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How to grow and add meaningful experiences while being a paid Research Assistant


Guest burgundyties
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Guest burgundyties

Hi all,

 

First off, please feel free to point me to another thread if this has already been explored!

 

During this current application cycle, I have applied to several doctoral programs and at this point,  I have no offers.   I have already started to mentally prepare myself for another round of applications and am looking for some advice.  The time to accomplish things that could be written about in our application is pretty short, so keep in mind I am looking for things that can be reasonably accomplished during this time.

 

I am writing this post because I would like to survey peoples experiences as Research Assistants/Techs POST bachelors.  My question is:

As a research assistant/tech, does your lab give you opportunities to publish or attend conferences?

 

I am currently working as a paid assistant (going on 3 years now).  I noticed during a couple of my graduate school interviews, that others who were also currently working in labs, had seemingly more intellectual experiences with their lab.  Many were able to attend conferences, present posters, and have things published.   Also,  a few were able to work on a "personal" project.  This surprised me because I was led to believe that RAs do not really get the oppotunity to publish or attend conferences and now I feel a bit silly that my RA experience these past few years may be seen as superficial (running subjects, collecting data, data entry, etc). 

 

So this question is directed to people who are able to be in a lab that seems to really prep or allow their RA to contribute intellectually.  How do I find these opportunities?  How can I possibly convince my current lab to allow me to do work that really shows my intellectual abilities?

 

If it helps, I have already made it known in the lab I currently work in that I would like these types of experiences as they know I am wanting to go to graduate school.  They have known this for a couple of years and always seem open to it initially.  However, it always ends up being dropped and I am told that  "collecting data from subjects is priority".  I have no reason to expect that between appliction cycles things will change and though I know time is not on my side, I am willing to hop to another lab as long as they offer me these opportunities. I just am wondering what is the typicall experience of a paid RA or Tech.

 

 

 

 

 

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In my lab, we have opportunities for both paid and volunteer RAs to contribute to publications and presentations, with the caveat that it must be done outside of their usual hours in the lab. Thus, if they have committed to volunteer 20 hours a week for the lab and would like to be a part of an upcoming publication or presentation, they are expected to make extra time in their schedule to work on these opportunities. Similarly, if a volunteer (undergrad or grad student) desires to submit a poster for a conference using our data sets, they must conceive of the idea and do considerable background research far in advance (months) of the abstract deadline, as hastily contrived research ideas do nothing to improve the stature of our lab or our PI.

 

Edited to add: This is the same for paid employees. For example, I work 40+ hours a week for the lab, but then must put in hours on my own time to be included on the presentations and papers I have been on.

 

Basically, the opportunities exist, but must be worked for and earned and are not just handed out for meeting expectations regarding assigned tasks.

Edited by CleverUsername15
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I think "research assistant" is such a general term that it can mean a lot of different types of positions and thus different opportunities. It's also confusing because graduate students are often paid as research assistants to complete their program too, and this type of RA is very different than a staff scientist/lab tech type of research assistant.

 

However, this might depend on field because the research assistants (e.g. people with Bacehlor's or Masters degrees) in labs/groups I've worked in (medical physics, astronomy, planetary science) do generally get included in publications just for meeting expectations regarding assigned tasks. That is, if they collect the data, and then that data gets published, then they are a coauthor. But the norms in my field is to always include the data collector as well as the data "analyzer" in papers. They don't generally present at conferences though, because their contribution is technical and conferences generally focus on the scientific aspect. However, they tend to be experts in specific procedures and techniques and they do travel for occasional workshops or training that further their technical expertise.

 

Again, maybe this is a difference in field, but I'm not sure why CleverUsername15 makes a distinction between "paid work" and "work to be included in publications". I don't think they are mutually exclusive. In fact, as a graduate student, all of my work is paid and I expect everything I do to lead to a publication. I would never work for free because while publications are nice, they don't pay the bills! The PIs I worked for would never expect anyone (undergrad, grad student, or research staff) to work for free (many profs I know will refuse volunteers) in order to be considered for authorship. That would be basically the same as exploiting interns!

