The previous newsletter dealt with a number of ways to help you through graduate school more quickly. In my own opinion, how you support yourself financially also determines how quickly you finish your degree. One of the best options is a paid research assistantship.
To begin with, this position can help you complete your degree more quickly than with other funding options. According to the National Research Council (NRC), students with the shortest time-to-degree (TTD) generally received some type of funding assistance in the form of fellowships, traineeships or research assistantships. Those with teaching assistantships and other forms of funding – such as loans – generally took longer to complete their degree.
In addition, a research assistantship brings with it a degree of respect. Graduate schools typically reward the best incoming students with these coveted positions. Earning this honor is an early sign that the department has confidence in you … enough that they feel you are worthy of the financial investment. Some of these awards are guaranteed for a number of years; others are guaranteed only for the first year and, after that, are renewed commensurate on performance.
And, most importantly, a research assistantship can help fine-tune your research skills, which will ultimately assist you in the completion of your graduate degree. Undoubtedly, research is the foundation of any thesis or dissertation. While most students have conducted some research prior to entering graduate school, others have absolutely no research experience at all. To facilitate the greatest degree of success in graduate school, it’s important to get as much research experience as possible upon entering graduate school. And a research assistantship is one of the best ways to accomplish this.
As a research assistant (RA), you’re expected to do well in your courses and also log at least 40 hours or more per week. Like any job for pay, you’re expected to show up and produce some results based on the time you spent “working.” As a member of a larger research team, you are expected to carve out part of the research that you are particularly interested in or has not been done before by someone else on the team. Always stay focused on the big picture, and look for ways to connect what you are currently studying, researching, and writing.
For example, when I began graduate school I was hired as an RA for a large survey research project on families and households. The faculty member in charge said he “wanted me to work on the attitude questions because no one else had looked at them yet.” To make this assistantship work for me, I combined my interest in Race and Ethnicity to compare racial attitudes in family behavior. Moreover, I used my categorical data analysis seminar (i.e. upper level statistics course) not only to analyze the data but also to further enhance my research skills and to write a seminar paper based on the results. This seminar paper served many purposes. First, to get more feedback beyond a grade in the course, I presented this research at an on-campus “brown bag” lecture series. Afterwards, I then revised the paper and submitted it for presentation at a national conference. As a result of this national presentation, I was offered a publication by a reputable publisher to turn my paper into a book chapter. Before it came out as a book chapter, it was published as part of the working-paper series of the larger research project. A more polished version of the same paper later became my Master’s thesis. It worked for me because I was able to pursue my own interests while at the same time fulfilling my boss’ interests as well.
Not all assistantships are the same. While most RAs are lucky enough to be able to research their own personal topics as part of a larger research project, the work that other RAs are hired to do doesn’t exactly correlate with their own topics. The downside, of course, RAs in the latter category are performing research for someone else. As such, they will take a longer time to complete their degree; it’s necessary for them to carve out a lot of additional time to conduct their own research.
Make no mistake: this is no easy task. It takes a great deal of time and dedication to work and pursue a degree. In fact, one of the most common mistakes that graduate students make is to underestimate the demands of each. Completing graduate school assignments, alone, is a full-time “job” requiring 40+ hours of work each week. The hours you work as an RA will necessarily be heaped on top of those demands. And, like any job performed for pay, you’re expected to show up, work hard and produce results.
While daunting, this combination is still quite “do-able.” Making use of TA-DA™ online can be quite helpful; we provide numerous time management tips and other tips that can help you to successfully juggle your paying job with your school work.
Dealing with the Ph.D. Boss vs. Ph.D. Advisor:
As a graduate student I was an RA for a faculty member who was not my advisor. I viewed it as an asset to have two people in the department supporting my research efforts. They both were well respected in the department and in my academic field. More importantly they respected each other and supported me throughout my academic career. When I needed a sounding board for new ideas I had two people to choose from.
Generally as an RA, your boss and your advisor will most likely be the same person. Think of your advisor as your advocate in your department. Remember that your advisor chose you to work for him/her over a number of other ‘possible graduate students’. As a student-employee, it is important that as your boss/advisor is pleased with your overall performance which includes both your research and academic progress. Simply put, to get your degree the onus is on you make a good impression both as a student and an employee. To maintain job security, it is important to maintain a positive professional relationship with your advisor.
As an RA it is important to show your boss that you are making progress. The longer your tenure in your job, the less supervision you will need. Nonetheless, always keep your boss in the loop. When your boss/advisor doesn’t hear from you, s/he assumes that you are working independently and are making progress. The last thing you advisor expects to hear is that you were stuck and you have not be able to accomplish anything over the past weeks. You should get in the habit of sending him or her regular updates even if your boss doesn’t require it. Some students use a blog to post their weekly updates; others send their advisor a weekly/monthly email charting their progress.
