Using Research Assistants Effectively: In Search of Best Practices

I have been very luck to have a wonderful group of student RAs working for me over the years. I am curious to know, however, whether I am using or selecting them as well as I could. Let me address use first and selection thereafter.

Use: I primarily use my RAs for five kinds of tasks:

(1) Search and Record: Before I write on a subject I’ll task an RA (usually two working separately) to find out what has been written on the subject in legal, medical or philosophical literatures and summarize it in a memo. I’ll usually make these constrained in one way or another to avoid making it like that dreaded law firm memo assignment of find out the law in every state on broad topic X. I will tell them to start by finding what has been written in the last _  years, or what gets cited the most, and/or limiting them to 10 hrs of work.

(2) Footnote follow-up: There may be a smaller point I make in a paper that I want to chase down and ask an RA to find out what is out there. For example, update estimates I have from 1995 about the cost of including coverage for In Vitro Fertilization in health insurance, by seeing if there are more recent estimates.

(3) Typo and grammar check: I am a believer that the more eyes the better in getting out the last few glitches in an article, so I will assign several RAs to pore over the paper at the sentence level when I am close to ready to sending it out.

(4) Shortening: At some point I am so close to my own work that I have trouble cutting out the last two or three thousand words to get it to the right size. I usually have the students try and cut a larger set of words through track changes and then I’ll go back and take only some of them their changes. I’ve had mixed results with this particular task, but that may just be because I am verbose and find cutting so hard.

(5) Course materials prep: When moving to a new edition of my textbook or otherwise changing my course materials I’ll often have an RA take a first crack at updating my syllabus and giving me a report on anything that’s been cut out that I usually teach, as well as altering page numbers.

What kinds of tasks am I missing from the list that I should start using RAs for?

Selecting RAs: I have used multiple streams to get RAs. Sometimes it is students who come up to me sua sponte and ask me to RA. I find this kind of initative and interest promising (and perhaps maybe showing flaws in my character, flattering?) If I have students who I tend to think would be good to work for me based on conversations after class or during office hours, at the end of the semester I may ask them to RA. Usually I make these choices based on how much I think I get along with them rather than their grades, though there is often some overlap.

I have on occasion used a different method of just submitting an announcement seeking RAs to our online clearinghouse for announcements.  In these cases, I review credentials (including grades and journal participation) as well as follow-up on the experience of other Profs they have RAed for by asking my colleagues.  Occasionally I will seek RAs that have specific skill sets (econometric, survey design, philosophical background) and will note that in the announcement, or ask colleagues in other faculties to recommend people.

Finally, I evaluate the work of my RAs and tend to steer more work (or even steer successive work at all) to the ones who provide me work of high quality in a timely matter.  I try to provide some feedback to them as I go, but often the tasks are bland or one-off enough that there is not that much meaningful I can say.

One thing I have been thinking about (no doubt because I am someone who works in bioethics and thus am obsessed with questions of allocational justice) is whether I should view RAing for me as a kind of honorific or scarce good that I ought to be more impartiality/justice focused in the way I dole it out?  Like many profs I am usually able to write better letters of recommendations for my RAs than students whose work I know less well, so the notion is not ridiculous. Do I have biases in who I “get along with” along gender, race, ideology lines (I hope not, but if I did would I know?) If so, do I have an obligation to try and correct them?

I would love to hear how others select their RAs and how it has worked out for them.

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2 Responses

  1. anon says:

    Why do you check for grades? You teach at HLS — everyone is smart.

    But I’m a law professor hopeful, and I don’t know if I could ask people to do any substantive research for me. I learn a lot just by researching and see things I need that no one else could possibly know. I hate bluebooking though so I would definitely have RAs do that for me.

  2. David Young-Cheol says:

    Prof. Cohen,

    Your posting is helpful to me as I am still adjusting myself to life at a law school in Korea. I used to practice law in Chicago and Seoul. I would like to know how much is the typical amount for student RAs in the States. Although Korea is different from US, that figure would help me to decide the amount that I ought to consider in Korea.

    Best