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Thread: RA for one year

  1. #1
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    RA for one year

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    Hi guys,

    Quick question: do you guys think there is a huge marginal difference between RAing for one year after college instead of 2? I saw that most RA job descriptions mention that they prefer if the applicant is available to RA for 2 years, but it seems like too much time.

    Will it impact my grad school admissions a lot if I decide that I only want to RA for a year? (think about top 5 admissions)

    By RAing for one year, I mean starting during the summer, applying during the winter, and leaving the job when the grad program starts the other year.

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    Re: RA for one year

    It depends on how much you need a really strong letter. If you start during the summer and apply in the winter, you wil only have worked on a significant project for a few months (applications are due in December, it takes some time to train you, so maybe you'll work on an extended project during August-November (4 months)). Depending on the quality of your work and how impressed your recommender is, this length of time may be sufficient. If you just need a decent third letter to back up two strong letters, then this could be fine. But if you need your recommender to boost your chances substantially, then 4 months of RA work may not be enough for a letter writer to say a lot about you.

    From the letter writer's perspective, the two years preference is a "return on investment". At the Fed where I work as an RA, economists say that RAs learn most of what they'll get from the job during the first year, and the second year is for the economists to "recoup" their investment during the first year. For this reason, economists at my Fed want RAs to stay for two years, or otherwise they're not getting much value out of their RA.

    For my own experience, I spent the first fall of my job experimenting with possible research projects, but all of them didn't lead anywhere interesting. It was only in December that I started working on a substantial project that eventually got published (though not with my name on it, only in a footnote). If I had applied during the first year, then my letters from the Fed would have been substantially weaker due to the lack of "success" on the research side.

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    Re: RA for one year

    I think if you're going to go this route, you should be up front with the professor you'd like to work with and let them know that's your plan. I've only seen people with stellar grades who maybe need/want one more year of experience or a third letter do this. I can certainly say that in my job, I had very little confidence in what I was doing and didn't really hit my stride until 8 months in. Given that, I'm not sure how my PI would have been able to assess my skillset in ~5 months before applying. The marginal cost of an extra year of RAing is low in my opinion. Not to mention, working for 5 months on a project versus 1.5 years makes a big difference in how sure you can be that you want to do academic research for the rest of your life.

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    Re: RA for one year

    Unless you already have a great equation with your PI, I think it would be difficult getting a very strong letter 5-6 months into the job. It took me that much time to even get comfortable in the role. Plus, a lot of my RA work has guided my interests and a longer stint can also help narrow down your interests -- unless of course you know what you want to do! But I do know people who worked for one year and applied and if you dont think there's a big difference in your equation with the PI + skill acquisition in 0.5 vs 1.5 years, then I don't think there's any penalty associated with applying earlier

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    Re: RA for one year

    Yes, there is a huge marginal difference between a letter written after knowing you for 6 months (much of which will be just onboarding) and a letter written after knowing you for 18 months,at which point you will have had sufficient time to do some impressive things. The only time I've seen a professor happily endorse their RA applying after a year was when that RA was a) an exceptionally strong candidate, and b) had started RAing in winter rather than summer so they had 12 months on the job.

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    Re: RA for one year

    Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge, everyone.

    I understand your arguments and I suppose you are right that the PI would have way more things to say after 1.5 years than after a semester. On the other hand, I had never planned to work as a RA after college. Some students from my undergrad have been able to go directly to great PhDs after college, and I have been trying to emulate their footsteps. I have been taking the right classes and got good grades on them, and I also have done extensive research with two experienced professors that really like my job. However, there are some flaws in my profile as well, most noticeably: my third letter writer won't know me much besides from a PhD Metrics class, and I got an A- in PhD Micro. So, I do not know how competitive I will be for very competitive schools (I entered my profile in a previous post if you want to check it).

    I am at the end of my junior year and I think I will still apply to grad schools at the end of the year. However, if I do not get an acceptance and end up going to an RA job, I do not see a problem in going for a second year if I am enjoying my routine, the city and the life as an RA.

    But it would be nice to start the RA job committed to work only one year and then decide later if a second year makes sense. And of course, it would be nice that, if an I decide to work for one year, the one year would be worth the investment and would impact my grad applications positively.

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    Re: RA for one year

    I want to say too that an extra year in an RAship can cut the time/effort required to complete your dissertation, especially if you can leverage data acquired through and used in your RAship (mostly relevant for applied people). It's not 1:1, but the research experience is still highly valuable with the right supervisor.

    Also the extra money earned as an RA can make your PhD more bearable (and therefore more successful). This was all advice given to me several years ago.

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    Re: RA for one year

    Take a look at recent admits at top 5 programs and see how many are people from top 50 Econ undergraduates that come directly. I see very, very few (I saw none, but I didn't look that extensively). You should first temper your expectations with this "top 5 or bust" mentality. And if you really want to go to a top 5, then you should be patient and RA for two years instead of one to get the best possible letter.

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    Re: RA for one year

    @Zubrus, l beg to disagree. I can name 5 students from the last 3 years in my school that went directly from undergraduate to top programs (1 to MIT, 2 to Stanford, 1 to Berkeley and 1 to Chicago). I study at a top 15 US News, so I imagine better programs have even better results.

    @yabu00 that's very good. I know a lot of people that have trouble with their dissertation during their PhDs, so that very good to know.

    Another question: do you guys think it makes sense to apply to grad schools during your senior year if you think you might have a shoot. I understand if you make the case that the first cycle rejections might serve as bad signals for a second cycle of applications, but its very tempting to apply in UG and see how it goes

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    Re: RA for one year

    Why are you married to a top 5 program? Your outcomes at some school just outside the top 5 (say Northwestern) will be pretty much identical to your outcomes at a school just inside the top 5 (say Princeton).

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