The research assistant

One of the suggestions I gave on the gap year post was to become a research assistant, or RA. I wanted to take some time to explain what that means. Institutions that conduct research (universities, nonprofit firms, institutes, etc.) require assistance at all levels of research from PhD level, to MA level, to even the BA level. These organizations will hire recent college graduates to work, full-time, on their research projects. The “research assistant” (some other places call them “lab managers” or “policy research assistant” etc.) level is typically for individuals who have a bachelors degree. On average, these jobs last between 1-3 years and they are literally designed as a gap year gig. That’s why I love them so much.

Who should consider research assistant jobs?

Anyone who is 99% sure they want to continue on and pursue some kind of graduate work, should consider an RA position. Anyone who thinks they might like research, but doesn’t really know if they want to devote a career to it, should consider an RA job. Anyone who doesn’t know what they want to do with their lives after college, should consider RA jobs. You get the idea…

But for those who may want to attend grad school eventually, this is the perfect in-between job.  It’s full-time research experience, and nothing else will prepare you more for the brutal awakening that is graduate school. During any graduate program (sans a few Master’s programs) there will be some expectation to conduct your own research. Being an RA gives you hand-on experience with research so you know if it’s right for you. It also gives you something interesting to talk about for your grad school application and interviews!

What is it like being an RA?

In most cases you’re expected to work full-time in a lab or office that conducts research. In my field, child development, the research is typically some sort of data collection (either in schools or in the lab itself) where you see children and get trained on some specific protocol and administer it on the child and/or parent. You can expect LOTS of data cleaning, data entry, scheduling, coordination, training undergraduate research assistants, and lots of communication with higher-ups (like post-docs, directors, or other graduate students). Sometimes RA’s even get the opportunity to do their own research projects and present them at conferences!

It’s a full-time, often paid, position. Many positions offer full benefits (like health care, 401K plans), so you’re able to live on your own, experience what it’s like to do research in your chosen field, and learn a lot along the way!

I’m sold. How do I get one of these RA jobs?

You should start thinking about applying for RA positions during your senior year of college. I would say start looking during late fall (October-December of your last year of college) and then most applications should be due between February-April. Positions usually start in June. Lucky for you, I’ve compiled a list of links and resources for just this!

APA Division 7, Developmental Psychology ListServ (a GREAT resource for RA job postings and opportunities for recent graduates)

Look at larger universities and email professors asking if they are hiring RA’s in their lab. Here are some options:

This is a great program at NIH for recent grads: NIH Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) Program

Nonprofit research firms that hire RA’s, the position you’re looking for is “research assistant” or “policy research assistant”:


Still have questions? I’m happy to answer them, just post a comment below!

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