The Ten Commandments for Evaluation Research Assistants (Part I) by Anthony Petrosino & Arena Lam

We are Anthony Petrosino (Director) and Arena Lam (Research Associate) from WestEd’s Justice & Prevention Research Center (JPRC). Our organization conducts many evaluations, and we so value our research assistants. Being a research assistant is often the first step to launching a research career. We’re often asked by job candidates or new employees what the most important qualities are in successful assistants. In this 2-part series, we discuss the Ten Commandments for succeeding in the position (Commandments 1–5 in Part I, and Commandments 6–10 in Part II in tomorrow’s blog), applicable across fields or settings. Our goal is to see research assistants thrive, and we believe adherence to these Commandments can help assistants stand out in their performance.

1. Be responsive. No one should be connected to their computer all the time. But evaluation work sometimes needs to move fast. Each teammate may need another person’s tasks to get done before proceeding with their own. Don’t let emails from teammates fall into a black hole. At the very least, acknowledge that you received it! There are few things as frustrating as emailing a colleague repeatedly on a time sensitive issue before getting a response.

2. Over communicate, especially on time sensitive tasks. Project teammates need to know what is going on with tasks, especially when deadlines are short. No one should have to guess where you are in the task. It is better to communicate more than usual to let teammates know where you are with the assignment. Even a daily update can allay the anxiety of teammates on a project and help them plan their own work more effectively.

3. Be honest about what you can do. We all want to be helpful. It is human nature to also want to be liked. Saying “yes” to tasks you cannot do is a common challenge for assistants. But if you cannot reasonably get something done, let the requestor know that you cannot do it, or better yet, when you can get to it. Believe us, you will get far less respect for agreeing to do something and not getting it done with good quality than to providing an honest “no.”

4. Remember speed and quality count. Not everything needs to be rushed. But assistants who flourish deliver work quickly with good quality. Speed doesn’t help if you must redo the work. Something that is high quality doesn’t help either, if the work was needed by the end of the week and you submit it a month later. For written work, don’t be afraid to submit a draft early for feedback. That could avoid the weeping and gnashing of teeth when a report is submitted right before the deadline but still needs a lot of work, leading to long evenings of revising.

5. Go beyond the minimum.  Assistants who shine are often those that go over and above. For example, when taking notes for an interview, more detail is better than asking you to do a second interview to ask the same questions because notes were incomplete. We don’t advise moving ahead with unapproved tasks, but great assistants anticipate. If you know a monthly report is due by a funder, and your job is to prepare that report, start putting it together without waiting for a specific request by a project director to do so.

Rad Resource:

  • Written for a United Kingdom audience, this article from Discover PhDs provides a helpful overview of the role of research assistants and what a typical day looks like, its benefits, entry requirements, and key skills needed.

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2 thoughts on “The Ten Commandments for Evaluation Research Assistants (Part I) by Anthony Petrosino & Arena Lam”

  1. Something about how #5 is worded seems gross. The explicit assumption that RAs have to overdo assignments to be “great” and do more than asked is a bit exploitative. “This is what I’m asking you to do, but you also have to guess what more can be done.”

    1. Hi Jon, thank you for reading the blog post and taking the time to provide feedback on our wording. Our intention was to convey that those who go above the bare minimum and show thoughtfulness and care to the work are usually those who come first into mind for bringing onto new, exciting, more complex projects and it can also be helpful down the line in terms of career advancement.

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