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Career Advice

Tips for a productive RA-supervisor relationship

Creating a harmonious working relationship between RAs and their supervisors is tantamount to getting good results


The relationship between professors and their research assistants can be fraught with conflicts and difficulties. If successful, though, it can be mutually fulfilling and highly rewarding. Kimberly Lawton, a research assistant who has worked for six different professors, and Adam Chapnick, an assistant professor who has employed six RAs over the last five years, reveal their keys to successful collaborations.

Establishing Clear Expectations

Students who would like to become RAs should recognize that they will be expected to have a certain basic set of skills in advance. Although RAs will learn from their supervisors, they are paid to use skills they already have, not to acquire them.

At the undergraduate level, these skills might include conducting literature searches, preparing annotated bibliographies, adjusting formatting styles, and helping organize conferences. Graduate student RAs should be comfortable providing detailed, analytical literature reviews, performing archival research and acting as copy editors.

Supervisors who plan to employ research assistants should understand that there is a clear difference between employment and exploitation. Whenever possible, supervisors should outline their expectations – including the best means of communication, the frequency of interaction, the type of work that will be expected, any flexibility or lack thereof in meeting deadlines – before the contract is finalized.

It will be hard for some RAs, whose future careers might well depend on their performance during the RAship, to refuse, for example, to work extra hours or to attend a professor’s lecture on their own time. It is therefore incumbent upon the supervisor to avoid placing their employees in such a position.

Maintaining Steady Communication

In our experience, functional RA-supervisor relationships require some method of contact every two weeks. This could mean no more than an e-mail from the RA asking the professor a question, or a note from the supervisor praising the RA’s recent work. This contact reminds both parties of the continuing relationship, provides a non-intrusive means of quality control, and facilitates the sharing of ideas. It also allows the RA to inform the supervisor of any external demands that might slow down research progress while keeping the research of the RA a priority in the mind of a potentially over-extended professor.

Dealing with Potential Conflicts of Interest

It is often the case that RAs have multiple relationships with their supervisor. The student may be a student and RA, a teaching assistant and RA, and a colleague (in a team-taught course) and RA. In each of these cases, the potential for conflict is obvious. While there is no ideal solution, both RAs and supervisors should act pre-emptively and acknowledge these potential conflicts before their working relationship begins.

In the first case, we recommend making a firm division between the two relationships (RA and supervisor; student and supervisor). In RA-supervisor meetings, both people should avoid any discussion of coursework. Such matters should be dealt with separately during the professor’s office hours or by e-mail.

In the second case, if a student is to serve as both TA and RA, the supervisor and student should agree on how flexible the arrangement will be in advance: can hours from the research assignment be transferred to the teaching assignment, and vice versa? Which position takes priority in the case of a lack of time?

In the final case, where the supervisor is sometimes a colleague of the student when they are team-teaching a course, both instructors should avoid any reference to the RA-supervisor relationship in front of their students. For the students, they are and should appear to be – equals.

Credit for publication is another potential trouble spot. Researchers must be aware that acknowledging the contribution of RAs is not always entirely clear-cut. RAs are most often recognized in the first footnote of a publication. However, if it becomes clear that critical insights and key foundations of the paper are due to the ingenuity and creativity of the RA, it may be appropriate to award him or her second authorship. What must be avoided at all costs is a situation in which the supervisor demands that the RA do work outside of the contract’s hours in exchange for a publication credit. If this happens, we recommend that the RA decline the offer.

With an eye to the previous discussion, here are some best practices that can help prevent and resolve conflict within the professor-RA relationship.

Make sure you understand exactly what you are being assigned. Asking questions about resources, final products, and deadlines is essential.  Explain all assignments as clearly as possible. Detailed instructions should be provided in print. Afterwards, be available to answer questions. Otherwise, empower your RA to make independent decisions when appropriate.
 Many libraries run RA research skills programs; often the two to four hours of instruction can be invaluable later on.Similarly, becoming friendly with a university’s research librarians is a good idea. Their considerable expertise often goes under-utilized.  Make yourself aware of your RA’s personal research interests. Spending an extra few minutes on your RA as a person can bring personal and professional benefits.
 Organization is critical. Be able to find any and all work materials quickly and easily.  Ask your RA to keep a timesheet. It is best for both of you to maintain a paper trail.
 Do not take criticism personally. Just because a supervisor expresses concerns about your work, this does not mean that she or he is critical of you as a person.  Be considerate of your RA’s feelings. If he or she does a great job on something, be sure to acknowledge it. If errors are made, constructive suggestions go much further than angry criticism.
 If you are unable to complete a task, speak up early on. Your supervisor would rather hear about it sooner than later.  It is safer to overestimate the size of a task than to underestimate it.Placing an RA under too much pressure will affect the quality of work.
 Agreement with what your professor is arguing/writing is not necessary. It is not your research. Assist to the best of your ability.  Make sure your RA gets paid on time. Many students struggle financially and a missed pay cheque can be particularly difficult.
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