An Overview of RAships

This page describes what RAships are, how they work, and gives advice on how to effectively apply for one.

What is an RAship?

RA is short for "Research Assistant". To understand what an RA does, you need to understand what research is. Research involves finding interesting problems (that are worth solving), understanding how other researchers have tried to solve them, figuring out how to solve them in a different, usually better, way, and evaluating your proposed solutions. Depending on the type of project you are working on, research (and hence RAships) can involve reading papers, proposing ideas, implementing solutions, proving theorems, and evaluating ideas against other approaches to a problem. Which of these you actually do on an RAship depends on your advisor and the nature of the project that you work on.

How many hours you spend on your RA project depends on your advisor and what stage you're in in your graduate program. At a general rule, an RAship with full tuition and salary is a full-time job, so you shouldn't expect to hold another job while on an RAship (taking courses at the same time is fine).

... and What an RAship is NOT

An RAship is not a job where someone tells you exactly what to do. RAs need to take initiative to make their project succeed. In the beginning, you won't always know what to do and that's fine (and normal). On the other hand, if you need or want your professor to tell you how to do each stage of your project, you might not have the right mindset for an RAship (and hence for research).

Put another way, an RAship is not just a campus job. It's a commitment to help a professor get their research done. To understand how important this commitment is, you need to understand how RAships are paid for.

Where Does the Money for RAships Come From?

In general, professors get RA money by writing grants either to companies or to the government. Grants are given to support specific projects: professors don't just say "give me money"—we describe projects we want to pursue and ask for money to support those projects. Therefore, an RAship often requires you to work on a specific project, or in a specific area. (Ideally, for PhD students, after you've identified a thesis idea and made some initial progress, we'd write a grant to support your work on your thesis.) Being an RA doesn't mean that you can't work on your own ideas: you'll have your own ideas on how to approach the topic you've chosen with your professor, and pursuing your own ideas on the side is a valuable part of becoming a researcher. You just won't be funded for your ideas until you're a more senior grad student.

The competition for grants is high (for example, only about 20% of grant proposals sent to the National Science Foundation—one of our main sources of government grants—get funded). Professors need to show strong research progress on funded projects to be eligible for future funding on other projects. As a result, your performance as an RA has huge impact on your professor and your fellow students (if you don't make progress, the professor will have a harder time getting money for other RAs, conference travel, equipment, etc). What does this mean for you? In part:

Professors give RAships to students who will best help them make progress on research. A student's financial situation (inability to pay for school, etc) rarely influences whether he/she gets an RAship!

Put differently, taking on any student involves risk for the professor. Professors therefore choose RAs who minimize that risk: quality and preparation minimize risk, but financial circumstances do not. You could argue that a student who needs money will work harder, but that work must be useful to the professor's research to reduce risk. Preparing to apply for an RAship based on merit is therefore your best option.

Preparing to Apply for an RAship

If you want an RAship, you need to convince the professor that you will make good progress on their projects. How do you do this?

A Bad Way: Telling the professor what a hard worker you are.

Another Bad Way: Telling the professor how much you have always wanted to work in their area.

A Good Way: Showing the professor that you can do good work in their area by reading papers and asking good questions about them, or by doing good work on a project (perhaps course-related) before asking for an RAship.

The "bad ways" are bad because your willingness to work hard in general or vague claims of interest don't demonstrate that you will make progress on the professor's projects. Maybe you don't have enough background in the professor's area. Maybe you work long hours but don't get much done. Neither of these gives the professor concrete evidence to go on. The good way gives evidence.

To pursue the "good way", go to the professor's web page and download their recent papers (or take their course or participate in their research group); this will also tell you if you like the area enough to want to work in it. Read the papers carefully (this will take time!) and note questions. Talk to the professor and discuss what you've learned and what questions you have. If you ask good questions, you demonstrate your ability to think about the area that the professor is in. Good questions are hard to define (part of grad school is learning the difference between good and bad questions), but examples of bad questions are those you could have easily looked up for yourself ("what's the definition of a state machine?") or questions that are very vague (like "isn't there a better way to do this" where "this" is the professor's research area).

Professors are generally glad to meet with students to give them an overview of their research area and which problems they are working on before the students start reading their papers. It's perfectly acceptable (even a good idea), to talk to a professor first to find out what they do and to get a sense of whether you want to read further towards a potential RAship in that area. However,

going to a professor to ask for funding before you know what specific problems that person works on is a bad idea because it shows a lack of respect for the professor's effort in raising the money for the RAship. It also makes you appear insincere and interested only in the money.


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