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A lot of this is very specific to the lab in which you work. I work as an RA now during the day and it is expected of us to do independent projects with data that he has given us or have collected under his supervision. We have meetings every Friday where RA's and current grad students present their projects and get feedback. It is also highly encouraged if not expected that these projects lead to presentations if not publications. That being said, I do not think my experience is the norm. We are only allowed to work part-time at VERY low pay. All the RA's have second and third jobs just to make ends meet but the experience is worth it for a year or two if it means you will be accepted into grad school. Our professor sends roughly 6 RA's a year to funded Ph.D. programs and that is his goal. I think the biggest thing is not only finding a place where you can excel but where also the professor actually cares about your success. I understand that these experiences are hard to come by but if you have some opportunities to meet with professors and get a gauge on the expectations of their lab beforehand, you might find a place where you will have the opportunities to do higher level work.

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Again, maybe this is a difference in field, but I'm not sure why CleverUsername15 makes a distinction between "paid work" and "work to be included in publications". I don't think they are mutually exclusive. In fact, as a graduate student, all of my work is paid and I expect everything I do to lead to a publication. I would never work for free because while publications are nice, they don't pay the bills! The PIs I worked for would never expect anyone (undergrad, grad student, or research staff) to work for free (many profs I know will refuse volunteers) in order to be considered for authorship. That would be basically the same as exploiting interns!

 

The original poster asked for people's experiences, so I provided mine. Of course all labs are different, and differences are to be expected between different disciplines.

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The original poster asked for people's experiences, so I provided mine. Of course all labs are different, and differences are to be expected between different disciplines.

 

Indeed--I reread my post and found that my last paragraph (where I mentioned you by name) sounded like I was criticizing you personally for the way your lab operates. I want to clarify that this was not intentional--I originally had "above post" but then realise that might be ambiguous. I also seem to have confused your last sentence

 

"Basically, the opportunities exist, but must be worked for and earned and are not just handed out for meeting expectations regarding assigned tasks."

 

as your perception/opinion of how it should work, instead of simply a description of how the reality is in your lab. Sorry for any offense.

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Indeed--I reread my post and found that my last paragraph (where I mentioned you by name) sounded like I was criticizing you personally for the way your lab operates. I want to clarify that this was not intentional--I originally had "above post" but then realise that might be ambiguous. I also seem to have confused your last sentence

 

"Basically, the opportunities exist, but must be worked for and earned and are not just handed out for meeting expectations regarding assigned tasks."

 

as your perception/opinion of how it should work, instead of simply a description of how the reality is in your lab. Sorry for any offense.

Thank you for clarifying. No offense taken. :-)

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I worked as a psychometrist for a year and a half in a small practice, and I got a lot of solid hands on testing experience there. I've been a psychometrist (RA) in a lab for about a year now, and my prior testing experience has let me take on a more mature role in the lab (I work on a number of studies including pharmaceutical trials; I've coauthored one publication; etc.) - I had to really push for the opportunity to publish, but our lab has a lot of data and a relatively small staff, so there's never a shortage of publication opportunities - This is likely not the case everywhere though.

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I was a RA for 2.5 years. At beginning, I felt the same way that I am just free labor and all the work I did was mechanical and of course boring. After about 3 months, the graduate students in the lab started to assign me to do more intellectual work. I think the reason why they trust me is because I was always the one who is willing to do extra work and take responsibility for things. I agree with others suggestions, it is important to be active and show your passion. Also, you need to let them know what do you hope to gain through your experiences at the lab. For example, you can tell them you hope to get your name on one or two posters and you are willing to anything that will help you achieve this goal. Generally, it takes time to gain trust and respect from others, just don't be shy to show you are capable of doing! Good Luck!

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I've been a post-bacc RA at three different places since graduating (2012). My first two positions were part-time and very hands-on data collection/data management. I didn't really have opportunities there for publishing/presentations. I also worked full-time as a nanny. 

