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A research assistant typically works under the supervision of a more advanced colleague to support the process of collecting and analyzing data. In some cases, these supporting employees will participate in the design, implementation, and evaluation of investigative procedures. Such positions may at times involve searching for background information, performing clerical tasks, cleaning laboratory equipment, setting up experiment stations, and conducting interviews. Research assistants can work in various settings, including academic institutions, nonprofit agencies, and for-profit corporations.
Universities and other academic institutions may hire graduate and undergraduate students to assist with numerous aspects of research programs. Students typically are compensated by earning course credits, tuition waivers, stipends, or direct salaries. Some positions are unpaid, offering opportunity and experience as the primary benefit of being a research assistant. Close working relationships with respected scholars are often highly valued in academic institutions.
Performing simple clerical tasks and basic laboratory preparation might offer an assistant several occasions to observe and learn from a more experienced researcher. An assistant professor or research associate who takes leadership of a portion of a research project may set up the actual design of the experiment. In the social sciences, a clinical research assistant may conduct interviews or guide simulations with test subjects. Laboratory assistants may wash glassware and set up electronic equipment according to protocol. Activities like these can all take place in various forms in a single large nonprofit agency such as a health care organization.
Some corporations hire graduates with backgrounds in chemistry, biology, and general science to aid in the development of new products or services. Firms with interests in engineering, information technology (IT), and innovative design will often operate research and development facilities. These facilities may employ the services of a research assistant for public communication, storage and organization of records, product testing, and general maintenance tasks.
Across all settings, there are times when highly specialized tasks are called for. At other times, the duties required may fall into certain categories. In the area of communication, a research assistant may edit protocols and documentation, obtain consent forms, design questionnaires, contact participants, write press releases, prepare summaries of initial findings, and make oral presentations to interested groups.
Another category of tasks includes data management. The subordinate could possibly prepare tables and graphs, create and manipulate databases, code data, and enter data into computer simulations or programs. Research support can sometimes involve various common clerical tasks. A junior associate may make and receive telephone calls, respond to e-mail, prepare copies for distribution, schedule the use of laboratories and equipment, and file information for hard-copy storage.
Certain personal qualities are typically considered valuable in a research assistant. It is often desirable to have the ability to maintain confidentiality and collaborate well while taking direction from others. Computer skills are more frequently in demand. Motivation, close attention to detail, and a strong desire for accuracy are consistently mentioned by potential employers in the research field.