I recently graduated from my undergraduate studies in May. As soon as I graduated, I began a job as a research assistant at my university. This was mainly to continue projects that I had yet to finish and to gain experience that will help me apply to graduate school. I accepted this job to continue working in a group I had worked in for most of my undergraduate career.

I am aware that undergraduate students are not held to high standards in a research setting. I am also aware that graduate students are mostly expected to operate independently with check-ins at regular frequency (I hear weekly is normal?). However, I am not sure what is appropriate for a post bachelor research assistant. I have a feeling that I should be operating much more independently than I am.

The problem is that my advisor often tells me what to do, but I don't feel I have been exposed to "how" to do things. Thus, my question is two-fold:

  1. What is the appropriate level of independence for my position?
  2. How can I achieve this level of independence on my own?
  • 1
    @realkevlar The grammatical "corrections" made to this post seem unwarranted. For instance, what is wrong with "I have graduated" as opposde to "I graduated"?
    – Yemon Choi
    Sep 7 at 19:02
  • the grammatical changes were suggested just to sharpen the writing, the post still has merit
    – realkevlar
    Sep 8 at 3:55

1 Answer 1


The very unsatisfying answer to your question is that it depends.

I've seen post-(under)graduate research assistants who are basically just lab techs i.e., they have very little independence. I have also seen research assistants who are working on their own projects at a level similar to a grad student. Where you fall on that spectrum will depend on your knowledge/skills, the expectations of your PI, what your plans are for grad school, and what type of projects your lab is working on.

There isn't really any trick to gaining independence. Take initiative, ask questions, get help if you need it, whatever.

To start, you should talk to your PI and see what their expectations are. At baseline, if you have your own projects, you should try to take ownership of those. That just means working on them consistently and not waiting to be told what to do/given assignments. If you don't know what to do next, ask rather than waiting for someone to notice the project is stalling. Set up a regular meeting with your PI (don't make them chase you down for updates). If you're on someone else's project, let them take the lead and just do the work you are given.

As long as your proactive, you'll learn the "how" and "why" with time (that's the point of grad school too).

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