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Warning: The following are stupid questions. (Read in Kiefer Sutherland's voice)

Question 1 Is it weird or stupid to apply for a research assistant post at some university or research institute, and not a company in industry, with the purpose to gain research experience to boost profile for graduate studies, and why/why not?

  • I think it could be weird or stupid for the same reason why you shouldn't mention potential graduate study plans during job interviews.

  • Then again, my understanding of research assistant posts is that they wouldn't be for long term employment as is the case in industry, say, "research" analyst jobs in industry. Rather research assistant posts are usually on temporary contract. So, yeah, I am just doing this with the intention to apply for a PhD because I'm apparently not yet good enough to get into a PhD program.

  • Based on what I've read online, this is the baby version of a postdoc, so postdoc is to faculty applications as research assistant is to PhD applications.

Question 2 Who are the usual applicants of research assistant posts?

  • I can't think of any applicants for research assistant posts besides people exactly in my situation: wants to go to grad school, is waiting in some process of grad school applications (for the application period to start, for the results of application to come out or, for those already accepted, for the semester to start) or wants to boost profile for grad school. Please enlighten for other cases.

Question 3 What's the difference between a research assistant post and an internship in industry?

  • I think I recall seeing some research assistant posts that pay as much as a full time job in industry, so I'm guessing research assistant posts are not necessarily simply academic versions of internships in industry. I think things like this are academic versions of internships in industry. But my understanding is that they are both short-term. I guess a research assistant post would be analogous to a temporary contract job in industry.

Question 4 To confirm, if research assistant posts are indeed on temporary contract or short-term, is there indeed a risk for someone to quit their regular full time industry job hoping that a research assistant post will boost their grad school application profile?

Background:

  • Since I graduated master's in 2015-6, I started work as a maths teacher at a branch of a company that is something like Kumon. I guess I haven't done research there.

  • I'm waiting for results for PhD/MPhil applications for 2018-9. I already got rejected for one (well technically I'm not on the list of applicants who got initially offered admission, so I guess I could still be accepted if others on the list back out), and I think I'll be rejected for others.

  • ETA: Not sure if this counts but I actually got accepted for an interview a few days after the deadline (early December 2017) for one university but the PhD position given to me by the professor said something like "experienced in XX" which I don't have. I'm still waiting to hear back from the university.

  • For 2019-20 applications, I am thinking to boost my profile by, among others, working as a research assistant, either full time or part time. In the former case, I'll have to quit my job. In the latter case, I think I can downgrade to part time.

The following are related questions:

How can I improve my research experience for PhD application?

How to boost academic profile for Master's application

How to gain research experience after master program?

If I cannot get sufficient recommendation letters, what can I do?

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    Note that, in the US, most research assistants are current PhD students and the way you usually get a research assistant job is by becoming a PhD student. – Thomas Apr 2 '18 at 8:08
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    Make sure you wouldn't be doing grunt work; the ideal would be to be a co-author but this seems unlikely. Find out as much as you can about the project and the supervisor. Talk to other people at your level in the hierarchy who work there or used to work there. Bottom line, are you interested in the research question, and would you be making a meaningful contribution? In other words, don't take it just to add sheen to your CV. (My personal opinion.) – aparente001 Apr 2 '18 at 14:07
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    @JackBauer - I wouldn't necessarily mention it during the hiring process. First you have to listen and pick up on subtleties and research the supervisor and group before you decide that. // Not all research assistant positions are stepping stones to grad school. // Watch out, sometimes a job is posted to satisfy institutional requirements even though there is someone all set to step into the job. // Also I must emphasize: are you interested in the research question, and would you be making a meaningful contribution? – aparente001 Apr 2 '18 at 14:39
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    Was about to comment this but aparente beat me to it, want to make sure it's emphasized though: "Watch out, sometimes a job is posted to satisfy institutional requirements even though there is someone all set to step into the job" - job postings especially in academia can be quite unreliable. Don't think you are getting a good picture of the actual job opportunities available from these sources. – Bryan Krause Apr 2 '18 at 16:06
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    @JackBauer - I reread your question more carefully. I'm glad to see that you are thinking ahead to develop a contingency plan in case you don't get any acceptance letters this time around. Watch out, you may be getting discouraged prematurely, after one rejection letter. // I'm concerned your idea of quitting your current job on a long shot, although I appreciate the thought process that produced this idea. // Let's back up a step. If we assume for the moment that your remaining applications come up empty, then the underlying question, that you've been starting to think about already, is... – aparente001 Apr 3 '18 at 20:08
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You're mostly on track with your questions, and I wish you luck as you wait for your results and consider your career path. These answers are all in the U.S. context.

Q1: I like your analogy that (externally advertised) research assistant role : PhD student :: postdoc : faculty member. Several friends did research assistance for professors after undergrad and it (seems to have) helped them with their graduate applications. (I'm not sure how much they needed help. It also shows their commitment and gives them a chance to work with a professor whose work they're interested in, putting that prof in a good position to write a recommendation and/or to be a supervisor in graduate school.) Other friends did this while considering whether to get an advanced degree, and then they decided to go in a different direction, or they used experience working as a lab research assistant to go to a related professional school. (The friends I'm thinking of offhand have done this in history, economics, psychology, and chemistry. I am not sure whether the title was exactly "research assistant.")

