Degree In Sight

When Natalie Pickering set out to pursue a doctorate in counseling psychology, the University of Louisville student had no idea what to expect during her first research assistantship.

"My background was in secondary education, so as my lab director talked about ANOVAs and structural equation modeling, my head was spinning and I felt like I was drinking out of a fire hydrant," she recalls. "I didn't even know what questions to ask."

The amount of research experience required for completing a doctoral degree varies, but odds are good that by the end of graduate school, you'll have at least one research assistantship under your belt. According to the National Opinion Research Center, 56 percent of social science doctoral degree recipients take on research assistantships to fund their educations, and that's not including those students who pursue more informal research roles with faculty. The experience can provide practical training in data collection and analysis as well as insight into how scientists generate and test hypotheses.

A research assistantship is frequently more desirable than a teaching assistantship because it often offers publication and presentation experience, and it may even spark dissertation ideas, says Pickering's counseling psychology colleague Jennifer Burnett. It's also crucial for building professional relationships and staying competitive in the academic job market, she adds.

"If you want to be a faculty member at any institution other than a two-year community college, you need to have some research base and experience," says Burnett. Here's how to make the most of your time as a research assistant:

  • Decide what's important to you. Some RAs are lined up even before you set foot on campus, based on which professor you'll work under. But if you get the chance to pick your lab, consider whether you're more interested in pitching in on a large research team working on a grant-funded program or if you'd prefer tackling smaller projects under one main theme, such as memory.

In most labs, you'll have the chance to contribute your own research ideas, but at the beginning of your career, you may simply complete tasks requested by your adviser.

"Mentors differ in how they get their students' feet wet in the lab," says cognitive psychology professor Henry L. Roediger III, PhD, director of the memory lab at Washington University in St. Louis.

  • Discuss expectations. Typically, research assistants work about 20 hours per week in the lab and spend more time there during critical research stages, says Western Connecticut State University professor Tara Kuther, PhD, author of "Surviving Graduate School in Psychology: A Pocket Mentor" (APA, 2008). She recommends checking in with your adviser at the beginning of your assistantship to clarify how many hours you'll be working and whether your interests—in specific subject populations or research topics, for example—can be incorporated. Also, ask about how lab responsibilities are divvied up and how feedback is provided, Pickering suggests.

  • Go above and beyond. Once you've gotten a feel for your adviser's expectations, exceed them by being dependable, proactive and a good sport, says Kuther. As a research assistant, you'll be asked to perform a wide variety of tasks, including literature searches, data entry and statistical analyses. You may even do filing and other clerical work, which can seem mundane at times but is necessary to carry out a funded project. "There always has to be someone doing the grunt work," Burnett says. "You'll earn respect from the lab director if you're willing to do whatever you can to accomplish the task."

Sometimes, less-than-glamorous duties can lead to big rewards. Roediger says he loves it when a student turns a simple job such as compiling a literature review into a learning opportunity by finding a new piece of research that fits with the topic. "Sometimes we start research projects that are pretty far afield from my lab just because some student has found an article that's brand new and finds it really interesting," he says.

It's also in your best interest to volunteer in areas where your skills need improving; for many students, that means statistical analysis. This sends the signal to colleagues and your adviser that you are willing to learn, Burnett notes.

"Once that's established, good opportunities will come your way," she says.

  • Set goals. Write down what you'd like to accomplish during a semester and share those goals with your adviser, Burnett says. For example, during her research apprenticeship last year, Burnett decided she wanted to learn more about hierarchical linear modeling, so she volunteered to write the first draft of a results section that used the model.

Setting goals, especially on projects over which you have more control, is an important part of advancing as a researcher, Roediger adds.

"Ask yourself every week, if not every day, ‘What have I really gotten accomplished, and how close am I to getting something submitted?'" he suggests.

Pickering recommends keeping a log of your contributions to each research project, both to track progress and as a record of your work. It also may help bolster your claims to publication authorship.

"You may have invested as much time, energy and effort at the front end of a project as the group that ends up completing it," says Pickering. Maintaining a record of your contributions may also serve as a handy reminder of your accomplishments as you prepare to interview for jobs and internships, she notes.

  • Find someone to lean on. More advanced students can be a great resource for the unspoken rules of lab life, says Burnett. They can tell you which computer technician is the most helpful or what time of day is best to ask the project's principal investigator a technical question. Fellow research assistants can also help you navigate the twists and turns of graduate school—and life, she adds.

"My research partners were the people that I leaned on for support in my personal life, too, just because we became close by spending so much time together," Burnett says.

By Amy Novotney
gradPSYCH Staff


  • Darley, J.M., Zanna, M.P., & Roediger, H.L. (Eds.). (2004). The compleat academic: A career guide. Washington, DC: APA.

  • Kuther, T.L. (2008). Surviving Graduate School in Psychology: A Pocket Mentor. Washington, DC: APA.

  • Leong, F.T., Austin, J.T. (Eds.). (1996). The Psychology Research Handbook: A guide for graduate students and research assistants. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

  • Meltzoff, J. (1998). Critical Thinking About Research: Psychology and Related Fields. Washington, DC: APA.