Always remember, that you will be completing research under the watchful and critical eye of another, more learned person. A research assistantship enables you to take full advantage of this “apprenticeship” role, and to learn as much as possible! The one key aspect of being an RA is learning how to communicate effectively with your boss/advisor. Does he expect you to ask him questions when you are stuck? Or does he expect you to exhaust answers from the senior members of the team first before you approach him with your questions? Although some advisors are direct in telling their RAs exactly what they want them to do and when, others expect that their RAs to figure it out! Your job, as a member of the research team, is to figure out what type of boss you have and work within those limits. If you are having trouble with your employer, you’ll need to identify where your personality and communication skills are at odds with your boss’ and take steps to iron out the differences. If not, I recommend finding another research assistantship as soon as possible.
Finding an RAship with Networking and Visibility: Does Everyone Know My Name?
If you haven’t already secured a research assistantship prior to entering graduate school, take heart! It’s still possible to land one after the first or second semester of school.
A good first step is to take a research methodology course. This will provide you with the basic research skills you will need. In addition to your class attendance and completion of assignments, participation in department activities, campus workshops, “brown bag” presentations and national conferences are also important components to securing an assistantship. Clearly, time restrictions require that you set priorities and make thoughtful choices about which and how many of these activities you can include. But make no mistake: participating in these types of events increases your visibility and credibility with advisors, committee members and other key individuals within your field. Moreover, participating in these activities will enhance your ability to network with faculty and other key staff members, which will definitely help when it comes to securing assistantships, lab work opportunities and future job recommendations.
If the thought of networking leaves you weak-kneed, take heart in the fact that networking is a skill that anyone can learn with time, practice and patience. I’ve known professors whose presentation skills in the classroom are lackluster and dry … yet, they display a completely different persona during office hours, department functions and conferences. Attending these types of functions allows you to get to know your professors on a more personal level. Moreover, they will help prepare you for future job responsibilities . . . It will be hard to secure a job in academia if you haven’t developed both your research and social skills. For example, most professors are required to represent their departments in a wide variety of social settings, particularly if they serve on hiring committees.
The Advantages of Fellowships, Traineeships, Research Assistantships vs. Teaching
One final recommendation towards a research assistantship over a teaching assistantship . . .
Even if you earn top scores/evaluations as a teaching assistant, it’s important to keep in mind that the PhD is a research degree. Many professors believe that the majority of time in graduate school should be spent conducting research, because teaching is a task that can be learned over time (with practice). In addition, as a professor, your tenure and promotions will be based primarily on your publishing record … which requires the completion of a great deal of research.
As such, I believe that securing a fellowship or traineeship/research assistantship is preferable to a teaching assistantship. Of course, if those are currently out of reach for you, a teaching assistantship is still better than no funding at all.
Email Question of the Month:
Dear Dr. Carter!
I congratulate you on all the good job and the great help given to dissertation students! I hope to be one of them but first I have to decide on a good topic.I am interested in gender studies and representations of women in different kinds of texts but I still have not envisioned where my research contribution could lie within this field of study. Would it be possible for you to suggest any topics with enough space for creative work (perhaps focusing on the Albanian society, literature,language, media and comparisons with the English one)? Thank you in advance!
Thank you for contacting us at TADA!Thesis and Dissertation Accomplished. Your “contribution to your field” is based on what has already been established in the field and what is missing in the field. To know what your specific research question should be means that you need to read more. You can find a topic by reading something and thinking that the author has either omitted something or focused on the wrong question or focused on the wrong group, or did not use the right methodology etc. Or if you like what an author has done, you can use the same research question and or methodology to make comparisons. If you do that, you have to have some hypothesis about what you expect to find. Do you expect to find the same results or do you expect to find different results? If you expect to find different results, you have to have some insight into to why you might expect to find different results.
For more information please read my Feb 05 newsletter on Selecting a Topic.
I hope this answer help you move forward in selecting a topic.
TA-DA!(TM) Graduates –Congratulations on Your Success
Hello, Dr. Carter!
Thanks for your newsletter. Good news is that I defended in late May and I turned in my fianl revision in late June, and this was finally approved. Once formalities on electronic formatting are processed and approved by the Graduate School, I will graduate in next month. Thanks for your assistance.
Greetings Dr. Carter,
I attended your summer break challenge last year and found it most rewarding, even in an online environment. As I labored over my dissertation from a public library in Columbus, Ohio, I was able to connect with others that were willing to share their progress over the three week period. I am pleased to report that I successfully completed all of my requirements late last year and graduated December 2008 with a PhD in Technology Management from Indiana State University. It is with much appreciation that I salute TA-DA and your efforts on campus and online.
Expect Excellence, Niccole Chandler, PhD
Hi Dr. Carter,
This is Cynthia Holly, Gates Millennium Scholar and Alumni.
I wanted to let you know I defended on Thursday, June 11 and everything went well! I am officially Dr. Cynthia Holly. My graduation ceremony will be July 18, 2009.
School: Argosy University-Sarasota Campus, Sarasota, Florida
Major: Educational Leadership
Minor: Higher Education Administration
Thank you for “The best dissertation is a done dissertation,” other words of encouragement, and TaDafinallyfinished!
Dr. Cynthia Wiggins Holly