Any lifelong learner in any field will tell you – what we know for certain is that we have a lot to learn. In fact, one of the most astounding things that research forever reveals to the scientific community is just how much there is left to discover. Through a never-ending process that applies the scientific method to data-driven trials, research is a never-ending process of discovery and can be the focus of a very rewarding career for anybody with the technical skills, diligence and inquisitive nature it takes to extract data hiding deep below the surface.
Without being presented with the opportunity to work as a research assistant while in graduate school, you may not consider it a viable option for a job out in the real world. But it is.
With a liberal arts background, you’ll be instilled with the spirit of inquiry and the analytical skills it takes to make meaningful contributions to the sciences. The broad and interdisciplinary education you get can be the perfect foundation for research work. Add a concentration in your field of interest, whether that’s psychology, or biology or economics, and you could be a real asset to research teams that rely on skilled assistants to keep trials running and on-schedule.
Research assistants have a hand in the game-changing processes behind scientific discovery, learning from experienced researchers in their field along the way.
Research Assistant Job Description
What does it really mean to assist with research? A research assistant job will look different depending on the discipline, but as you would expect, it involves working under the supervision of a research professor or associate involved in either academic research taking place at a university or independently-funded trials for a company in the private sector. Often, research assistant jobs are offered on a temporary contracted basis for the duration of a particular project.
A research assistant will help:
Research assistants may also help with grant applications, correspondence, and even some administrative work, which could include managing the funds allocated to a certain aspect of a research study.
The similarities between the work research assistants in different fields perform pretty much ends there. Research assistant jobs in some of the most popular fields today also involve:
Clinical and Medical Research Assistants
The clinical or medical research assistant job description includes helping with administering clinical trials, which often take place in teaching hospitals and medical centers and involve real people with real medical conditions. Making use of both interventional or observational studies, the medical and pharmaceutical sciences rely on clinical trials to determine the safety and efficacy of medications, vaccines, medical devices, diagnostic products, and treatments. A clinical research assistant will aid in collecting evidence used to discover and establish new medical treatments.
Biological Research Assistants
Biological research assistant jobs can involve looking at human biology under the umbrella of clinical and medical research, but more often the term is used to describe biological research related to marine life, zoology, and microbiology. While lab research assistant jobs are common, not all biological research assistants spend their days in a bright, white laboratory. Assistants in zoology and wildlife biology might lace up their hiking boots and coat on the bug spray to head out into the rugged wilderness to collect samples in the field. Back in the lab, a biology research assistant might have tasks like administering medicine to laboratory animals, studying living microbes, and staining specimens for identification, or use specialized computer software to analyze experimental data.
Psychology Research Assistants
The work that goes into gaining a deeper understanding of human behavior and emotions in the modern world relies on skilled psychological research assistants. Psychology research assistant jobs involve supporting psychologists in conducting scientific studies into everything from addictive behavior patterns to the brain function of people suffering from clinical depression. This includes interviewing and surveying individuals, testing for patterns, experimenting with treatments, and testing theories. The new information that psychology research assistants help find informs psychologists in how to better diagnose and treat individuals suffering from mental health disorders and diseases and provides them with improved techniques in the practice. Along with assisting in conducting interviews and experiments, psychology research assistants will aid in writing articles and research papers to share the findings.
Neuroscience Research Assistants
Neuroscience is where psychology and biology overlap. Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, its structures, functions, and all interrelated systems. It encompasses cognitive science, cognitive psychology, neurology, and neuropsychology. Its goal is to understand learning, memory, behavior, perception, and consciousness from a biological standpoint. We’ll never reach the end of understanding the complexity of the human mind. But the dedicated professionals hired into neuroscience research assistant jobs are contributing to getting us closer each day. A neuroscience research assistant does everything from tending to the animals used for experimentation to conducting experiments to collecting and organizing research notes and reports. They also help prepare and present the findings of that research and help prepare publications and grant proposals. Sometimes a neuroscience research assistant will oversee undergraduate students in data analysis and implementation.
