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I'm a new faculty member and I have a number of undergraduate research assistants. I'm having trouble using up all the hours that they are assigned to work with me. Most weeks I run out of tasks to assign. I don't want to assign busy work, and want their work to be exciting and rewarding for them, and valuable for me.

Literature reviews with a clear structure seems like a reasonable task. Data cleaning or analysis could be reasonable, but only if the student has appropriate training. If I were running data collection, I could train an RA to do daily quality checks. I don't run a lab, but I imagine for people who do there would be good jobs there for undergrads.

What other jobs do people see as potentially valuable for undergrad RA work?

I recognize that this will vary by field, and from student to student, but I'm very curious to get people's thoughts and advice on what tasks to assign to undergrad RAs to benefit both me and them.

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  • Why do you have URAs if you don't have a need for them? Jun 14, 2022 at 20:10
  • Saying I run out of tasks for them is not to say I don't benefit from them. I have found their work to be helpful so far, but I'm sure I can make better use of their time. Also, more UGs are now asking to work with me as URAs and I want to be able to say yes. So I'm looking for ideas. Jun 14, 2022 at 20:32
  • Gotcha. Your "assigned to work with me" made me wonder whether you had a certain number of URAs that you had to manage each semester or something. In my departments, it's up to PIs to accept applicants. Expectations might be different if you had to take X hours of URA labor vs you hired four and now are winding down. Jun 14, 2022 at 20:48
  • Are they paid or for credit? Jun 14, 2022 at 20:48
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    They get credit. Once I agree to take them on as URA they are required to work a certain number of hours each week as part of receiving the course credit Jun 14, 2022 at 20:58

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This runs the risk of becoming an opinion-based question, since it's not entirely clear what tasks you have already made them do, and what kind of tasks might actually benefit you. It's also not clear if your university privileges research work, or if they are mainly trying to prepare students to work in companies, etc. So I can only offer my 10 cents.

I would say that there are 3 crucial abilities that undergraduate students should develop from the onset: (1) the ability to organize their ideas in a coherent, focused manner; (2) the ability to communicate those ideas to other people who are coming from a completely different background; and (3) the ability to have an adequate understanding of what is going on in other fields outside of social sciences. It might just be me, but I am sensing that students are reading nothing but social sciences, and are dangerously ignorant of other fields.

My proposed task would be a variant of the literature review activity: get two students to search and select one book that introduces methods from social sciences and history, applying them to real-world cases. Get them to read at least a few chapters, and have them make a Powerpoint presentation (10 minutes). Get another 2 students, have them find a book that merges social sciences and digital humanities/GIS, and repeat the process; then get another two people for a book on social sciences + natural sciences/STEM, and so forth... Then get all students to meet regularly, and have each group present their book to the other groups. Have them discuss how each field looks at data differently, what are the merits/demerits of each approach, and so forth. Get them to hash out ideas with each other as much as possible so that they may reach a decent understanding of various fields, and how social sciences can productively interact with such fields in order to solve real-world problems, and build bridges between people of completely different backgrounds.

One last recommendation would be to have them understand the basics of Appreciative Inquiry to help them comment on each other's work, and not just have them learn about Critical Thinking, which often becomes just an excuse for finding flaws in other people without offering constructive solutions or advice.

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