Whether you're hoping to enter public policy or a career in pharmacology, finding a research assistant job can be an excellent entry-level introduction to your field. But what is a research assistant? They may be graduate students or professionals who assist more advanced researchers with tasks such as:
- Collecting and managing survey data
- Gathering research materials
- Assisting in laboratory testing and analysis
No matter your industry, your first job as a research assistant will require intellectual curiosity backed by detail orientation and data savvy. If you're considering a career in research, here's what you need to know.
Different types of research assistants
When most people think of research-based science, they imagine hard sciences like biology and chemistry. However, social sciences like anthropology and sociology are strongly research-based as well.
From academic institutions and government agencies to public and private companies, opportunities to become a research assistant exist anywhere research is conducted.
Here are just a few research assistant job descriptions:
Medical facilities, disease research centers and pharmaceutical companies hire lab research assistants to perform various testing and analysis tasks under the supervision of senior researchers. They generally require experience or education in a lab setting, because many tasks require technical knowledge of lab equipment.
Research assistants in the policy realm perform tasks such as gathering information, synthesizing data from multiple resources and fact-checking results. They might work for the government, NGOs, trade unions, corporations or political think tanks.
Social Sciences Research
While many research assistants in the social sciences work in academia, other organizations such as nonprofits, government agencies and social advocacy groups may hire research assistants to perform tasks like fact-checking, compiling data and quality control.
Psychology research assistant responsibilities include administering surveys, compiling survey results, observing and recording data during experiments and even working with research animals.
Opportunities for research assistants
The outlook is generally good for research-based jobs. However, some have more opportunity than others. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that among social sciences, employment of research assistants will grow six percent between 2014 and 2024. In biological technician careers, the BLS projects a five percent growth.
Qualifying for and defining research assistant positions
If you want to pursue a career in research, you need a bachelor's degree in the field of study that interests you. There are two main paths to becoming a research assistant: the academic path and the employment path.
- Academic path
Within the academic environment, research assistants are typically current students who have bachelor's degrees, and are pursuing advanced degrees as they assist a research professional in their field of study. Once you're accepted into a graduate program, you can apply to be a research assistant within your department. These research assistantships are usually merit-based and highly coveted, since many cover or offset the cost of tuition in addition to offering a cash stipend.
- Employment path
Outside of the academic environment, opportunities and qualifications to become a research assistant will vary depending on the position, the subject and type of research. Some fields, such as biology and other sciences, may employ full- or part-time research assistants and may require only an associate's degree or medical experience.
For Houma Patel, a research assistant for an Illinois-based pharmaceutical company, the path to her position was about being in the right place with the right experience.
"After I got my phlebotomist certification, I worked for about two years before applying to become a lab technician. Later, when a recruiter called to ask if I was interested in a research assistant role with a nationally known pharmaceutical company, I jumped at the opportunity."
How to get a research assistant position
To find your first research assistant job, concentrate on building a strong network and a compelling resume and cover letter. The more people in your field you're familiar with, the more likely it is that you'll know someone within a company who can hand-deliver your resume, let you know about openings or give you an insider's view of the organization.
To build or strengthen your network, consider joining a professional organization such as Society of Clinical Research Associates (SOCRA) or American Center for Research Professionals (ACRP). You'll be able to learn about updates and changes in the industry and build your network.
Polish your research assistant cover letter and resume
Whether you're looking for a research assistant role as a graduate student within an academic institution or as a full-time role, you'll need to demonstrate that you're the best candidate for the job among a pool of other qualified candidates.
While some research assistant positions require technical lab skills, all research assistants should have certain research-oriented qualities. Highlight the following qualities on your resume and cover letter and provide examples of how you put them to work:
- Organizational skills
- Critical thinking abilities
- Strong written communication
Share a sentence or two about a research project you're proud of in your cover letter. If you took courses such as statistics, research methods or other research-based courses, highlight these as well. And don't forget lab skills. List your lab experience and expertise prominently in your cover letter. And be sure to customize each time to match the specific role for which you're applying. Our Cover Letter Builder can help you use your college experience to make the case for hiring you.
Many new graduates aren't sure if the skills they have will transfer to the workplace. If you're struggling to write the perfect summary, or you're not sure which skills you should include, take advantage of LiveCareer's Resume Builder tool. Not only will it give your resume a degree of polish that will stand out in the stack, but it will also suggest verbiage for your summary, as well as relevant skills that employers value most.