A research assistant is an entry-level position well-suited to studious and analytical individuals. Research assistants work in many different fields. By understanding skills and experience required to become a research assistant, you can better prepare for a career in the field. In this article, we discuss what a research assistant does, important skills for the job and how to become a research assistant.
What is a research assistant?
A research assistant is a member of a research team who provides valuable analysis for the development of new theories, medicines, technologies and more. A research assistant may perform experiments and record data or may perform research based on previously completed work. Research assistants often compile valuable data such as summaries, charts and graphs. They also create reviews of their research for supervisors and other team members and create presentations on the information they have researched.
Research assistants work in a variety of fields, including:
- In a laboratory performing scientific experiments
- At a university assisting one or more professors with academic research
- As part of a medical team, researching new tests, cures and vaccines
- In a law firm, researching potentially applicable legal theories
- In a professional setting, performing research for a company to make it more effective
Research assistant skills
A research assistant requires a range of both hard and soft skills to excel, including:
- Analysis: Analytical skills help a research assistant at many phases of their job, including reviewing and deriving insights from the information they gather, identifying valuable sources and extrapolating data points to identify trends and make projections.
- Attention to detail: While performing experiments or researching information, being detail-oriented allows a research assistant to provide a comprehensive assessment. A strong attention to detail is helpful both when gathering data and when compiling it for evaluation.
- Communication: When conveying information on a research assignment, a research assistant also needs to be skilled at conveying information as written text when reporting on their findings. They also need to listen actively to remember instructions and help brainstorm insights, and they need to have clear speaking skills to be able to verbally share information with team members or with external stakeholders.
- Organization: While working with a significant amount of files, either physical or digital, creating an organized system for the research information allows others to understand the work being done and makes it easy to find any information when needed. Keeping working stations organized also creates a professional setting and ensures experiments remain on schedule and free of contamination.
- Research: Beyond basic assisting on projects, having the ability to identify valuable resources, understand them and identify the relevant information they present is a fundamental skill. While an employer may provide a list of resources for an assignment, a research assistant should be capable of finding additional resources as needed or creating their own list when one is not provided.
- Scientific knowledge: When applying for a research assistant position in a science or medical field, it's important to be knowledgeable and skilled in the relevant science field. Most scientific research assistants study science at a college or university prior to finding a research assistant position as it provides a base of understanding for any research or experimentation the research assistant performs.
- Technical skills: While assisting with experiments or completing them by themselves, research assistants may need technical field skills and experience, like working with machines and tools used on the job. These skills can demonstrate that research assistant candidates are capable of handling these tasks without close oversight or new instruction.
- Technology skills: When working in a modern research setting, a research assistant needs to be comfortable using computers and other modern technology. Computers serve many purposes in a research assistant's professional responsibilities, including recording data, finding resources and creating charts, presentations and other reports on the results of research projects.
How to become a research assistant
If you're interested in becoming a research assistant, follow these steps to maximize your chances of being hired:
1. Choose your preferred field
There are many industries that employ research assistants, and the skills and knowledge you need to succeed within those fields can vary significantly. Before beginning your education as part of a research assistant career path, you should take time to determine what field you want to work in. For example, the classes that a law research assistant needs to take differ from the educational needs of a medical lab research assistant.
2. Earn a bachelor's degree
Most employers require a bachelor's degree in a related field when hiring a research assistant. Completing your degree shows that you have attained in-depth knowledge in the field you are researching. This provides a foundation for your work as a research assistant, ensuring that you have the context to make assessments of the information you are researching.
3. Take advantage of lab opportunities
Many research assistant fields, such as scientific and medical opportunities, include work in labs as part of your assistant responsibilities. Being comfortable using laboratory equipment sets you up for success in your career, so take advantage of classes with lab hours while earning your degree. Take a leadership position, when possible, if working in a group, to maximize your practical experience working in the lab. Ask questions when you are unsure of proper procedures to ensure you are learning the proper scientific techniques.
4. Speak with your professors
While earning your degree, your college professors are a valuable resource who can offer guidance as you prepare for a career. By discussing your plans with your professors, you can benefit from their expertise in the field you are pursuing. They can guide you with an educational focus that can provide the best preparation. They can advise on courses and work opportunities to pursue and also provide reference or contact information that helps you find a research assistant position.
5. Pursue an internship
One of the best ways to prepare for a research assistant job is to find an internship in your chosen field. Your internship provides you with both a work history that you can list on your resume when seeking an entry-level position and practical experience where you can learn useful skills and techniques to use in your professional career.
Working as an intern is also a way to increase your connections in the industry. By meeting professionals in your chosen field and working with them, you may find a full-time job at the same company after completing school or use the references and recommendations of employees at your internship to identify and apply for a position.
6. Create your resume and apply
Create a strong resume that calls attention to your skills and experience that are most effectively applied to a research assistant position. Read each job listing carefully to identify any skills or responsibilities your potential employer mentioned. Edit your resume to highlight how you possess the listed skills before submitting it. Apply with a cover letter that addresses how well your skills and experience align with the responsibilities listed on the job posting.
Related: Research Assistant Resume Samples
7. Prepare for your interview
A job interview is often your first opportunity to impress a potential employer, so it's important to position yourself for success before you arrive. When applying as a research assistant, it's helpful to know the most common research assistant interview questions and practice giving strong responses.
Tips for getting a research assistant position
If you're interested in a career as a research assistant, these tips can help you get hired:
- Focus on the specifics of the position: Every research assistant position has elements that make it unique. Identify what is specifically important to your applied position and focus your application efforts on those key elements. Besides customizing your resume, each interview should take into consideration the company you are applying to.
- Show your passion: It's important for a research assistant to be curious and excited about their area of study. Showing your passion at an interview shows a potential employer that you are eager to work in their field and that you can be a valuable addition to their research team.
- Learn about your prospective employer: One way to show your passion for a position is to demonstrate a knowledge of your prospective employer. Research the company's values, history and reputation in the industry to tailor your responses to match the company and its culture. Demonstrating knowledge of the company also shows you are eager to work with your prospective employer.
- Highlight related projects: Previous experience is valuable for a research assistant as it reduces the time that you require to get accustomed to work responsibilities if hired. If you have any previous work similar to what your prospective job calls for, either from a prior job, internship or lab experience while earning your degree, call attention to that experience and how it has prepared you for the position.
- Practice with equipment: Having a diverse range of technical research skills is one of the most useful talents you can present when applying for a job. Seek opportunities to practice with equipment in a medical or laboratory setting. Practicing on equipment specifically tailored to the needs of a prospective employer allows you to further build your key work skills.