand Media
    research assistant

    research assistant

    Research assistants are an important component to the research process and particularly to large research projects conducted at larger organizations such as universities. Research assistants are particularly integral at research universities where faculty members are expected to carry out funded research as part of their job.

    Graduate Research Assistants

    At universities offering masters and doctoral degrees, many research assistants are also graduate and doctoral students. Many graduate student research assistants are expected to perform their research assistant duties as part-time jobs in addition to their responsibilities as a student. Being hired as a research assistant and receiving a stipend for the work is often part of a graduate student’s overall financial package from a university. Graduate student research assistants often assist with research projects their professors are leading. Without the work of research assistants, many research projects that often require a team effort would be virtually impossible to complete.

    Academic Discipline

    The tasks of a research assistant will vary greatly from one academic discipline to another. Research assistants to professors in the humanities and social sciences will be involved in much different work than those working within the natural sciences and mathematics.

    General Tasks

    Many research assistants may assist with general tasks required in most courses of inquiry. This may include conducting a search for scholarly literature relevant to the research project, searching the library, copying articles, ordering additional articles and books, and formulating a bibliography. Other general tasks may be related to clerical and record-keeping for the overall project. Skills needed include various computer skills that include word processing, database and spreadsheet familiarity, and knowledge of statistical analysis and statistics software.

    Research Tasks

    Depending on the academic field and the particular principal investigator in charge, a research assistant may be treated as more of a research associate and expected to make much more significant contributions to the overall project in addition to the general tasks. Research assistants may be tasked with collecting data by planning and implementing experiments, conducting interviews, administering surveys, or coordinating focus groups. Data received from interviews, surveys or focus group transcripts will need to be coded and entered into a database or spreadsheet. Statistical analyses will often need to be performed on quantitative data or on quantitatively coded qualitative data. Research assistants may also be asked to contribute their own ideas on how to make the overall project better.

    Communicating Research

    Research assistants may be charged with assisting a researcher with preparing presentations about research project results for professional, scientific and academic conferences. Power point slides may need to be crafted for oral paper presentations, and posters will need to be created for conference poster presentations. A research assistant may at times be asked to conduct the actual presentation at a conference if the principle investigator is unable to be present. Additionally, research assistants may help faculty and researchers with manuscript preparation for submittal to academic and scholarly, peer-reviewed scientific journals. Communicating the results of research is a key component in the research process and research assistants are often included in this process, at times becoming co-authors on research presentations or publications.

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    About the Author

    Paul McDaniel began writing in 2007 for various online venues, including eHow, with an emphasis on travel. He holds a Bachelor of Science and a Master of Science in geography from Samford University and the University of Tennessee and a Master of Arts in Education from the University of Alabama. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in geography from the University of North Carolina.

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