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Thread: RA after undergrad?

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    RA after undergrad?

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    Under what circumstances is it better to try and get an RA position between undergrad and PhD? I've heard that it's not very value adding if you've already done a lot of research in undergrad, or that it's mostly valuable for someone coming from a non-econ background. Does that mean it's a mistake to apply for a full time RA position after undergrad if I've done math, econ and gotten research experience?

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    Re: RA after undergrad?

    RA after undergrad can certainly be value-adding even for someone with an econ (+math) background and previous RA experience, and it is not necessarily a "mistake" based solely on those conditions.

    I saw on your other thread that you're a rising sophomore at a top 10 school with what sounds like a great research opportunity ahead at your school. You're of course in great position at this early stage to do well with your PhD apps should you continue in that path. I'll try speaking to your case more specifically, assuming here that you finish undergrad with a strong GPA in econ/math and solid research experience and correspondingly good letters of rec. For context, I come from a top 10 liberal arts, did 2yrs RA at the Fed and then 2yrs RA at NBER for Harvard/MIT profs, starting Berkeley PhD in the fall.

    With your background, if you continue to excel, you *can* place into top-of-the-top programs straight from undergrad. It is rare, but you're in the particular sort of position where that is possible. Even if you don't make it straight into top 5, you can end up at top 10-15, again assuming you continue to excel.

    However, the vast majority of your peers applying to and matriculating at top programs will have post-undergrad RA experience. I went to visit days at Michigan and Berkeley, and at each there were ~2 straight from US undergrad. The rest were (a) US with a couple years of RA work, or (b) international likely with a masters or maybe RA work. Point being, while you are so far in the relatively unique set of applicants who can get accepted to top programs straight out, it is rare.

    Why might additional RA work still help your app? A few reasons. (1) More high quality letters. You will need to send 3 letters to each program. If you have extensive research with a prof at your top 10, that of course makes for one potentially stellar letter, but you still need 2 more. This will be an opportunity to submit a full package of hard-hitting letters. (2) I believe that adcoms will give additional points for full time RA work with well-known profs above-and-beyond your possibly extensive RA work as an undergrad. It is a somewhat different beast to do it full time. And you are likely to be working at a higher level of involvement full time than in undergrad; yeah you're still coding a bunch and you're not gunna be a coauthor, but you probably engage more with the real substantive material of the project as a full time RA than as an undergrad where you're more likely to skew toward the data cleaning / regression running side. (3) Taking/auditing PhD classes while you're working. Take a PhD course with your PI, have them write about it in your letter, and adcoms see a bit more that you're cut out for their program.

    Okay, but now let's assume that you absolutely excel over the next couple years and would get into a top 5 straight from undergrad. Why might RA for a couple years still be worthwhile?

    Maturity, both as a person and in your research. As I mentioned, aside from competing with many applicants who have professional RA experience, you would also enter your cohort with overwhelmingly folks who did RA work or a masters after undergrad. These folks have spent a couple additional years growing as individuals in their personal lives, and they've also spent a couple extra years understanding how the research process really works and engaging with it firsthand. I would not underestimate how useful both these areas of growth can be. A PhD - and the career after - is demanding, stressful, and uncertain. Having the personal mental capacity to deal with the stress and uncertainty of research is not to be overlooked. And having a clearer understanding of research broadly and of your interests in particular are also beneficial. And, as also mentioned already, being able to take/audit additional courses while working adds to your foundation coming in, allowing you to devote a bit more energy toward engaging with research and a bit less toward staying afloat that first year or two. Plus, pre-PhD years are not counted against you on the job market or in your tenure clock, so why not start off there on your strongest foot?

    I'm not trying to convince you to take an RA job. I did, and I think I can say it's worked out for me on multiple dimensions. But everyone's case is different. The simple point here is that there can absolutely be benefits even for someone with your developing profile. Whether these benefits outweigh costs for you personally is a separate question only you can really answer. I'd recommend revisiting this question when you hit senior year and it's decision time. You will likely (hopefully) grow and change between now and then, so there is no need to commit your future path before that happens.

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    Re: RA after undergrad?

    Sorry, but two additional brief notes:

    (1) You're very early in your education/career. Do give yourself the freedom to pursue other routes. Only go into a PhD if you continue to believe along the way that it really is for you. Deciding against a PhD is not a negative reflection on your capabilities. It is a particular career path that truly does not suit everyone's interests, and it demands too much to be worthwhile if you don't really enjoy it. I know folks who would probably lead happier lives if they dropped out, but they will not entertain the idea.

    (2) Bear in mind that great research ultimately comes not from your math/econ/coding, but from having great ideas and asking great questions. It is not rote, but creative. I would proffer that personal and research maturation following undergrad can really bolster your ability to be more creative and less rote when you ultimately begin proposing your own project ideas.

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    Re: RA after undergrad?

    Thank you for sharing your experience, jjrousseau!

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    Re: RA after undergrad?

    Along with jjrousseau's comments, I'll just add my anecdotal experience that the most talented 3-5 PhD students I've met in my life all decided to spend 1 year in RA or other full-time work before matriculating at a PhD program, even though they could have easily obtained admissions to a top 5 PhD program straight from undergrad.

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    Re: RA after undergrad?

    This makes a lot of sense, thank you for the thoughtful advice!

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