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Thread: Undergraduate Research: What's most useful?

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    Undergraduate Research: What's most useful?

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    So I'm an undergraduate research assistant at my university right now but I don't necessarily think what I'm doing is going to be a strong signal to graduate programs - I could be wrong, but it's a lot of general news research, data collection and input, some light data analysis, minimal programming, and a touch of writing. I enjoy the work and it pays well but I guess I'm not sure what type of RA position I should be looking for in this. Some help would be appreciated.

    Also, I plan to do an undergraduate thesis- any tips for that? I think I'd be doing more of an empirical thesis but is a theory-thesis possible as an undergrad? If so, what kinds of preparation/exposure would I need beforehand?

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    Re: Undergraduate Research: What's most useful?

    Just something to note. More than 50% of empirical research is data cleaning; reduced-form work, at the very least (which encompasses the majority of the applied researchers).

    As for your undergraduate thesis, it's more manageable to look at existing literature that relates to your area of interest, and see what has been done and what can be done, as an meaningful extension of a current paper. That, or adapt an existing methodology to a new dataset, with minute extensions, to see if the findings carry over when you switch datasets, or use alternate specifications. The primary objective of the thesis is to demonstrate your ability to do structured research.

    If you have the ability to write over two semesters, you can try to come up with something new, but that takes time, and might not be feasible as an undergraduate thesis.

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    Re: Undergraduate Research: What's most useful?

    When you say "What's most useful", I'm going to assume you mean "What's most useful in order to get into a grad program"

    Frankly, your research at this stage is unlikely to be very sophisticated. This is not a personal put down, but a testament to the fact that doing good and useful research is not easy, and doubly so when you haven't started grad work yet. I point this out to say that your objective right now in RAing should be pretty much orthogonal to thoughts of publication, presenting, etc. (though if you can do these things, great). Same goes for your thesis.

    Your goal right now as an RA, and even largely in your thesis, is *to get the best recommendation letters possible*. Grad admissions committees give substantial weight to rec letters, as these are their peers (your professors) vouching for your promise as a future academic based on the work they've seen you do.

    So, in this light, what should be your focus? In your RA work, it's helpful if you can work with someone who publishes regularly and in top journals; this gives more weight to their word when they write your letter. Demonstrate through your work that you are thoughtful, careful, insightful, and generally cut-out for this grad school and research stuff. If you have suggestions that you think are valuable and might add to the project you're working on, mention them. Show your professor you can think critically about research. Same applies for your thesis. Grad admissions committees are unlikely to read your thesis (many don't even ask for a writing sample, and even those that do may look it over in 5-10 minutes). You don't need to write a good thesis for adcoms to read it; you need to write a good thesis so your letter writers can read it and talk about how great your project was in their letter. You will have to decide for yourself whether you can write an insightful theory paper or not, and where your strengths lie here.

    Doing a large share of data work does not necessarily mean this position isn't worthwhile. As mentioned by tutonic, lots of applied work is data work, and this is especially so as an RA. You should ask yourself whether you're able to still demonstrate your abilities as a researcher in this position. Are you copying numbers from a pdf into Excel sheets? This is probably not useful for you. Or, are you working with code, dealing with data that may have some problems in it, inspecting the data and giving thought to possible concerns you may have in it (missing values, other weird things showing up)? These things can be useful in showing your prof that you have promise in research. Some writing is also very helpful. It doesn't have to be writing parts of a paper. Even if your prof asks you to write brief summaries of some results you've put together for her/him or something like this, again this can be very valuable in signaling your ability.

    So, in case I didn't harp on it enough... letters.

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    Re: Undergraduate Research: What's most useful?

    Above comments are good. I'm going to state my opinion in a more straightforward way: When we're talking about RA work on this forum, we mean data collecting, data cleaning, literature review, and other "mundane" work that a professor doesn't want to do. That's what most RAs do - including the top RAs at top 5 universities. There's a very trivial set of applicants who actually contribute meaningfully to theoretical projects as an RA, and I don't think we have enough data on whether this matters to admissions. What most undergrad RA's (and grad RA's) do is data cleaning, often with very little intellectual input, and yes, having such experience is valuable for admissions.

