All You Need to Know About an Undergraduate Research Assistantship

If you consider yourself a Google search expert — a skill that, admittedly, not all have — or if you have a curiosity that keeps you up at night trawling through the internet, you may just be suitable for a research role, and what better way to explore this path than through a research assistantship.

What is an RA, and what are some duties of an RA?

As the name suggests, an undergraduate research assistant (RA) is an assistant to a professor, who provides administrative and research support relevant to the professor’s research project. It is somewhat comparable to internships that you would typically undertake with companies where, in this case, you work closely with a professor on specific projects.

Depending on which faculty the professor is from and their area of research, as well as the stage that the research project is at, the duties of an RA can vary widely. A common responsibility of an RA is to perform desk research on the topic of interest relevant to the project. Some other common tasks include conducting surveys, interviews, and other forms of field research, collecting data, running or facilitating experiments, managing data sets, data analysis, knowledge management (organizing information and resources), writing, proof-reading, and other administrative support tasks.

How to get an RA position

Now, you must be wondering, how does one apply for an RA position? There are typically 2 ways: one is if your professor explicitly shares about available positions, and another – the more common pathway – is to approach your university professor to ask if they currently need help with any of their research projects and if they are willing to take you in as an RA. Pretty straightforward, right? Do note that if you were to approach a professor, you should first do a background check on their areas of research to see if it aligns with your interests, and ideally, through classes and interactions with the professor, discern if their working style suits you.

My experience applying for an RA position with a professor started because of my interest in exploring research and doing a senior thesis. At the same time, providentially, I had taken a class with a professor that I really liked and took an interest in her research. At the end of the semester, I decided to reach out to her via email to ask if there were any potential RA opportunities for me, and that is how I got it.

Do RAs get paid? How much?

Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of a Research Assistantship – how much do RAs get paid? Well, it really depends. Depending on the work that you will be assigned and your professor’s available project grant or university funds, you may either be paid an hourly rate or a lump sum amount for specific tasks. In my case, I was offered a lump sum payment of S$250 for my assignment, which included conducting 3 semi-structured, in-depth interviews and writing detailed field notes after, as well as discussing some preliminary themes and analyses with my professor. Others may be paid by the hour for the work they do, and the hourly rate will often be based on the university’s standard hourly rate for part-time student employment. For reference, Singapore Management University’s undergraduate part-time hourly is $13, though it may vary across the different universities.

Are there any other benefits of a Research Assistantship?

Other than being able to earn some extra pocket money during the semester or semester break – as you would with an internship – a Research Assistantship gives you the opportunity to develop a working relationship with a professor, thereby opening up future opportunities and connections for research in that professor’s area of expertise. This is especially so if you are keen on pursuing further studies and/or academia, as the professor might be able to provide helpful advice and mentorship, as well as serve as a character referee for postgraduate or job applications if they can attest to your abilities and work ethic.

If you’re intimidated or hesitant to approach a professor because you have mediocre (or even below-average) grades or were not successful in making an impression on the professor through class participation, this anecdote is for you! A friend of mine who was struggling academically and anxious to boost his resume took the step to approach his professor about the possibility of a Research Assistantship. While the professor already had an RA, he recommended my friend to a fellow professor who was looking for an RA. This gave him an opportunity to gain some additional experience on top of his internships.

As the saying goes, fortune favours the brave. If you’re keen to get a glimpse of research work and academia, an undergraduate Research Assistantship is a great place to start!


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