How to become a research assistant: a step-by-step guide

Updated 14 August 2023

If you're passionate about innovation in science, working as a research assistant could be a rewarding career. A research assistant role offers opportunities to work in various academic fields, including long-term positions within the industry. Understanding the qualifications and steps to take to become a research assistant can help you get into your first role. In this article, we explain what is a research assistant, provide the steps on how to become a research assistant and discuss the responsibilities and skills of the role.

What is a research assistant?

A research assistant is an individual who works for an academic or corporate institution to support other experts. The job usually involves collecting and analysing data the research team asks them to. Research assistants don't undertake independent work but complete the tasks and activities the principal investigator assigned to them.

Research assistants are usually postgraduates or PhD students who work in the role to earn money while they complete their studies. The role of a research assistant builds valuable skills and insight that you can use further in your career. Postdoctoral research assistants may also progress to become research fellows and direct their own projects.

Related: What is primary research? (A definitive guide with tips)

How to become a research assistant

The first step to learning how to become a research assistant is understanding that academic training imparts the discipline and techniques involved in undertaking research competently. Most research assistants are postgraduates who've developed expertise in a specific area. Here are the steps you can follow to become a research assistant:

1. Obtain relevant GCSEs

Employers expect a research assistant to be highly literate and numerate. You want to have GCSE passes in English and Maths as a minimum. Your GCSE qualifications ensure you can study for the A-levels of your choice.

2. Study for A-levels or equivalent qualifications

Complete A-levels that prepare you to enter the university course of your choice. If you're interested in undertaking research in STEM-based subjects, universities favour A-levels in science and mathematics. If you haven't taken A-levels, ensure that your alternative qualifications carry enough UCAS points to make you eligible for university entrance.

Related: Research assistant job description (with common job duties)

3. Achieve an undergraduate degree

An undergraduate degree is an often essential qualification for a research assistant. For many, academic study at a university provides their first exposure to research. An undergraduate degree teaches research skills and techniques you can build on as you develop your career. Most degree courses involve participation in research projects, working alongside full-time researchers and academic staff in your subject's department.

4. Consider completing a master's degree

Employers value postgraduate qualifications that show you have strong empirical research skills. Many research assistants extend their skills and experience by undertaking a master's degree in an academic subject that interests them. Some MSc courses provide the opportunity to work in industry, which could help you gain exposure and contacts for laboratory work in various sectors.

5. Enrol on a PhD programme

PhD candidates routinely work as research assistants as they complete their studies. You can earn an income as a doctoral research assistant while assisting professors with their work. A PhD can broaden your career opportunities if you have a specific field of study or research you're pursuing.

6. Undertake industry work experience or internships

Work experience and internships provide valuable experience that shows your research capabilities to future employers. Many people with interest in research undertake internships throughout their undergraduate and postgraduate studies. You can apply to laboratories or research groups you're interested in working with or search for internships via your university careers service or online.

7. Consider obtaining accreditations

If you work in a specific area or research discipline, obtaining relevant accreditations, certifications and governmental security clearances can make you a more attractive candidate to employers. Certifications are worthwhile because they show that you've gained practical skills in a laboratory, hospital or another research setting. Examples of certifications a research assistant can obtain include:

  • The Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS)

  • The Association of Clinical Research Professionals (ACRP) Certification

  • Office of National Statistics (ONS) Accredited Researcher

8. Create a CV that summarises your research experience

A well-presented, concise research assistant CV can help make you an attractive candidate for roles. Use your CV to show that your qualifications, skills and experience make you the ideal candidate for the research roles you're applying for. If you apply for international jobs, ensure you include your citizenship and eligibility to work so that employers know they can consider you for the role.

Related: Hard and soft research assistant skills employers look for

9. Write a cover letter

Set aside time to create a brief and impactful cover letter you can forward to recruiters alongside your CV. You can tailor your cover letter to the job descriptions of the advertised positions you want to apply for. A cover letter for a research assistant usually includes the following:

  • your primary qualifications and experience

  • your area of interest or speciality

  • key technical skills qualified by examples of when and where you've used them

  • what appeals to you about the job you're applying for

  • a summary sentence explaining that you're the strongest candidate for this research position

10. Apply to research positions

Once you've decided on the area of research or sector you want to work in, look for suitable research positions. If you're studying at a master's or PhD level, you may be able to apply for work within your department to pursue your existing research interests. You can also find research assistant jobs in the following ways:

  • undertaking an online job search

  • visiting careers fairs

  • attending graduate recruitment events

  • contacting the careers service at your university

  • approaching the HR departments of leading companies

11. Develop interview and presentation skills

Employers often expect research assistants to present their work to their teams, students or delegates at conferences. Invest time in developing these key skills by practising interview questions for confident delivery. Because of the importance of presentation skills, employers seek to identify candidates who can confidently present and explain ideas during interviews.

Related: Research assistant interview questions and example answers

12. Network

Once you've secured a research assistant role, reach out to colleagues in your field. Networking is key to research because collaboration between professionals is important to scientific discoveries. You can make valuable professional contacts for your research career at conferences, training sessions, inter-departmental meetings and dedicated networking events.

13. Seek mentoring relationships

Building mentoring relationships with senior colleagues can help you plan your career. These supportive professional relationships can help you identify areas to develop, strengthen your skills and increase your confidence in your role. Senior researchers and academics can share insights from their experience and direct you to opportunities that may help you progress professionally.

Where do research assistants work?

The work of a research assistant is diverse, much like the projects they work on. Research assistants can work within universities or research centres or join private organisations and companies. They may be in a laboratory or library or undertake field studies in remote or overseas locations. You can build certain skills or get certifications or security clearances to work in particular fields of study.

Research assistant duties

The type of project a research assistant works on determines the specific day-to-day duties of the job. The duties of a research assistant may also change throughout the course of a project. Here are some typical responsibilities of a research assistant:

  • researching available research grants and funding

  • developing proposals for research funding

  • developing research project methodology and protocols

  • collecting, collating and storing data

  • undertaking statistical analysis of data

  • teaching and supervising undergraduates

  • organising and running experiments in a laboratory

  • managing the laboratory inventory and replenishing reagents

  • reading and reviewing research papers written by other teams

Related: Quantitative vs qualitative research: types and uses

Key skills of research assistants

Research assistants have a potentially demanding role that uses many skills. Research assistants build key skills throughout their careers because they work on many projects. Here are the key soft skills of a research assistant:

Organisational skills

Research assistants develop a systematic approach to tasks that helps them achieve consistent results in their work. In a busy and varied role such as this, a research assistant carefully coordinates their research, teaching and administrative work so that they complete their tasks promptly. The rest of the research team may also rely on the assistant to keep a laboratory or library tidy and organised.

Analytical skills

Employers also expect research assistants to analyse the quantitative and qualitative data that they help collect. This uses strong analytical skills and knowledge of statistics. The investigator or funding body may expect research assistants to present and answer questions on data that they wish to understand further.

Critical thinking and problem-solving skills

During a research project, a research team may encounter setbacks and challenges. Critical thinking can help a research assistant find the most effective methods for completing tasks. Research assistants also use problem-solving skills to help solve problems and balance their assignments and projects.

Please note that none of the companies, institutions or organisations mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.


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