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Strategies for productive faculty-undergraduate research assistant partnerships

Andrea Phillott

Andrea D. Phillott, Professor in Environmental Studies at FLAME University, Pune, Maharashtra, conducts research in the field of marine biology, conservation and education. In this article, she writes about how researchers can effectively engage undergraduate students in research, and how this can benefit both faculty and students.

RA 9
RA 9 

Most academic review, promotion, and tenure processes value scholarship, often in the form of research and publications, over teaching and service despite most faculty feeling that the majority of their workload comprises the latter. Some of the pressure that faculty feel to maintain their research productivity can be alleviated by partnering with undergraduate research assistants (RA).

Unlike student interns, who are often required to complete projects for credit and, therefore, have a greater responsibility for study design and analysis, student RAs can be asked to focus on projects designed and coordinated by the faculty and in their area of interest, which is likely to result in publications or other scholarly works.

However, the potential benefits of collaborating with undergraduate RAs are often ignored because of faculty concerns about the amount of time that mentoring requires and low student motivation and preparedness to work as an undergraduate researcher. 

Some apprehensions about partnering with undergraduate RAs can be alleviated by the personal satisfaction of mentoring new researchers and understanding how to maximise the benefits of working with undergraduate RAs. Faculty and graduate students/​postgraduate researchers responsible for mentoring RAs can use the strategies described below to increase the likelihood of a rewarding and productive partnership.

Learn the characteristics of a good mentor

While faculty often measure the success of a research partnership through project progress or production of a conference presentation, publication, or other scholarly work, students are more likely to reflect on how they felt during their experience as an RA. Faculty should become familiar with evidence-based learner-centred practices, such as those described in this article, and utilize them while mentoring student researchers instead of just relying on their own experiences. This is especially relevant when recruiting and retaining students from minority communities as undergraduate RAs. It can also be helpful for faculty to read about the characteristics that undergraduates consider important in a mentor.

Choose an undergraduate RA who will be an effective partner

High motivation, curiosity, creativity, and attention to detail may be better indicators of a productive RA than a high GPA or strong academic performance or completion of a course which develops knowledge or skills relevant to the research topic. You should also consider specific project requirements, such as being available at particular times of the day or being proficient in the use of specific research tools (including software) and methods. Recognize that individual student interests may not directly align with your area of research, but the partnership can still benefit you both if it results in their personal and professional development and your project’s progress.

Establish expectations

Discuss specific project goals and objectives, methodology, responsibilities, and timelines, and consider outlining expectations for you both (or the team if more than one undergraduate RA is contributing to the same project) in a formal research agreement. As undergraduate RAs may be new to research, a research agreement provides detailed descriptions of what is expected of them and an opportunity to ask questions about responsibilities that they may not completely understand. Preparing the agreement and discussing it with RAs also helps the faculty thoughtfully consider what they are expecting to be completed within the allocated timeframe and their own responsibilities towards the RA. The template available in the supplementary information for this paper provides a starting document for faculty who have not drawn up such an agreement before.

Build rapport with your RAs

Informal conversations during which faculty demonstrate a genuine interest in their RAs’ lives, interests and classes by giving them their undivided attention, actively listening to what is said, asking questions, and being sympathetic and empathetic, help strengthen a student’s feelings of being recognized as a valued partner.

Provide training and scaffold opportunities

Undergraduate students are less experienced (but not less talented) than graduate students. Start new undergraduate RAs with low-stakes tasks (e.g., searching for and summarising literature, routine lab methods, data entry) and build to high-stakes activities (e.g., conducting interviews independently, analysing and interpreting data, designing novel surveys or lab methods) as their experience and confidence increase. This may take time and potentially patience, as well as repeated explanations or demonstrations.

Be an engaged research partner

Regular weekly or biweekly meetings allow faculty and RAs to track project progress, discuss findings, and address potential problems early. Discuss the work to be completed by each of you between meetings. Project progress can be held up both by students not completing required activities and by faculty failing to provide resources, instructions, or feedback. The last should be constructive and identify what has been done to the required standard as well as point out areas that need to be improved and suggest strategies to do so.

Back-up research documents

Make sure that copies of all research documents are regularly saved to a cloud platform (like Google Drive, Dropbox or similar) to which all relevant researchers have access. Hard copies of interviews, questionnaires, field and lab notes etc. can be scanned or photographed and uploaded to a file hosting service. Word processing files, datasheets, databases, visual images, code, sources used in literature reviews, presentation files etc. should also be shared. Ideally, all project resources should exist as soft copies in two locations (at least one in a file hosting service). If an RA is unexpectedly absent for a long period of time or leaves the project, progress can be maintained if you have a recent copy of everything they have been working on.

Demonstrate time management tools and strategies

Undergraduate students have fixed class schedules, a course workload that varies over time and can increase unexpectedly, family and social commitments, and may also have a job. Despite their commitment, RAs may take longer than expected to complete tasks according to the project timeline. Introduce students to some of your favourite apps and tools for managing time, avoiding distractions, and managing tasks (some examples here if you don’t use any and are curious). A physical reminder, as simple as a project outline on a whiteboard, or the more visually appealing Gantt Chart or Kanban Board, in a mutual workspace, can provide motivation and help in project management.

Despite good planning and previously steady progress, RA productivity may decline during their busiest assessment periods at the middle and end of the term or semester. It is better to acknowledge this and build it into the project schedule (remember that you may be similarly busy with grading at this time). If students still need to log a certain number of hours per week during these periods then suggest they complete more mundane tasks that don’t require critical thinking or as much attention to detail. Remember to schedule rest periods between project phases and be understanding of other demands on their time.

Provide developmental opportunities

Although faculty opinion of when RAs should be named as coauthors can vary, students who have made substantial contributions to a research study and manuscript preparation should be included as co-authors or even first authors. Mentored faculty-student research partnerships are more likely to result in publications if undergraduate researchers remain engaged for more than one year and faculty find enjoyment in and are committed to research with undergraduates. If opportunities for student authorship are limited by time during project duration or manuscript preparation, undergraduate RAs could instead present a component of the study at a conference. Faculty should be proactive in identifying suitable conferences and helping procure funding for RA attendance.

The strategies described above will help faculty be good’ mentors who care about the experiences of RAs and provide due reward for their efforts. This will be of benefit to both faculty research productivity and student personal and professional development and may potentially help in recruiting future undergraduate assistants. But the personal reward for faculty should not be overlooked. Engaging with undergraduate students outside course-based work and in situations where less formal conversations can occur leads to a deeper understanding of their motivations, aspirations and concerns. This carries over into every aspect of academic life, and results in more empathetic instructors and informed advocates for student support and resources, in addition to more productive researchers.

Do you agree with the views expressed in this article? Please let us know in the comments below.

Written By

Andrea D. Phillott, Professor in Environmental Studies at FLAME University, conducts research in the field of marine biology, conservation and education. A voracious reader herself, Andrea uses popular literature to inspire and inform students about concepts and careers in ecology …