    I don't want to theorize too much about why adcoms care so much about, say, having a year of "mundane" data cleaning experience, compared to getting better grades at real analysis. I think there are two major factors: (1) It signals you can collaborate and communicate with others professionally, something that's not apparent from taking academic courses; (2) Writing a good letter is a reciprocal payment for underpaid RA work.

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    Re: Undergraduate Research: What's most useful?

    I mostly agree with chateauheart, but disagree a bit with his point
    (2) Writing a good letter is a reciprocal payment for underpaid RA work.
    First, being a pre-doc RA is not all that underpaid. $50k/year is probably pretty common. Second, you only get a good letter if you've done a good job and given indications that you'll be a successful graduate student.

    Chateauheart points out that a lot of what RAs do is pretty mundane. But it is important to engage one's brain. An excellent way to get a really, really good letter is to point out something the professor has messed up on. (Probably good to do it nicely though.)

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    Re: Undergraduate Research: What's most useful?

    Quote Originally Posted by startz View Post
    I mostly agree with chateauheart, but disagree a bit with his point

    First, being a pre-doc RA is not all that underpaid. $50k/year is probably pretty common. Second, you only get a good letter if you've done a good job and given indications that you'll be a successful graduate student.

    Chateauheart points out that a lot of what RAs do is pretty mundane. But it is important to engage one's brain. An excellent way to get a really, really good letter is to point out something the professor has messed up on. (Probably good to do it nicely though.)
    As an RA that just finished the application process, I would definitely echo both of these points. As a Fed RA, it might be different than working for a professor, but I feel very comfortably compensated, and wouldn't want anyone to be dissuaded by the idea that you'll be living uncomfortably (I make probably 3x what I will be making in grad school in a few months.)

    And while there is a certain amount of "mindless" work that I do, and everyone understands that, once the relationship has been built up enough there are certainly opportunities for engaging in more interesting problem-solving alongside an economist. Overall it's been an incredibly positive experience and undoubtedly drastically improved my placement to boot.

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    Re: Undergraduate Research: What's most useful?

    I think chateauheart was referring to undergraduate RA work as underpaid, not predoctoral RA work. Just my 2 cents!

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    Re: Undergraduate Research: What's most useful?

    I'd like to add that contributions can be made even in the data cleaning phase. Simple things like dropping observations with some missing data vs using something like egen (if you're using stata) instead, to operate over non-missing values can indicate to the professor that you're actually thinking about the problem, and are cognizant of basic, albeit important, things like selection issues.

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    Re: Undergraduate Research: What's most useful?

    Quote Originally Posted by startz View Post
    Second, you only get a good letter if you've done a good job and given indications that you'll be a successful graduate student.
    This is what I'm not sure about. I've known several RAs for famous professor who did a fairly ordinary job at what they're asked to do, didn't bring up revolutionary new ideas, and yet received offers that are far beyond what is expected from their transcripts and pedigree alone. Again, that might be quid pro quo, or it might be because it's viewed as important to signal your ability to work with active researchers. But either way, I don't think the quality of the recommendation letter varies highly vis-a-vis the scale of the RA contribution.

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    Re: Undergraduate Research: What's most useful?

    Quote Originally Posted by dogbones View Post
    I think chateauheart was referring to undergraduate RA work as underpaid, not predoctoral RA work. Just my 2 cents!
    I think both are underpaid.

    Controlling for hours, undergrad RA work may pay $0-$30,000 per year, predoctoral RA work tends to pay $20,000-$50,000 per year. But with the same data/programming skills, a college-educated individual can likely find a job of $80,000+ per year in the industry. In fact, many applicants do work one year in Amazon, Google or another large form before applying to PhD economics.

    So why do some students still pick predoctoral RA jobs? The only possible explanations I can think of for a rational applicant: (1) they expect a significant gain in human capital during the process; 2. they expect a significant improvement in their letters of recommendation, and this improvement is independent of their actual "type". In other words, it's quid pro quo.

    So, judging from the fact that undergrad/predoctoral RA work remains underpaid...at least one of these factors is salient, possibly both.

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