Lessons from Having a Research Assistant

Written by Laura Dumin, Ph.D. – 

During winter break 2016-2017, I began a research project that I had been talking about for years—learning about women’s relationship with breastfeeding knowledge. I asked a local International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), Ashley Barrett, for help and then I did what any novice researcher does, I dove right in without really knowing what to expect. I hoped that around 100 women would respond. Imagine my surprise when one day later I had over 1,000 responses. Within three weeks, we closed the survey with over 4,000 responses. I was flooded with a whirlwind of emotions, including crawling into a hole and pretending that I had never received this data.

I chose not to hide. Instead, I asked for a research assistant (RA). Starting in August 2017, I received money for an RA from the Office of Research & Sponsored Programs, Academic Affairs. We brought Trinni, a senior in Technical Writing, onto the project. At that point, I felt like the project was moving forward pretty nicely. But then Ashley had some life events happen that pulled her away for a time. However, Trinni and I kept moving ahead as best we could until Ashley was able to rejoin us. The entire experience to this point has been a learning process for all of us. Trinni has graduated and moved into a real-world job, but the lessons gained through this project will stay with her.

Timetables are made to be broken: Trinni came to the project with the hope of learning more about research, but she came away with so much more. This was the first large-scale research project that either of us had taken on, and we were surprised by the ways that a large project takes on a life of its own. We had plans, but the project didn’t always seem to agree with our timetables. The University allotted Trinni five hours a week to work on the project and, at the beginning of August, we thought that this would be enough (or barely enough) time to get to where we wanted to be by October. It turned out that we didn’t finish the first pass on one qualitative question until December. We were surprised to learn how long qualitative coding can take. As of this writing, the paper(s) are not yet written.

Group work and why politeness theory matters: We learned the value of flexibility and a sense of humor. We also learned that working with other people comes with its own set of challenges. Sometimes having more people involved is great because you get more ideas. Other times, having more people involved creates more places for the project to get stuck or to veer off course. We worked together to find ways of getting the project back on track and of keeping ourselves accountable for the work that needed to be done. We learned how to be diplomatic when asking for things from each other. And we learned the value of writing emails with no recipient, walking away, and then coming back to rewrite them when we were calmer.

Knowledge is good, but persistence and heart can be more important: At the beginning, Trinni knew little about breastfeeding and I knew just enough to be willing to go all-in on the project. We learned that our lack of certain types of knowledge could be overcome through research. We spent a lot of time on the internet, learning as we went. We had a passion for helping women to have access to correct breastfeeding information, and there were times when that passion was all that kept us going. Knowledge can always be gained, but if you aren’t truly invested in a project, the hard times might be enough to sideline the project.

Confidence: When we started the project, I was probably overly confident in my abilities to complete the research and the data-coding. Trinni was the opposite. This project led us to become more appropriately confident in our abilities. Trinni realized that we valued her opinions and ideas as part of the research team. She learned that she was more than just a student to us because we really worked to treat her as an equal. I learned to take a breath and talk to someone else about the issue when I hit a rough spot. Often that was enough to help set me back on the right path. For the times that it wasn’t enough, I learned to take a day (or three) and then come back again. I was reminded that eating an elephant happens one bite at a time, and I was reminded that I do know how to do research.

Stepping outside of ourselves: Finally, we learned that the research isn’t about us or our preconceived notions. We learned to be open to the voices of the women who were sharing their experiences with us and to put our own value judgments aside. We had to stay as impartial as possible.

The lessons learned from this transformative project have helped to make us stronger people and better researchers. If you are on the fence about taking on an RA, I would say, “Stop worrying and go for it.” My stumbles helped Trinni to see that I am human and to gain more confidence in her own abilities. I also gained confidence in my ability to research and persevere. And I learned that large projects are enjoyable, even with the inevitable stops and starts. This had made me more willing to take on future projects and to work with other RAs.

So what’s stopping you from requesting an RA? Funding, time, lack of confidence in in supervising a student? Post your answers to these questions in the comments and perhaps our community can give some resources or encouragement.

Search for “Dumin, Breastfeeding” in the coming months to hopefully read more about our study and the results.

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