I agree with other posters that you should look carefully at the content of the job to know whether it will be useful and to make sure you are interested in it. Then again, even fairly limited roles give you exposure to the research. For instance, many research assistant jobs may involve you administering surveys or scheduling lab time or transforming a stack of subjects' completed forms into a usable dataset. All of these give you valuable insight into the research process, but they are not glamorous and hopefully are not the full extent of your job. (If you find these wholly "grunt work" positions, then your suggestion of doing this part-time may be a good one.)

The most interesting and substantive parts of research assistance (writing in-depth literature reviews, designing research hypotheses, etc.) are the ones that lead to authorship. I would not be surprised if these were saved for students. I would not expect co-authorship from a position like this unless you build a very good relationship with the professor, make key intellectual contributions as new projects develop, and explicitly ask about authorship while a new project develops. But being good at a routine job such as accurately coding interview transcripts could convince the professor to give you more responsibility over time.

Q2: The most typical applicant would probably be recent graduates of that same institution. They're already local, may know the professors, and are more likely than the general public to be searching the university's job listings.

Q3: Internships in industry tend to have more structure to them, often with an explicit emphasis on training and perhaps trying to recruit the person to work there full time. Do not expect that your social/emotional/learning needs will be considered as a hired research assistant; you will have to be assertive to get what you need. The contractor mindset seems like a good one to expect.

Q4: Switching to be a research assistant is a risk, but if the industry job is not aligned well with the PhD program that you desire, then it will not move you toward that doctoral program. It sounds like in your current job you have taken initiative and learned new skills (per your linked question)--both essential for being a researcher. However, unless the topic of your dissertation will be about math education for students similar to the ones you're teaching now, I do not think that further experience in that post will help your PhD application.

If you do not get into a funded program this season, I might suggest two things:

  1. Ask your recommenders or previous professors how competitive they think your application is, and think carefully about your fit with both the programs you're interested in and the jobs the programs would qualify you for. If you are still extremely interested in this path, then

  2. Selectively look for research assistant positions.

    • For each school you applied to, see if those departments are posting any positions you're qualified for.

    • If not, politely reach out to professors whose work you're most interested in: say that you're extremely interested in their work, such that you applied to the program, and that you're interested in gaining research experience, and do they anticipate that they might be hiring anyone to assist with research, as you did not find any current postings on the [relevant university job board]? (Email subject should foreshadow, e.g. "Expecting any MA-level researcher openings?") These emails are a long shot, but one of them may pay off.

    • You can apply for such positions at schools near where you are now, even if they are not of the same tier that you are applying to: working with a professor at a non-doctoral institution could still get you good experience and a good recommendation.

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    This is a good answer except that a RA is typically reserved for graduate students who have already been admitted for study. I’m not sure what the correct term should be, but it’s not RA, at least at most US schools. – aeismail Apr 2 '18 at 19:22
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    @aeismail I believe this is a case where the nomenclature is not logical. (And it may follow because current undergraduates who are working as research assistants might be given similar tasks.) On the following list the Harvard Psychology Department compiled, many full-time jobs requiring just bachelor's degrees are called "Research Assistant". One is called "Research Study Assistant," which seems like a better name but does not seem to be in widespread use. undergrad.psychology.fas.harvard.edu/… – cactus_pardner Apr 2 '18 at 19:33
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    Thank you so much for your answer, listening, reading my previous questions and advice, cactus_pardner! I am considering to apply for a math education degree for 2018-9 (local applicant deadline for a taught master's is still in July 2018) if I get rejected for my other applications or 2019-20 (for PhD in math education; I may still or may not anymore apply for PhD in math/probability), if I still get rejected. So, I might not quit. I will not accept your answer yet in case other users might still answer. – Jack Bauer Apr 3 '18 at 20:00
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Q1: Is it weird or stupid to apply for a research assistant post at some university or research institute, and not a company in industry, with the purpose to gain research experience to boost profile for graduate studies, and why/why not?

Not at all. In my field (biology), this is quite common, the only reason not to do it is that you think you can get admitted without it and are trying to save time. However usually the experience is also very valuable in learning what research is like and whether you even want to do it, or whether you like the field. In other STEM disciplines it also seems to be very common. I've heard of it happening in social sciences (psychology, sociology, history) as well, but I'm not sure how things are exactly there. Usually it's up to the PI if they want an assistant or not. There is a lot of variation there. Some PIs love it, some have zero interest. But there's no easy way to tell, and asking rarely hurts.

