How do I Become a Research Assistant?

Simone Lawson

Most complex studies performed by universities or hospitals require some type of research assistant. Research assistants are hired by leading faculty members to assist with conducting research projects. They are needed to perform various duties related to the study and are typically well versed in the study’s subject matter. In order to become a research assistant, you usually need academic experience in the research subject area, knowledge of operating a database, and a specified minimum grade point average (GPA).

Graduate students who work as lab research assistants usually receive a stipend.
Graduate students who work as lab research assistants usually receive a stipend.

If you're interested in a research assistant position, it might be best to start by talking to a professor in your field of study. Most professors hire students to work as assistants if they are majoring in the field to which the study relates. For example, if faculty members are conducting research on the social psychology of business as it relates to marketing tactics, professors will most likely seek candidates who are majoring in sociology, psychology, or marketing. Many students seek out research assistant positions for class credit or project experience relevant to graduate school.

Research assistants need good typing and computer skills to be useful.
Research assistants need good typing and computer skills to be useful.

A strong knowledge of the subject matter generally is required due to the typical duties that research assistants perform. Assistants are often responsible for conducting literature reviews, collecting and analyzing data and preparing interview questions for study participants. They may also prepare materials for grant agencies, maintain interview records, manage project e-mails and prepare articles or presentations related to the project.

To become a research assistant, database skills may be required. Some professors may require research assistants to work in database programs, so knowing the basic software first can give you an advantage. Assistants may be responsible for compiling data and entering it into a database, and they may also need to filter and organize the data in a manner that is conducive to the focus of the study.

Candidates may also need to maintain a minimum GPA; many faculty researchers require a minimum 3.0 GPA on a 4.0 GPA scale, for instance. Students working as research assistants may get pass or fail credit, or they may volunteer to present their research in the graduate applications process. Most undergraduate students do not receive payment for their work as research assistants.

Graduate students working as research assistants usually receive a stipend for their work, but their duties tend to be more complex. They often take a more active role in the project, preparing them to lead their own projects after graduate school. Graduate research assistants are typically responsible for supervising undergraduate assistants, as well as compiling, analyzing, and summarizing the data being presented for the project.

If you are not currently enrolled in undergraduate or graduate school and want to work as a research assistant, you may want to contact local universities to ask if they do any outside hiring for research projects. Some universities will occasionally hire outside candidates with little experience to perform more mundane tasks, such data entry and filing. Most faculty researchers prefer to hire outside candidates who are seeking experiencing in order to apply for graduate school.

A laboratory research assistant may be tasked with recording results of experiments.
A laboratory research assistant may be tasked with recording results of experiments.

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Discussion Comments


I am an undergraduate student, and I have been appointed as a research assistant attached to the sexual Health Improvement project in one of the big organizations in my country of Uganda. What exactly am I supposed to do to boost this initiative?


If possible, I would recommend students to look for research assistantships with tuition waivers in addition to a stipend. A stipend is great, but if you're paying for your tuition as well, it can be difficult to get by financially.

Some academic programs will pay up to five or six credits every semester for their research assistants. This is a great way to fund your education, as well as gain experience in your field.


@literally45-- You should speak to your program director or program counselor. They usually know which professors need research assistants and can direct you toward one.

This is how I got my research assistantship when I started my graduate school. I asked my program director about assistantships and it turns out she was looking for a research assistant. I sent her my resume and was selected.

Hopefully the same can happen for you, good luck!


I'm about to start a graduate degree and I really want to work as a research assistant. But I don't know any of the professors yet. How can I go about doing this?


It sounds like being a research assistant in different fields can have a lot of different challenges. I am a business student, and the research assistants here do a lot more of the office work for professors like counting surveys and things like that.

I guess it might not be as fun as working in a lab, but then again, most people got into business because they didn't want to be in a lab. From the people I have talked to, it sounds like being a research assistant for a professor is a good way to be on the path of becoming an instructor.


@Emilski - I would also add to the last post that even though you might not start out doing things that are necessarily "fun," the fact that a professor knows who you are should open up future opportunities to take on more responsibility.

When I was in graduate school, I had the chance to select an undergrad from the class I taught to be my lab assistant. He started off just doing the things I didn't have time to do like entering data. Eventually, though, me and my adviser were impressed with his work, so he got the opportunity to do an undergraduate research project.


@Emilski - Very good questions. I would highly suggest becoming a research assistant when you are an undergrad. I started working in a lab my junior year and wish I would have started sooner.

I am also in a science field, and I would guess the process is similar everywhere. The best thing to do I think is to first figure out the types of research being done by the professors in your department. This can usually be found on the department website somewhere. Another route is to ask your current professors what they are working on.

Once you find someone who is working on something you may be interested in, ask him or her if they have any need for a lab or research assistant. Usually, they are thrilled to have someone interested in their research, so they will try to find a place for you. If they don't have any money at the time, they may refer you to someone else doing related work.


I am in my first year of college, and I have been hearing a lot of people talk about research assistants and never really knew what they were. This cleared up a lot of stuff for me. Now the question I have, though, is whether or not I should try getting a job as a research assistant.

I am studying biology right now and would like a career in science. What I am really wondering about is whether I would be qualified to be a research assistant at this point. I am taking some of the beginning classes, but I don't know anything about the lab techniques or anything really.

If I do decide to try to be a research assistant, how should I go about finding someone to work for? She I just randomly ask people, or are there job boards or something for these types of jobs?

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