graduate research assistant guide

Graduate Research Assistant = 50% Perseverance, 30% University Specific and 20% (Guess?)

Raghuram Sukumar Student Stories 3 Comments

I’m part of the former, a Graduate Student in Civil Engineering at Iowa State University. I’ve been going through this blog, and while it’s a treasure chest of info, I think it needs another little piece of know-how on being a Graduate Research Assistant.

Many students who come to the U.S. look frantically for an assistantship. Some current students might be looking to make their Research Assistant (RA) experience a more pleasant one while others might be looking to get a new assistantship with new professors, either because things didn’t work out with their old advisers, or because their advisers ran out of money. So I’m answering three questions here:

  • First: How do I get the RA?
  • Second: How do I keep it?
  • Third: What happens if I lose it?

How do I get the Graduate Research Assistant?

Getting an RA is 50% perseverance, 30% university based, and 20% luck.

I’ll start with the 30%.

Most universities in the U.S. (The top 50 at least) are highly competitive. There are also those with high intakes of international students. There is some truth to the fact that some universities might not be that liberal with funding, or that they choose to give it to Ph.D.’s first.

Here at Iowa State University, 56% of MS students are funded. That number jumps to around 84% for Ph.D.’s.

Other universities tend to be worse, with many Master’s Degree students having not been funded. You can contact students who are already at the university to learn more about how easy or hard it is to receive funding.

Let’s move on to the 20% luck.

Sometimes you just might get lucky because the area in which you are interested has available funding with the professor you like.

This is the lucky bit. Sometimes a professor might not want to take on new students. In my batch, 50% of my batch mates in Civil Engineering got funding for the Fall ‘14 intake. That number shot to 70% this fall (‘15). That’s the 20% luck.

Now for the 50% perseverance.

No matter what current students may tell you on Facebook when you message them about RA opportunities, and no matter how bad they say the funding scenario is, if you are a good fit for a professor, he will find a way to support you.

This could mean working free for a semester, which is worth it. Again, you need to be specific.

Only mailing every professor in the department for opportunities just because you want the cash will get you nowhere.

Shortlist about 2 or 3 professors whose work you like, and persist with them. Ask them if there are small parts of projects you can work on for free. They might not pay you at once, but hard work does pay off. Over time, they will surely keep you in mind for future work.

How do I keep the RA?

So you have bagged yourself an RA? Fantastic. Enjoy the feeling of financial independence and give yourself a treat. However, don’t let the hangover make you lazy.

Being an RA is no simple job. It requires dedication, hard work, and attention to detail. It calls for being proactive in your work. It is a big step up from what you’re used to dishing out to your professors in India. The professors here are particular about the fine details. Here are a few points for making the best of your RA:

1. Never procrastinate. If your professor gives you a task, make sure that you work on it bit by bit, and not keep it all for the end. That reflects badly on your management skills and leads to stress.

2. Be creative. Read papers on the topics of study before meetings. Attend meetings, be well-prepared and have presentations of weekly progress.

3. Manage your time efficiently. You cannot give your professor the excuse that you had a Monday assignment due, and that was the reason you did not work on that review paper over the weekend.

4. NEVER, and I repeat, NEVER fabricate results to please your Professor. They are smarter than you think, and even if they don’t catch it now, they will later, and you will be sorry. The same goes for plagiarism. Just don’t do it, in your research or your coursework. If your professor gets wind of it, you can be in trouble.

5. Pay attention to quality in your research. Quality control is important in the U.S. It might be considered trivial to keep a clean lab or to label everything you use, but this matters. Just because the finer details went unnoticed in India doesn’t mean that they won’t be caught here.

6. Keep your grades high. Falling into academic probation makes life hard for you and invites unnecessary scrutiny on your advisor. Coursework is a top priority, and the Graduate College will not have you sacrificed your grades so that you can keep your RA. Sooner or later, they’ll make your professor stop your RA so you can pull your grades up.

