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What to do with an RA?

I was at a conference this summer, catching up with a colleague and admiring her new iPad, on which she was studiously taking notes. “Thanks,” she said, “I just bought it with my grant!” It turns out we both won our very first SSHRC SRGs this year and were wrapping our heads around what it meant to do this research, with tens of new thousands of dollars. We were at something of a loss.


I know at my institution we are vigorously prodded, as soon as we arrive, to secure “external funding” for our research. And in the humanities, particularly, we are sometimes skeptical: I myself have asked, “What the hell do I need $50,000 for? I read books and then write articles about them, in my pajamas.” But external funding must be sought, for the good of the institution and its reputation. We are also told it is for the good of our students: a SSHRC-funded RA goes for about $15,000 a year, good money and at the disposal of the funding department, amazing! Funding for grad students is often the biggest line item in a humanities SSHRC. 78% of my own SSHRC grant, for example, is straight RA funding.

Now, the problem, fairly common if I am to judge from my hallway conversations in institutions near and far, is “What the hell do I do with a grad student?”

No one teaches us this. As a PhD student, your job is to get it all done, all by yourself, bothering as few people as possible, and on a shoestring budget. And now you have staff? Many of us draw on our own experience of being RAs to cobble something together: photocopying? re-typing someone’s book? avoiding hallway run-ins for 8 months and just cashing the cheques? SSHRC stipulates that the work a grad student does shouldn’t be simply clerical or menial, but if you’re in the humanities it can be really hard to imagine what elements of your research you can offload onto an RA.

I have some ideas, having had three RAs over the past four years. (And let me just thank them right now, for their wonderful work and great patience with my figuring all this out: thanks RC, DM, and LB).

Straight up research:

  • I have my RAs build Zotero databases of research materials, in my general area. They organize all the citations into categories I leave them free to devise. They create keywords and folders, they attach PDFs where they can, snapshots where they can’t. I pay them to learn Zotero, and to consult with librarians about where and how to find sources. I could teach them this, but isn’t the point to free up my time? We both win from this: they get research training in bibliographic software, and in advanced library work, and hopefully the subject matter is in their area.
  • I have them try to solve specific questions: “I am writing,” (I say) “something about the rural/urban digital divide, which I know exists but I need some good, recent sources to back me up.” And they find it. So I very rarely now ever go check my own facts while I’m drafting stuff. I’m not making stuff up, I’m just failing to be scrupulously precise while I’m freewriting, and my RAs help me move to the next stage of more careful writing.


  • There is sometimes some filing and photocopying. Not much, though. Some physical bringing stuff to and from the library, ordering interlibrary loans, etc.


  • I have regular (bi-weekly, usually) meetings with my RAs. We talk about the kinds of tasks involved in scholarly work: journal publication, original research, conference presentation or conference organization, grant applications. By describing as well as modelling the rhythms and processes of scholarship, I hope to demystify them for my RA, as well as get someone to help me.
  • My RA reads my grant applications, both to know what our project is about, and to know what a grant application looks like.
  • Sometimes, I give my RA an early draft of an article or chapter to read: this both helps them know what kind of research I need them to do, and it shows them that first drafts by professional writers are in fact pretty awful misspelled misbegotten poorly conceived simplistic and half-assed things. 
  • At these meetings I also encourage my RA to bring to me any questions they have about their own conferences or research process or journal submission. 

Document preparation:

  • I work in an interdisciplinary field: this is great but one side effect is every goddamned journal has a different referencing system. My RA cleans up / regularizes all my in-text citations/footnotes and reference lists. Untold hours are saved by me this way, and the RA learns that details matter as well as how to do all the systems and how each journal usually has its own style rules and how to find them. 
  • Lately, I’ve been having my RA be a pair of eyes on my pre-submission work: he or she reads my manuscript and leaves me comments. I explicitly ask to have repetitive phrases flagged, or other quirks pointed out. My RA doesn’t change my prose, ever, but does comments in the margins, and then I change stuff.
  • Sometimes, my RA helps with the page-proofs stage: I pretty much have my articles memorized by this point in the process and can very easily miss the kinds of simple typos and errors that the proof-reading stage is meant to check for.

Disciplinary service:

  • My current RA just helped one of my colleagues with a major conference running here, doing up the program and working the registration desk … and going to talks and meeting people.
  • We’re hosting Congress this year, so I imagine there’ll be more of that kind of work.

That’s pretty much what I’ve got. Honestly, sometimes I feel like I have to work harder on my research just to generate enough stuff to keep my RA busy, but that’s okay. And I really, really like offloading citations, library work, and documents preparation: I always hated that stuff, and now I actually write more because I don’t have to do it. I really like getting to know these junior scholars, and collaborating with them: they bring me great stuff, and I hope that some of this work is valuable to them, and that seeing my own scholarship “behind the scenes” is in a way valuable as they become scholars in their own right.

