Preparing for PhD: Working as a Research Assistant

PhD and Stuff
5 min readJun 10, 2019

For some people, starting a PhD right after finishing a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree might not be an option. Maybe you would like to make a bit of money beforehand due to the uncertainty of funding, maybe you just need a break before diving into another strenuous project, or maybe, like me, you’re not sure what you want to do with your life!

Well, if you find yourself in a similar situation, I have good news for you. There is an alternative! Working as a research assistant (RA) can be a very good stepping stone towards your future PhD plans. However, like many jobs in academia, these opportunities aren’t always easy to access. Here is some of what I’ve learned about what being an RA entails and how to find an RA position.

First, you may want to start by volunteering as a research assistant before applying for a paid position. There are many advantages to taking this approach, but here are a few:

1. Practical experience

University courses are often focused on theory and leave little time for practice. Volunteering in a lab is a good way to supplement this knowledge by gaining hands-on experience in psychological research. I volunteered as an RA for a school-based project one day a week during my undergraduate degree. I helped administer questionnaires, assessments, and other tasks with young people with developmental difficulties. This meant I got to get away from the university bubble, interact with participants, and see research in action. I felt like I was making an actual contribution to the field, even as an undergraduate student!

2. Trying new things

Volunteering is a good way to explore different areas of your field in a low-pressure environment. In my case, I volunteered for a lie-telling study even though I had never studied this type of research before. I got to act as a confederate in a scripted study and play video games while tricking kids into lying to me — who said research can’t be fun? By volunteering, you could discover an interesting topic you otherwise wouldn’t have considered. On the other hand, if you realize a certain project isn’t your cup of tea, you don’t have to worry about calling off a long-term commitment. Most labs will ask for a 1–2 semester commitment, which is significantly shorter than embarking in a 3–5 year PhD or work contract!

3. Gaining new skills

Volunteer RA positions are also helpful for developing new skills. You can learn how to use specialised equipment such as an eye-tracker or an EEG machine, or how to administer certain standardised assessments. As an added bonus, most positions don’t require any previous experience. I’ve found that many labs are just looking for committed, reliable people and are happy to train you. Therefore, they are perfect for building experience for your CV before applying to other paid positions or grad school programmes.

Volunteering will not only be a very good addition to your CV, but will also help you determine whether you want to continue and perhaps apply for a paid RA position. These jobs share all the benefits and more of a volunteer position, while also providing an income. RA jobs will involve more responsibility and less guidance, but the tasks may be quite similar. Some examples include scheduling participants, running appointments independently, data entry and data analysis, coordinating a team of students, and training new members.

If you have now been persuaded by the benefits and would like to apply for an RA position, you might be wondering what the best way is to find one. Here are a few places to start your search:

- People often post job postings or calls for volunteers on Facebook groups. Some good places to look are university alumni groups, student association groups, or some universities even have designated job posting groups

- Job sites such as Indeed or will often advertise paid positions. You can also sign up for alerts to catch new positions as soon as they are advertised

- Twitter is also a good place to look, since many academics are quite active on the platform and easier to reach than through email

- Newsletters can also include job postings from time to time. Look out for advertisements in your student association or university newsletters.

- In a more old-school approach, I’ve seen many labs post recruitment flyers when looking for new research assistants. Keep an eye on the billboards in your departmental building.

- I found my first volunteer position at an information session for graduate programs. Current PhD students often attend these sessions and are happy to answer any questions you may have. They can also see this as a good opportunity to advertise RA positions.

However, the truth is that often RA positions aren’t necessarily advertised, and the best way to find one is by reaching out to university staff. Look up faculty members on departmental webpages to find more information about their labs. Many have websites where they elaborate on the steps to take if you want to volunteer or work with them. Don’t be afraid to contact them and ask questions — you may find out there are many more opportunities than you thought were available! It is good to keep your messages short and to the point. Write 1 or 2 sentences about why you would like to work with them and what interests you about their research. You can also attach your CV and some may ask to provide a copy of your transcript.

Next, you would be invited for an interview. Interviews for volunteer positions are usually quite informal. You can expect they will ask you about what specific projects you’d like to work on and how much time you’re willing to commit, among other things. For a paid position, you can expect to meet with an interview panel who will ask you about your experience and about problem-solving in certain situations. They may also ask you to prepare a task beforehand, such as a short presentation on the research topic.

To conclude, RA positions are the ideal transition piece for moving towards your next step for a career in Psychology or research more generally. These roles are very rewarding and can open your eyes to new disciplines. I hope you find this information useful, whether you didn’t know these types of opportunities existed or just didn’t know how to access them. Happy searching and best of luck with your future plans!





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