7. Maintain a business-casual relationship with your Professor. He/She won’t be as strict as Professors in India, and you should share a light moment with them when you need to. Professors here like their students to be free with them, and being too formal might make some of them uneasy. Keep in mind, though; your professor is your boss, and he needs to be given that due respect.

My Adviser is out of funds/My Adviser, and I have problems.

Let’s deal with the first scenario: Your professor is out of funds. A lot of students take this as a sign to head for the hills. They either convert to an M.Engg without a thesis and work on-campus to make ends meet, or they look for another adviser.

Both are stupid moves; Let me explain why. You working with a Professor is a win for both you and him. While you get paid, he gets work done and papers published. He also gets the added bit of recognition in graduating one more student.

So while you may feel that running away and doing an M.Engg might be good for you, it’s not good for your Professor. Why should you care? Because relationships in the U.S. are based on trust. Once that is lost, it’s hard to earn it back.

Your Professor has spent money and effort on you. Unless the reasons are extenuating, you SHOULD stick with him because if he does get funding further down the line, you can bet your horse that he won’t give it to you if you walked away from him. Most people don’t get this and run to where the grass looks greener.

I stuck with my professor (I wrote about this in another article here), unfunded, for the entire summer, and was even willing to work unfunded in the fall, when he finally gave me a project. As it turns out, he moved heaven and earth and requested another professor to give him a project for me, a sign that my trust in him had paid off. So, unless you absolutely must, do not ditch your advisor. And if you simply have to, be sure to let him know why. Be honest. And by now, I’m assuming you understand that “You are not paying me” is not an excuse.

But say your relationship with your professor has gone sour. I’ve seen this happen. Things fall apart sometimes. You turn in a paper late, and he/she gets mad. You might be reprimanded and lose funding for the next semester. Still, that is not a reason to change professors.

You need to remember that an M.S. is 90% perseverance and 10% intelligence. If not for this,  you would not be at the university you are at. That 90% perseverance means you need to get up and clean up your act if you fall short.

Work for free and win back their trust. 99% of the cases, they should take you back on. In the above two scenarios, it is imperative that you give 100% of your effort to your research. Working a part-time job on-campus is a strict no, unless you simply have to make ends meet. Look at the time put into research as an investment.

However, there might be a scenario where the Professor is genuinely a pain and simply cannot be reasoned with.

Let’s say that you and he have some irreparable differences, and working with him further will mean stress and anguish for you. In that scenario, talk to the DOGE (Director of Graduate Studies) at your department BEFORE you decide to take any action.

Usually, he will try to sort out the differences, and if that doesn’t work out, at least he will know that your cause for a switch is genuine. I have heard of people who changed adviser’s and had to transfer schools simply because no one else would take them on. Talking it out with someone higher up will send out a message that you are not solely at fault for the split.

So there you go. I put this together rather hastily because finals are coming soon, and I’ll need to get back to work.

Good luck to all those applying for the Fall ‘16 semester. Safe travels to all those coming to the U.S. Stay warm to all those who are already here. And to all of you, a Merry Christmas, and have a great holiday season.

Author: Following article was written by Graduate student, Irvin Pinto from Iowa State University. 


  1. Just to add to this wonderful article, there is always a number of opportunities that students should look out for in the form of non- academic graduate assistantships. Getting an academic assistantship (RA/ TA) definitely has an added advantage as you might get real world exposure but students should work and keep on trying for any kind of GA for that matter as it is going to take care of their tuition and expenses! For example, my department here at UALR never gets much funding to sponsor GAs. Most of the graduate students work as a non- academic GA in departments like IT Services, health services, etc. All the best to all the prospective students!

  2. In addition to the above, GA positions (Graduate Assistantships) are also great and give you exposure to industry level work in the education sector. For instance, I was a GA at Rochester Institute of Technology with the Center for Sports and worked as a mobile app developer for the schools’s sports app.

    I am currently working for ESPN on their Mobile App Dev team and I got this job solely based on my GA experience. So you never know what conjures in the end. Keep your eyes open for all opportunities and work hard.

  3. Thank you so much of this information.
    how can I find GR ? If you know specific University(as I am a biological researcher) , would it be possible guide me?


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