Research Assistant: Career and Salary Facts

Explore the career requirements for research assistants. Get the facts about professional and education requirements job duties and salary to determine if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Business degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Is A Research Assistant?

Research assistants perform in research experiments. They use experiments to gather data, which they then record and interpret. Once an experiment is complete they write reports, which may be published. They can assist with social science experiments or work in the physical sciences field. For example, biological technicians are laboratory research assistants who conduct biological tests. A bachelor's degree is required to be a research assistant, although a master's degree is preferred and may increase job prospects. Those interested in becoming biological technicians should pursue opportunities to gain laboratory experience, and since research experience is also something employers prefer, all aspiring research assistants should consider degree programs that may offer an internship or practicum in research.

Degree Required Bachelor's degree, master's degree preferred
Education Field of Study Field of study should reflect research field
Training Required Some employers prefer prior research experience
Key Responsibilities Collect data on subjects in the social/behavioral and natural/physical sciences, may conduct lab experiments, perform literature or Internet searches, work closely alongside scientists, physicians or other researchers
Job Growth (2014-2024) 6% (for all social science research assistants)*
5% (for all biological technicians)*
Median Salary (2015) $42,480 (for all social science research assistants)*
$41,650 (for all biological technicians)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Does a Research Assistant Do?

Research assistants collect data on particular subjects in the social/behavioral and natural/physical sciences, such as psychology, anthropology or medicine. As a research assistant, you'll typically work for a college or university, though you could also find employment with a medical facility, government agency or scientific research service. You'll work closely alongside scientists, physicians or other researchers in the effort to execute and extract information from research projects.

Depending on your position, you may conduct lab experiments, perform literature or Internet searches, collect information from research subjects or conduct surveys. You might also format the data for analysis by your project supervisor, or you may analyze data and statistics on your own. Some research assistants detail their findings in reports, which are submitted for publication to one or more peer-reviewed academic journals.

What Are the Requirements?

According to July 2012 CareerBuilder.com job listings for research assistants, employers tend to require that applicants have at least a bachelor's degree in the field being researched or in a field that's closely related to it; however, graduate degree holders are preferred. Additionally, employers may prefer that you have some experience in a research setting. Other qualities you'll need for this career include interpersonal skills for working with other researchers and supervisors, computer proficiency (including familiarity with statistical analysis software) and excellent organizational skills.

Note that some colleges and universities offer research assistant positions specifically for their undergraduate and graduate students. These are generally temporary, part-time positions available to students enrolled in a degree program with the department that conducts the research. Student research assistants may earn college credit for their work and may be paid hourly wages through departmental funding.

How Much Can I Earn?

In 2014, the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources reported median annual salaries for research assistants employed by institutions that grant associate's through doctoral degrees. Earnings varied by field and level of institution of employment. Research assistants working in the physical sciences at institutions that grant bachelor's degrees earned $39,634, while those at working at universities granting doctoral degrees earned $45,002, and those at research universities earned $35,402. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of May 2015 the mean salary for a social science research assistant was $45,760. Those who worked in scientific research and development services averaged $50,710 per year, and those in specialties other than psychiatric and substance abuse hospitals earned the highest average income, with a mean annual salary of $64,550.

How Can I Advance My Career?

Career advancement in research most often depends on your level of education and years of experience as a research assistant. You can enter the profession with only a bachelor's degree and, as you gain experience, move up to a mid-level position that allows you to take on more complex research tasks. Senior-level positions often require you to have up to five years of experience in research assistance and a master's degree. As a senior research assistant, you'll oversee research projects and supervise lower-level assistants. If you hope to one day hold a supervisory position in research and conduct your own studies, you may benefit from earning a doctoral degree, obtaining extensive research experience and getting published in academic outlets.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Chemical technicians, forensic science technicians and medical and clinical laboratory technologists and technicians all perform tasks that are comparable to the work of research assistants such as biological technicians. Chemical technicians need an associate's degree, and their research is used to test chemical processes and products. Forensic science technicians perform tests on evidence from crime scenes. They work in laboratories, and like research assistants they must document their findings in reports. A bachelor's degree is required to be a forensic science technician. A bachelor's degree is also required to be a medical and clinical laboratory technologist. Medical and clinical laboratory technicians need an associate's degree. Medical and clinical laboratory technicians and technologists perform tests, analyze their results and write reports.

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