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Seeking mutually beneficial arrangement with research assistant.
April 1, 2011 9:30 AM   Subscribe

How do I efficiently and effectively work with a research assistant?

I am in my first year of teaching at the graduate level. My area of (legal) scholarship is very specific, and this semester I taught a seminar class in that area. One of the students has asked to serve as a research assistant to me this summer, because she is interested in the subject area and would like the experience.

I have never had a research assistant before. I have thought of a couple of things that she can potentially help me with (namely, pulling articles and synthesizing them, and helping with footnotes), but am looking to follow up with:

(1) What tasks or projects have you found research assistants to be of help on? I.e., what can I delegate to her that I haven't thought of, that would be mutually beneficial?

(2) Are there articles or resources that you can recommend on efficiently and effectively working with a research assistant?

(3) Do you have any personal words of wisdom in terms of how to effectively and efficiently work with a research assistant? I'm interested in project management as well (I'm a GTD individual, if it makes a difference).

My work has traditionally not been very empirical, but I'm wondering if it would be more efficient to take advantage of this opportunity to do some empirical work.

Bonus points if you have tips for effectively integrating two research assistants, as I have another student who has indicated an interest, although I'm not sure whether the two will be helping out during the same time period.

Thank you, Mefites.
posted by letahl to Work & Money (3 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I have worked with many undergraduate research assistants. Here are some words of wisdom:

- Don't have too high expectations. I'd rather be surprised with good work than expect good work.

- REDUNDANCY - do not have any important thing only done by 1 RA. At least if 2 of them found the same thing, you can be more sure of it.

- Give them very explicit deadlines and very explicit consequences (the first time I had a problem with an RA, I told him that I was going to give him a poor grade because he turned everything in late and poorly, but he pointed out the logical flaw, which was that I had never told him that a lower grade would be a consequence of late/poor work)

Here's the phrasing that I use:

"As far as RAing, I am totally flexible about when/where you do your work as long as you actually complete it on the assigned due dates (and if something comes up, like you're sick, email me in advance). If you do quality work and hand it in on time, this will be an easy A. If your work is lacking (and I'll give you feedback throughout the assignments to let you know if the work is lacking... you have the opportunity to redeem yourself!), or the work is handed in late repeatedly, your grade will drop. I've very rarely had to give someone less than an A as an RA, but I want you to be clear on the expectations before you start. Technically you're supposed to be working on your RA project for 10 hours a week. I am flexible within this as long as you're meeting deadlines (i.e., you can do 20 hours one week and none the rest as long as you get it to me when you're supposed to.)"

- Activities that I've had RAs do include:

LIT REVIEWS - but you need to train them on how to read empirical articles.

- Reading all the citations in Google Scholar of a particular work. If it is cut and dry, I have them fill in a lit review table with the proper citation, theory used, findings, method, and notes. (This is super helpful for later sorting... like if I need to show that "Education predicted Whatever" I can sort by "Whatever" and copy and paste.) For works that aren't as cut and dry, I have them copy and paste the abstract into a table.

- Doing a lit review of a particular construct in a particular context with a lit review table.


- Finding things that would be good to know but that I don't have time for. Right now I am having some RAs find all the prices of Internet in the region that I study, using the Wayback Machine, in the past and putting them into a table.

I've also had RAs enter data, but I always allow them to first do a mini lit review on the topic (with some key readings from me to start) and then formulate their own hypotheses... this seems to get them more engaged in the data entry, which can be awful.
posted by k8t at 10:31 AM on April 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh - and I've set up a pbwiki to manage all the document flow between myself and the RAs as to not blow up our emails.
posted by k8t at 10:32 AM on April 1, 2011

>>My work has traditionally not been very empirical, but I'm wondering if it would be more efficient to take advantage of this opportunity to do some empirical work.

I doubt it. What sort of empirical stuff are you going to do if you get a research assistant or two? Do they have a relevant background? Do you? I can't imagine that helping unless everyone understands everything and you literally just need the extra manpower to find or crunch some numbers.
posted by J. Wilson at 11:50 AM on April 1, 2011

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