Four qualities of a great research assistant

One of the greatest assets for a faculty member engaged in scholarship is a great research assistant.  Over the years, I have had great ones, so-so ones, and some that were down right terrible.  During the past two years, I’ve been blessed to have a great one.  She has helped push my work and made me more productive with my writing.  Molly graduated this past weekend with her M.Ed. and I’m thrilled she is staying on for her Ph.D. in the fall.  I’ve been thinking about what has made Molly such a good research assistant and in today’s post will share the qualities of a great research assistant.

I daresay that if you find a productive researcher then you will find an outstanding research assistant (or even assistants).

The past two years have been among the most productive for my scholarship in the last decade.  It is no coincidence that I’ve had a great research assistant during that time.

Even as my administrative workload has dramatically increased, I have been able to write more thanks to Molly’s help.

Specifically, there are four traits that Molly has that makes her a great research assistant.  If you’re looking to hire a student to help with your scholarship, I strongly encourage you to look for these qualities.

1.  Yes, and…

There is a rule in improv comedy that you never say no.  Instead, your response is yes, and… which means you agree with the premise form the other actor then add something to the scene.  The same holds true for a research assistant.  Can you help me with this article?  Yes, and I’ll outline the literature review.  Yes, and I’ll create an annotated bibliography for you to use.  Yes, and… is a wonderful attitude that not only helps the faculty member but the research assistant as well.

2.  Sense of humor

Research can be time consuming, mentally draining, and often dull.  Spending hours reviewing interview transcripts or cleaning a data set is not how most of us enjoy spending our time.  My response to this has always been to try to make the work more fun.  It is dramatically helpful to have a research assistant with a good sense of humor.  I can be sarcastic and Molly gives it right back to me.  When you’re digging through a reference list or trying to find an article to make that one key point, a good sense of humor makes the day go by much faster.

3.  Smart and curious

I have worked with smart students and I have worked with curious ones.  In my view, there is no more powerful of a combination than smart and curious.  Often, as research faculty, we have done something hundreds of times.  A smart and curious research assistant can cause us to pause and think about our processes by simply asking questions.  In addition, the act of teaching a smart and curious research assistant makes us better as faculty.  When I have to explain how or why we are doing something, I am better able to challenge my own assumptions and ideas.  This makes me a better researcher.

4.  Hard worker

There is no substitute for being a hard worker in faculty life and in a research assistant position.  Both jobs have a great deal of flexibility and the ability to determine one’s work.  Some people take advantage of this by slacking off and not fulfilling their responsibilities.  The best research assistants have to balance their work responsibilities as well as their classes and academic expectations.  This is hard work.  You need to be self-motivated and driven to succeed.  No amount of mentorship, advising, or teaching can make up for not being a hard worker.

I often hear that faculty aren’t willing to work with research assistants because they take too much time.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Yes, it does take a great deal of time to mentor and set up a student to be a successful research assistant.  But if you’re hiring a student with these four qualities, the investment will more than pay off in your long-term productivity.

I hope describing these qualities will help everyone working with students.  Looking for these qualities when hiring and cultivating them will help not only faculty and staff, but also students.

It has been one of my greatest professional privileges working with great research assistants like Molly.  Working with great students is one of the wonderful perks of being a professor.

If you’re able to hire someone with these four qualities of a great research assistant, you’ll get more than a student.

You’ll get a colleague.

I have one with Molly and I hope you get one too.