Economics Research Assistants
A huge portion of an economist’s job is conducting research, so as you would expect, there’s a big need to fill economics research assistant jobs. In researching economic issues, economists conduct surveys and collect data, using specialized software to conduct statistical analysis and build mathematical models based on the data they collect. After recording the results, they build reports and author papers to present their findings. Economists need research assistants to help in this complex process so that the data can in turn be interpreted and the economist can forecast trends, advise individuals and organizations, and suggest economic strategies and solutions.
Social Sciences Research Assistants
Social science research assistants have a big job to do as society finds itself changing rapidly, spurred by everything from socioeconomic disparity to the ongoing pandemic to social media changing the very nature of how we interact and communicate. And as we all know, our digital lives are producing an unbelievable amount of data ripe for analysis. This abundance of information is a potential spring of knowledge relevant to the social sciences just waiting to be tapped. Collecting, organizing, and analyzing that information is where research assistants come in. Social science research assistants work with researchers to conduct surveys and interviews, managing and analyzing laboratory and survey data, and preparing findings for publication.
How to Become a Research Assistant
First thing’s first, you’ll need an undergraduate degree. It’s common for graduate students to work as research assistants while completing a master’s or doctorate degree, often appointed to the position by the department head as a way to gain graduate research experience. However, graduates with bachelor’s degrees can work in research assistant jobs for a short time before applying to doctoral programs, giving them valuable experience in the field. Even after completing a PhD program, you can work as a postdoctoral research assistant, which is often the case if you are choosing to pursue a career in research or academia.
However, not all research assistant positions are found in the university systems. The private sector has a huge need for professionals well-versed in research work, in everything from pharmaceutics to emerging areas in neuroscience being pioneered by companies such as Elon Musk’s Neuralink.
Typically, a research assistant will need a degree in their field of research, or one that is closely related. A biology research assistant will need a degree in biology, a neuroscience research assistant will need one in neuroscience, and so on.
Prospective research assistants should aim to gain research experience while they are still in their degree programs, as well as through internships with local employers.
With a unique connection to the local community and focus on individual learning experiences, liberal arts colleges are particularly well-equipped to set students up with relevant internships and on-campus opportunities.
If you want a job as a research assistant outside of academia, you’ll be amazed at how many results come back from a simple internet search for research assistant jobs. While full-time onsite jobs are easier to come by considering the nature of the work, some fields and research projects open up the possibility of remote research assistant jobs.
Naturally, you can expect to begin your career in an entry-level position as an assistant, technician, support specialist, or associate before moving on to higher-level roles for lead researchers, coordinators, or research analysts.
Research Assistant Salary
Research assistant is a broad umbrella term that extends across multiple disciples, so there’s no one hard and fast answer to how much money can be made, but the salaries can be broken down by field. On average, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data on all life, physical, and social science technicians shows that research assistants make an average of $56,830 a year with a range from about $30,000 at the low end to more than $86,000 at the high end.
Unsurprisingly, colleges and universities employ the most research assistants, followed by scientific research and development services and the federal government.
Medical, clinical, and biological research assistants, also called biological or medical technicians, earn a median wage of $46,340 a year. An entry level research assistant job may bring in under $30,000 annually at the lowest end of the spectrum while more experienced technicians could earn more than $75,000 on the higher end. Pharmaceutical and medical manufacturing comes in as the highest-paying industry for biological technicians, but scientific research and development services and hospitals aren’t far behind.
While the BLS does not gather data on psychology and economist research assistants specifically, research assistants will likely be new to the field, earning with the tenth percentile for psychologists and economists, which is just under $46,270 and $59,220 respectively.
Social science research assistants can expect a salary of around $53,560 a year, with those new to the field earning within the tenth percentile, which comes in at around $30,000. Experienced social science researchers in top paying positions working for insurance carriers and in company management earning more than $78,800.
2020 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures for Life, Physical, and Social Science Technicians, All Other, Biological Technicians, Psychologists, Economists, and Social Science Research Assistants reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed December 2021.