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Thread: How to Stand out as a Research Assistant

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    An Urch Guru Pundit Swami Sage
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    How to Stand out as a Research Assistant

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    I did a forum search and didn't really come up with anything, so I thought I'd ask. I'm doing research for a Professor and I get her the work as quickly as I can and I think she's impressed with my fast turnover, but I doubt that will make her write a good recommendation. I've shot her some research ideas and she gave me positive feedback on 3 or 4 of them (she said that I should pursue them further). I'm not really sure what else I can possibly do to stand out. I'm helping her revise a paper (helping as in just gathering data) and I've thought about trying to do some independent analysis of her paper (which I don't have but I know the concept of) but I realize that given that I'm an undergrad. and shes a professional economist, I probably won't have anything to say that either doesn't make sense or she hasn't thought of already. I've told her that I'm reading Varian, but given that all the answers to the questions in Varian are online, I don't really have much to ask her about it. So my question is what did you guys do to stand out when you were an RA? Thanks.

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    An Urch Guru Pundit Swami Sage Andronicus's Avatar
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    Work hard and follow instructions. A big part of success in grad school is work ethic and persistence.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Andronicus View Post
    Work hard and follow instructions. A big part of success in grad school is work ethic and persistence.
    I remember another poster in another thread saying that working your butt off for a professor may demonstrate no research ability and will not help getting a great recommendation. I don't necessarily agree, because I do think that work ethic is important, but given that I've demonstrated that (and will continue to), I want to know what else I can do.

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    Work your butt off AND try to contribute to new ideas at the same time (Caveat: Hard thing to do if you are pressed on time). Don't just follow instructions blindly. Also try and show interest in the profs research (even if it is dry or not to your liking, and yes it usually is).
    Last edited by petecheese; 03-31-2011 at 04:08 PM. Reason: Dumbo typing
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    Quote Originally Posted by whatdoido View Post
    I remember another poster in another thread saying that working your butt off for a professor may demonstrate no research ability and will not help getting a great recommendation. I don't necessarily agree, because I do think that work ethic is important, but given that I've demonstrated that (and will continue to), I want to know what else I can do.
    I think you're probably doing what you need to be doing, whatdoido. I think there is also value to building a good overall relationship with your professor(s), instead of keeping it strictly professional. Laid back interactions really allow a professor to get to know you better (i.e. grabbing a couple beers if possible), and they may end up liking you more as a person - not just a research assistant or student. I think this could certainly translate into an even better letter of recommendation.

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    I've done a lot of RA work throughout college and also full-time post-college. My experiences have varied quite a bit, and what I've found is there's no golden way to impress any professor. Every professor has a different style -- some are more hands-on, others want you to work independently and report back to them. At this point, since you've been working for this professor, you should have a sense of which style the faculty member prefers.

    It sounds like you are already working very hard for this professor. I would not work any harder than you already are. If you want to impress this professor more, don't work harder, work smarter. The big difference between undergraduate RA work and doing research in graduate school is that in the latter case, you need to come up with your own ideas. You are learning very useful skills right now, but you need to bring it to the next step and bring some of your own ideas to the table. Your professor may or may not be receptive to your own research ideas (of course, this depends on who you're working for). But often, professors have their own research agendas, and they are not looking to pursue someone else's ideas or looking for coauthors.

    You should aim to bring something new analytically to the work you do for this professor. Don't just run 20 regressions the professor asks for and bring back results. Consider possible issues in the analysis. Is there another model you might use? Are there omitted variables? Are there relevant papers that are not in the literature review? Are there other things you can find in the data that would enrich the analysis? ... These are the types of questions you should ask yourself while you're programming in Stata. Doing the tasks the professor asks for is important. But you should aim to add value to the research, and in some sense, take ownership as if it were your own.


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    An Urch Guru Pundit Swami Sage
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    Good advice from everyone, thanks very much.

