As a Cognitive Science PhD candidate, it’s exciting to research how humans think. But collecting data can be labor intensive. Some projects require hundreds of participants, each of whom are in the lab for an hour at a time. If I had to personally collect all the data, I wouldn’t be able to do as many experiments in the lab, and they’d all take much longer to complete. This is where undergraduate research assistants (RAs) save the day. UC San Diego is teeming with sharp and driven undergraduates, and I’m fortunate to work with some of the best.
Qualities of ideal RAs
We rarely have to actively recruit RAs—many of them discover the work we do in our lab and seek us out. It’s important for RAs to balance detail-oriented thinking with bigger-picture curiosity. There are a lot of details in running experiments. Experimenters often need to collect a few different forms of data for every participant, making sure to run the right versions of each protocol and document their work. Sometimes, they stagger participants, so that while one is completing the experiment, another is beginning. They do some serious juggling. It’s also important that when they have questions—no matter how small they may seem—they ask me. When RAs have come to me with seemingly small questions (for example, “Is this part of the experiment supposed to be so short?”), we’ve sometimes discovered crucial errors in the programs that run our experiments. Tiny questions have saved huge amounts of data.
But bigger-picture curiosity is important, too. My RAs are undergraduates, and their priorities in college are to discover ideas that excite them and gain a broad understanding of the world. If they pursue graduate school, they’ll then deepen their knowledge about specific concepts. They should cultivate some depth in college, but this is their time to focus on breadth. To encourage their breadth, I ask them about their classes, and suggest that they read articles and attend talks that might be outside their wheelhouse and that are definitely outside the focus of my narrow research. The research they’re doing with me is interesting, but there are so many other fascinating things on campus that they shouldn’t overlook.
Cultivating a stellar research team
RAs can easily be overlooked since they’re seldom present for the design, analysis, or writing of a project. But my team is invaluable to my work. They don’t just help me collect data; they also boost my research morale. Working with them reminds me that research can be freaking exciting! We’ve been working on learning about Chinese-English bilinguals’ mental timelines and how they’re different from non-Chinese speakers’ mental timelines. My RAs are absolutely crucial for this work—for one, they speak Mandarin! I do not.
These undergrads are busy taking intense courses, exploring extracurriculars, and maintaining social lives, but they’re in the lab when they say they will be, ready to help us achieve our joint goals. To show them that I don’t take their commitment and contributions lightly, it’s important to me to spend time with them outside the lab. For example, I recently had my RAs over for tacos. We talked about grad school, told one another about our families, and tried to make sense of the current political climate. There were laughs, hugs, and selfies. Just as good business leaders and sports team captains create opportunities for their teams to bond, I try to make sure our research team has opportunities to connect. That way, we’ll all be happier people who do better research.
For PIs: How do my experiences with RAs scale up to apply to cultivating stellar lab environments?
For other researchers: Are their differences in RA roles or traits across disciplines? What have been the most important ingredients for members of your research team? How have you fostered them? I’d love to hear from you!
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