You should absolutely mention future grad school plans, firstly because many PIs strongly prefer people who are planning to go to grad school (they're seen as more motivated, there is less commitment as opposed to an indefinite employment contract, and hiring assistants in this way is seen as part of a professor's responsibility to future generations). I am not sure if the same can be said for people who seek similar posts in industry - most of my personal acquaintances have worked in university or national institute labs, not in companies. However, honestly it would be naive in this day and age for a company to expect 22 year old BS grads taking a lab tech position and be fully committed "lifers" - and if they really want you to not run off to grad school after a year, they should put it in the contract.

I'd say it's very different from a baby version of a postdoc. Postdocs are often expected to independently come up with hypotheses, design experiments, locate and order equipment/materials as needed, write grants and submit manuscripts to peer-reviewed journals. Rarely they may also teach and mentor others. As an assistant you will most likely be part of a postdoc's project - duties may range from mechanically doing some simple technique over and over (like running gels or feeding mice) to semi-independently doing a small part of the postdoc's project under constant supervision (but ideally you would always be expected to demonstrate good understanding of the science in discussions, even if you are doing pretty monotonous experiments). You may be expected to help write small parts of the paper, such as methods sections for experiments you did. Should you end up with a PI who encourages independence, you might design experiments or even provide feedback on equipment purchases, and if you are really lucky and hardworking you may even have the opportunity to submit a first author paper. But that would be exceeding everyone's expectations; needless to say, it will look very good on your application.

Q2: Who are the usual applicants of research assistant posts?

I can't say for sure since I've never been in a position to hire such people. But based on experience and what I heard, the vast majority are either undergraduate students or recent grads planning to apply to a PhD program. Sometimes there are premeds but academics look down on them. There are occasionally people who don't necessarily have future plans, and are just curious about science, or maybe they want to do something related like patent law and decided to get a taste of what it's like in the trenches. I've never heard of anyone doing it just to pay bills, those people will usually have very long term positions (which may sometimes be called "technician", "scientist" or "assistant" etc).

Q3: What's the difference between a research assistant post and an internship in industry?

Interns are usually expected to be short-term (3-6 mo) and part-time (<20 h/wk). The internship will often be coordinated with the university, and may be required to complete the degree, and result in a grade or certificate. These days governments try to crack down on unpaid work, but in practice there may be an (arguably unethical) expectation that interns work for free. Assistants should be longer term (>1 yr) and paid (and thus officially employed and eligible for benefits - interns sometimes "just come"). But the terms aren't too reliable - the goal of the posting is usually marketing first, accuracy second.

The linked post is for an MS student, those can often become involved in their PI's side-ventures depending on how things go. Usually it wouldn't apply to assistants both because their contribution is smaller, they are less independent, and they will soon begin a PhD program where they will be too busy to follow up. It can happen, though, if the professor really likes the assistant and the assistant isn't totally committed to going to grad school right away.

Q4: To confirm, if research assistant posts are indeed on temporary contract or short-term, is there indeed a risk for someone to quit their regular full time industry job hoping that a research assistant post will boost their grad school application profile?

Anyone can quit a job any time. Nobody can make you show up. That's one of the few aces employees have in their deck against employers. However, grad applications give a lot of weight to recommendations. The experience you have won't be as well regarded if there isn't an accompanying letter from your boss praising you to the high heavens and saying in detail what a great job you did and what a golden grad student you would make. Obviously if the boss is pissed off at you for quitting out of nowhere, obtaining the letter might be an issue. However, if you worked with your boss on this, discussed your plans ahead of time, did whatever you could and the boss was still unreasonable the admission committee might take that into consideration. Sometimes there are people who did a stint in a lab and did good work but for some reason their supervisor really didn't like them so when they submit the letters and none of them are from this place they worked at. Then you have to sweat a little explaining all of this in a positive way while writing your SoP and other materials, bragging about how great your experience was but at the same time stepping around the fact that clearly you got your boss so mad you couldn't even get a letter from them.

  • Q1, Q2 and Q3: Thank you, Superbest! Q4: Thanks for the insight. That's very reassuring. (: My boss here is supposedly submitting a recommendation letter 4 months late (the university - see ETA if you want - is accepting a non-academic based on my ADHD, after about 2.5 months of post-deadline correspondence). Hopefully, it has a lot of weight, haha. – Jack Bauer Apr 8 '18 at 17:50
  • Hello Superbest, what would you say about the relevance of the post applied to and the field I want to go to? How close should they be? For example, if the post is research assistant in molecular biology or Java, but I am thinking of going to graduate school in pure maths, maths ed or applied maths, then what would that mean? You wrote "decided to get a taste of what it's like in the trenches", and my interpretation is that such disparity is not very relevant. – Jack Bauer Apr 9 '18 at 12:49
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    @JackBauer Unfortunately there is no simple answer, it all depends on the PI and admission committee's personal philosophies. The only safe answer is that if you want to get a PhD in X discipline, being a research assistant in X discipline and even the same field will surely not hurt. But you don't always have to be. Best I could suggest is look at what other people have done: Do people in math often benefit from biology or Java experience? Do people with biology or Java experience often go into math? Why/why not? What do math professors say when you ask them whether your experience is useful? – Superbest Apr 13 '18 at 21:11

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