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    Quote Originally Posted by kt253 View Post
    I think you're probably doing what you need to be doing, whatdoido. I think there is also value to building a good overall relationship with your professor(s), instead of keeping it strictly professional. Laid back interactions really allow a professor to get to know you better (i.e. grabbing a couple beers if possible), and they may end up liking you more as a person - not just a research assistant or student. I think this could certainly translate into an even better letter of recommendation.
    I agree. My main RA position is with a professor who never taught me in a class, and we spend way more time talking about MMA than we do economics.
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    You are probably referring to some things I wrote in the thread about LORs. I think econslave sums it up pretty well - there is no one particular magic-bullet way to do this, unfortunately, because ultimately it depends on what your prof thinks is necessary for her to write a good LOR.

    Another way to 'work smarter' is to to try to improve your skills with Stata (if that's what you're using) on every task you do. When doing rote tasks it's very easy to do them using the commands you know, but I find you can improve your skills dramatically if you try to think like a computer programmer - for every rote task try to figure out how to get the computer to do most of the work. A simple example of this is using loops instead of copy pasting repetitive commands, but it really applies to everything. (Though the degree to which this is possible does depend on the actual work you're doing.) This may or may not impress her, but it will definitely help you in the future by dramatically improving your skill set.

    Also, my original comment may have come across as slightly more negative than is appropriate for most people. Remember that (for better or worse) I have been at a very top school, and to some degree that comment reflects my experience in that context (where the professors are the very, very top of the profession). I'm not sure what kind of school you're at, but I do think in many schools, if there isn't much interest among most undergrads in going to graduate school, it is probably easier to stand out as an RA simply by working very hard and showing an enthusiasm and aptitude for research.

    Also, if you haven't already, taking a class with her (and making an A+) will help as well. Once you've been working with her for a while, you can discuss your grad school plans with her, and ask her where she thinks you should apply, and where she can recommend you enthusiastically. Although it's after the fact, it's the best way to get a sense of how she feels.

    EDIT: I forgot, another thing you can do (if you haven't already) is discuss your grad school aspirations with her right now, get her advice on what she thinks you should do to get there, and then do it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by thewhiterabbit View Post
    You are probably referring to some things I wrote in the thread about LORs. I think econslave sums it up pretty well - there is no one particular magic-bullet way to do this, unfortunately, because ultimately it depends on what your prof thinks is necessary for her to write a good LOR.

    Another way to 'work smarter' is to to try to improve your skills with Stata (if that's what you're using) on every task you do. When doing rote tasks it's very easy to do them using the commands you know, but I find you can improve your skills dramatically if you try to think like a computer programmer - for every rote task try to figure out how to get the computer to do most of the work. A simple example of this is using loops instead of copy pasting repetitive commands, but it really applies to everything. (Though the degree to which this is possible does depend on the actual work you're doing.) This may or may not impress her, but it will definitely help you in the future by dramatically improving your skill set.

    Also, my original comment may have come across as slightly more negative than is appropriate for most people. Remember that (for better or worse) I have been at a very top school, and to some degree that comment reflects my experience in that context (where the professors are the very, very top of the profession). I'm not sure what kind of school you're at, but I do think in many schools, if there isn't much interest among most undergrads in going to graduate school, it is probably easier to stand out as an RA simply by working very hard and showing an enthusiasm and aptitude for research.

    Also, if you haven't already, taking a class with her (and making an A+) will help as well. Once you've been working with her for a while, you can discuss your grad school plans with her, and ask her where she thinks you should apply, and where she can recommend you enthusiastically. Although it's after the fact, it's the best way to get a sense of how she feels.

    EDIT: I forgot, another thing you can do (if you haven't already) is discuss your grad school aspirations with her right now, get her advice on what she thinks you should do to get there, and then do it.
    I actually took a class with her and got an A-, but I really don't think she cares much. It was a lower-level class, and she hasn't brought it up at all. I'm sure its something I can remedy by working for her. In terms of my school, its not a top 10 program, but people (probably 3-5 a year? not sure) regularly apply to PhD programs in economics and the professor I'm working for is relatively well known in her field (I'm guessing) and has sent people to Harvard, Chicago, etc...

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