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January 4, 2011 6:59 PM   Subscribe

What positions does "research assistant" translate into in the real world?

This is a more urgent update to my earlier question about my career prospects. After three years, my application for a federal Top Secret clearance has finally been declined. I can continue to flail through a variety of appeal procedures. Ideally, I will be allowed to reapply. I enjoy almost everything about my job (which I can obviously do while my application is being processed) and do not want to leave. In any event, I’d like to develop a graceful exit strategy, in case it becomes necessary.

What I do: I am a full-time research assistant with a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science at a university-affiliated research center. We focus on matters of language proficiency in government employees: we develop and validate tests, develop language technologies, as well as conducting basic research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. These last two are my own area at work.

My role is comprehensive research support. I recruit and test subjects using behavioral experiments, paper-and-pencil tests, as well as imaging tools like EEG and fNIRS. I also manage and process data (MATLAB), run statistical analyses (SPSS), and draft reports. I work with researchers and project managers. There’s also a bunch of administrative responsibilities like scheduling meetings and putting together quarterly updates. I enjoy those the least. What I enjoy the most is analyzing data, writing, and learning new research tools and methods.

The complication: we are run on the academic, rather than corporate, model. Our researchers are PhD scientists, some senior, but many right out of post-docs. They have little experience delegating meaningful tasks to assistants. They also view assistants less like junior staff and more like juvenile staff. The position has zero growth potential. Many assistants have allowed their roles to dwindle to basic administrative support — even though many of us have years of experience in various areas.

I have been working to develop a measure of autonomy. But even so, everything I do is in very close consultation with the researchers I support. There is almost nothing that I do independently. Even reports I draft often get completely rewritten as a matter of course. For example, last year I volunteered to do an internal research presentation as a "development" activity for my annual review. I rehearsed the talk with one of my superiors. He then spent the following hour tearing my presentation to shreds. We ended up with him dictating to me what should appear on my slides, in what order, and what particular turns of phrase I should use during the talk "for maximum impact."

In summary: when I list all of my research skills on a resume, how much should I underline that I’ve never really worked independently, but always in intimate collaboration with more senior team members? Is that the standard in similar jobs elsewhere, or have the assistants at my workplace been marginalized?

More generally: if I had to leave, I have no interest in becoming an EEG technician at a hospital, or something similar. For one, that takes specialized, completely orthogonal training and certification.

What else does my experience translate into?
Should I be looking into entry-level (or mid-level?) analyst positions with consulting firms? What kind? Or is my experience irrelevant for this kind of work?
Where else can I apply myself without it being too much of a stretch?

My background is neither biology nor engineering, so I’m not sure pharma and medical device manufacturers are a close match. My particular interests are linguistics, and possibly language policy, education policy, etc. My employer is involved in some of these areas, but my exposure to them in the workplace has not been especially substantive.

I have no interest in entering a doctoral program or figuring out the funding for a master’s program at the moment. I have 4 semesters of graduate applied stats. Thanks for your input!
posted by Nomyte to Work & Money (5 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
when I list all of my research skills on a resume, how much should I underline that I’ve never really worked independently, but always in intimate collaboration with more senior team members?

You don't. Why would you emphasise something that is negative (or can be perceived as negative) on your resume?
posted by lollusc at 7:11 PM on January 4, 2011

Why not appeal the denial of Top Secret and study for the psych tests the next time you have to take them? MMPI is the big one, easy to find books that explain the interpretation of it and how to answer the questions.
posted by nautical-by-nature at 7:22 PM on January 4, 2011

You could try the nonprofit sector: here is a listing for a research assistant posting at the Wilder Foundation, a non-profit that has done some fascinating research work, including now-seminal annual homeless surveys that have been cited in the NYTimes. I worked there myself for one summer, working primarily on a project evaluating how welfare reform had affected 4 specific minority populations.
posted by kitarra at 8:25 PM on January 4, 2011

I sympathize but am not surprised at your treatment. It's shoddy fucking treatment, but I'm not surprised. There are BA/BSc technicians who are treated well, but most aren't.

Whatever next career you try to get into, positive letters of reference are going to help. Do not burn bridges with your former supervisors/employers.

It's a really aggravating thing for me; a bachelors in engineering is an $80-100k+ job straight up. A bachelors in (hard; molecular + biochem) bio sciences starts at $35k.

I really really really hate saying this but it might be worth your while to take out some loans and get a MSc in a field you're familiar with. It depends on your career ambitions - to get a job, or to make your own job. A MSc very much increases one's wage slave earnings whereas a PhD is a complete crapshoot.

I know more than a few bioscience MScs doing "lab tech" work making 45-65 in academia, and 55-75 in industry working 9-5. No heavy lifting, and less drudgery than a "typical" white collar office/cubicle job. Lab Manager positions pay a tiny little bit more, but in startups at least cost a couple of years in the trenches proving that they're extraordinary (and worth $100k+).

If you're pretty and well spoken, being a sales rep for various reagent/equipment companies could be an option.

If you're well spoken and a people person and reasonably bright, you can try for educational/instructional... instructors for equipment (microscopes, plate readers, automated laboratory equipment, &c.).

Well, it's also possible that you're in a miserable lab. How many NIH or CIHR or other grants does your current lab hold? It's very possible that they value you LOTS but just can't afford to pay you. =( But if that was the case, you'd have known, if they valued you as a member of the team (unless the PI is a total flake/clueless).
posted by porpoise at 10:03 PM on January 4, 2011

Response by poster: porpoise: I do not resent my job. In fact, I enjoy it. I like my supervisors, even though they can be crazy sometimes, and they largely like me. I get very positive evaluations and am sought after by other research teams for my skills. If I have to leave, I will have positive letters of recommendation.

I come from a very good school. My engineer friends might be doing it wrong, but they don't make much more than my bio-major friends, and neither ones are close to $80K yet. (Wheh!)

I am neither pretty nor well-spoken. You are leaving me few options! If I had to do an MS degree, I'd be working at a university, as I do now, and using tuition remission benefits. My areas of interest — linguistics and cognitive science — are not the sorts of fields that give master's degrees. I am building toward (possibly) completing a master's in stats or applied mathematics.

We do work directly for the federal government and do not rely on grants. My salary is better than a typical full-time assistant's. In fact, it's enough to live on.
posted by Nomyte at 10:31 PM on January 4, 2011

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