The 3 Invaluable Documents to Improve Your Research Assistant’s Productivity

You just hired a new research assistant to participate in your research project. They will help you with a literature review. They’re also probably motivated to use some of the results for school work or a thesis.

Now, can you trust them to do the work?  Do they see it as a learning experience?  Are your expectations clear?

Here we’ll go over three resource documents you can use to define and track the progress on the project with your RA. By using these documents as templates at the start of your research project, you will improve your research assistant’s productivity and ensure a more successful project.

The 3 Invaluable Documents to Improve Your Research Assistant's Productivity

These documents will help you do the following:

  • Setting clear expectations for you and your RA
  • Engaging them in the planning process
  • Reporting progress and providing feedback formally

1. A background document

See this as the project’s syllabus. It covers the basics of the project, including its objectives and timeline, and acts as a first line resource for a new research assistant. It should be much shorter than the background document or the scope of work provided to the project’s sponsor and other stakeholders.

What should be in the background document for your research assistant:


1. A summary paragraph of the project

First, the gap or issue the project responds to: Why are we doing this?

Next, the context in which it takes place: Where in the world / in this field of study?  Who else works on this issue?

Then, the overall objectives and the researchers’ approach: How do we tackle this gap / issue?


2. Overall and specific objectives

The overall objectives can simply repeat, in point form, how the project will respond to a gap in the scientific knowledge or to a real-world issue. Under that, there should be a few specific objectives with concrete (measurable) outputs.

  Specific objectives must be SMART:

  • Specific: they don’t overlap
  • Measurable: they yield concrete outputs
  • Achievable: they can realistically be done with the defined timeline and resources
  • Results-focused: you can evaluate progress made and how well it was accomplished
  • Time-bound: they have an end time

Leave some space for additional specific objectives for the RA to suggest. They may want to use some of the data for their own school work or thesis, or get trained on a specific type of analysis while working for you. This is the best way to engage them and for you to know that they’ll gain something concrete out of it.


3. You and your RA’s expectations

You and your research assistant should discuss two main types of expectations:

First, what needs to be done and when. The document should define what outputs are expected (e.g., 10 pages report, presentation) and what is the timeline. If you would like a first outline a few weeks before the final report, you should mention it here.

Reciprocally, ask your RA if they expect any specific outputs from their contribution to the project. Note if part of the analysis done for the project is the main focus of a capstone or school paper. It would be great to offer your help to review a draft.

Second, in what way and how often you want to communicate. By email?  In person?  Every two weeks?  Discuss with your RA what suits your needs for managing the project and their schedule.


4. Contact information

Provide your office address, your email and a Skype ID / phone number for quick questions (I prefer that – much less hassle than emailing).


2. A project management tool

Now, you’ll need to define the timelines for the project and how to keep track of it.

A project management tool can do the trick with tasks, levels of completion and timelines, while letting its users update it as the project goes on. Just share how you want their updates to be reported.

If you don’t want to learn any new software: have you considered Modus Operandi?

OK, fine. A bit of shameless self promotion here. But your research assistant will find it useful to see and track their overall commitment and contribution to the project. Especially as you arrange timelines around exam periods.

You may also not need anything complicated, you may even build your own tool!


3. Templates for the work they are doing

It’s no short of maddening to be expected to perform any rigorous (or better, “systematic”) academic work without clear templates or laid-out objectives on what data is expected to be ultimately extracted and analyzed.

So, give your research assistant templates to work with: a screening spreadsheet, an example of report, related articles that can serve as reference for developing a manuscript…

If you use EndNote to manage your references, you might find this custom output style, translating a list of EndNote references into Excel, quite useful.


When and how to provide them

When you first bring on a student or research assistant, take an hour to understand the student’s goals and use the background document to structure the meeting. The background document is the first meeting.

I typically leave blank space under “Expectations” to add what the student brings to the table by hand so it’s a living document.

I put these three documents in one Dropbox folder, separately from all the other documents used in the project so my research assistant and I can easily refer to them.