My third position (my first full-time RA position) has been completely different. I work for a psychology lab with a number of very large (multi-million) dollar grants and 3 full-time RAs/4 grad students/postdoc/12 undergrads. I spoke with my boss (the PI) early on when I first started and told her of my hopes to attend graduate school (phd in clinical psych). She was very receptive and helpful when I told her I wanted to be more involved. In the past year, I have been able to collaborate on two publications and three abstracts/posters for conferences. I am choosing not to attend the conferences because of financial reasons. I applied to 5 programs, got 3 interviews, and one offer.

I'd say since you have to search for another lab anyway, try to find one with a professor that is open to helping you. I was fortunate that my boss said "this is what they look for when you apply, let's make sure you have it." Note: I did have to do quite a bit of the writing/stats/etc for those things outside my regular 40hr/week job.

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I haven't personally worked as a post-baccalaureate RA, but I have worked in labs that have had these kinds of RAs and a couple of my friends have done this kind of work. Personally, I've always understood these jobs to be primarily for the purpose of getting into graduate school, and therefore the attraction/goal is for you to do at least some intellectual work and publish papers. Honestly, in my graduate lab, post-bacc RAs were treated the same as beginning graduate students in terms of opportunities for papers and presentations: if you were willing to do the independent work, you could get a presentation and possibly co-author a paper. They had more administrative duties (like running participants, informed consent, helping set up surveys and running literature searches) but also the opportunities to publish and present. Even our lab manager usually presented and worked on projects and papers with the PI. In my experience, yes, RAs certainly attend conferences - even the undergrads sometimes. Co-authoring papers is less common but not because they can't - it's because they often aren't around long enough or don't put in the effort required to do so (not a blast against them; it takes time and concentration that full-time paid RAs sometimes don't have because of other tasks).

 

This is just my personal opinion, so take it with a grain of salt - but I personally feel that any lab that either actively or passively prevents you from participating in CV-building opportunities like papers and conference presentations isn't really invested in your development, and that maybe you should seek out a new lab. Before, that, though, make sure that the lab is actually preventing you and that you aren't preventing yourself. You said that you have "made it known" that you want to participate in more intellectual projects. Have you actually proposed a specific project to do or asked about a specific paper? For example, if your lab has lab meetings, surely the other members must be discussing ongoing analyses and paper topics. I'd approach the lead author on those directly and ask them if you can participate with the paper as a co-author. Or if you have an idea for a project that no one else is doing with the data you've already collected, ask if you can do a poster for a specific conference after doing X analyses. Be as specific as you can.

 

If your lab then actively (by telling you no directly) or passively (by saying "Sure, someday" but by never actually allowing you to do this) prevents you from taking part, I'd say move to another lab if you can.

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Hi all,

 

As a research assistant/tech, does your lab give you opportunities to publish or attend conferences?

 

So this question is directed to people who are able to be in a lab that seems to really prep or allow their RA to contribute intellectually.  How do I find these opportunities?  How can I possibly convince my current lab to allow me to do work that really shows my intellectual abilities?

 

To both of your questions, as an undergraduate I worked on two research projects. I was able to do poster presentations at (2) well known conferences: EPA & APS. Would I say the research was meaningful? To me, no. 

 

The first lab was about fear and disgust reactions when people see insects. The project did not interest me. I did it to get experience. I was essentially a lab manager and began training undergraduate researchers soon after. However, I was not getting the title. Nor would I be anything but, at best, a second author on anything published. 

 

Knowing that, I joined another research team. This one was for spatial cognition: wayfinding skills in males & females. Again, not my area of interest. I enjoyed collecting the data, analyzing and presenting results, but was far from interested in the actual study. I was able to applying for an undergraduate research grant, and presented at APS.

 

Would I say the experiences are 'meaningful'? Maybe not fully. But the fact that I could fully enjoy a subject matter I had little to no interest level in speaks volumes about research being a good path for me. And knowing that is meaningful.

 

Let your research team know you want to present the research, push to go before a grant committee if need be (which would also be good for your CV anyways), and submit proposals to different conferences.If you take the initiative, you might make headway. Otherwise, look for other labs and opportunities that will help you out with this goal. Really, the key is being your own advocate. 

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