So. It’s weird to suddenly have an RA and be a ‘boss’, but it can be really really helpful to advance the research, and a benefit to the student too.

What do you do with your RA, if you have one? If you were an RA, what did you do? I’d love to hear more about how this arrangement is managed by others.

7 thoughts on “What to do with an RA?

  1. Those are all FANTASTIC things to do with an RA.

    Here's another suggestions (developed from my involvement in the SSHRC transformation consultations, esp a meeting we had with a biologist).

    Your SSHRC grant funds your PROGRAM of research. There are lots of pieces in there. You don't personally have to make every small contribution to knowledge under that big objective.

    If there are discreet projects that would make good MA theses, you can fund an MA stipend instead of hourly work. Supervise that work. Having a list of MA projects to offer students is not a bad thing. You can then work out authorship issues and whether their research contributes to a bigger thing you are doing (for which you acknowledge their research in your publications).

    Basically, don't think of your SSHRC funded research as about funding just you. Think of your program of research as including all that training and professional development. It might also mean thinking of graduate research as something one does in community rather than alone without bothering anyone. This is compatible with intellectual autonomy.


  2. As a digital humanist like yourself, I work collaboratively with my RAs on my DH project. I've had two different RAs the past two semesters. One was good with Adobe InDesign, one with Adobe Photoshop. Each has a better eye for aesthetic design than I do and knows Adobe software better than I do (I have really lucked in!). We meet in the new DH faculty research lab, sit down together, and are working in Adobe on designing a logo, splash page, and content page template for my website project which we'll eventually convert to CSS. It's fun to spend a couple hours a week working collaboratively, and I'm learning Adobe tips and tricks from my RA. Next, we're going to work on what tags I'll need in an XSD schema to tag my texts, and then we'll both work on tagging texts in where our roles will flip around again and I'll be teaching my RA about editing and attention to detail. Along the way, we're adding modules and figuring out Drupal together. In contrast to the traditional solitary model of working on a book, having a RA to work with on my DH project is truly a pleasure. Has anyone ever completed a DH project without RAs? I simply can't imagine it.


  3. Frequent reader, infrequent commenter – but here I am.

    As an RA in the Humanities (Sociology, Women's Studies, and now Law) I've done all those things, plus some “ghost-writing” (mainly of reports, but sometimes also of first drafts of articles). The bane of my existence of being an RA is cleaning up citations – but I recognize the importance of doing it, and I have learned both things suggested above.

    I've also been fortunate enough to do some data gathering in the form of interviews, but the worst part about all of that was transcribing that stuff!


  4. JoVE: Wow! There's a lot for me to think about in that comment. I sense a paradigm shift coming. It's percolating right now, like a buzzing in my head. So I'm going to take some time to think about what you've written. FAscinating.

    Pantagruelle: I didn't mention it, but the only RA I've ever worked was as an MA student, on the Orlando Project, a major text encoding / writing initiative. Of course, DH and RA go together like peanut butter and toast. And funny, but that made it almost harder for me to think what an RA might do for my more standard humanities prof project. My postdoc with Orlando consisted in large part of just supervising the content production of something like 10 RAs on two campuses. That doesn't really match most humanities projects.

    Mia: how lovely to hear from you! I guess no one likes doing citations, huh? Data gathering sounds interesting: I might have my own RA do some content analysis, but that kind of work is definitely more common on the social sciences side, and not so common in the humanities.


  5. I think JoVE has hit the nail on the head … one of the ongoing problems at my institution is getting the central admin to cotton to the fact that while in natural sciences, e.g., a team of grad students speeds up a research project (beakers to wash, experiments to babysit overnight, different expectations for when co-authorship is appropriate, etc.), in humanities it's more like every grad student you supervise slows you down. [So, e.g., if someone wins an external grant that the university matches, central admin will say that matching money can only be used to fund more RAs. If we can't figure out what to do with one per term, what are we going to do with three or four?] The approach JoVE suggests is one of the only ways I've ever figured out that gets around the problem.


  6. Aimée – I guess I mistakenly conflated the social sciences with humanities. Data gathering is great, and it was always a great change from the usual stuff that you've mentioned – even a little goes a long way! Good luck with figuring out what to do with your RA.


  7. I just finished my MA and because of a connection I made at a conference I ended up being hired on as an RA. My job basically consists of co-authoring publications, doing research, and handling the submission, revision, and resubmission process. I have minimal contact with my boss, but I run paper ideas passed her. We are currently looking through CFPS for congress to submit a proposal for a co-authored/co-presented paper. It works out well for me because of the research experience and second author credit–but the main benefit consists of learning how to navigate the intricacies of publishing and handling peer-reviews.


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