Researcher development (Part 3)

In this final part of the discussion on the topic of doctoral students’ research development skills, I discuss how giving trainee researchers the opportunity to work as assistants can bring benefits to all stakeholders involved. Working as a research assistant may give doctoral students a invaluable opportunity to directly experience what others have been through before and to reflect on the importance of acquiring familiarity with a wide range of research tools during the doctoral formative years.

Such opportunities could include the inclusion of small practice windows with researchers in different departments as part of the methodology modules in the MRes programmes. For example, when studying about ethnography in a qualitative research module, students could be encouraged to look for opportunities to work as research assistants for ethnographers in their own institution or in partner-institutions. When attending a quantitative research module, students should have the opportunity to collect and process data using statistic tools in an actual piece of research using such approach. Another way of promoting such skills development could be to systematically provide principal researchers with research funds, modest as they can be in present times, to employ trainee researches to help with data collection, recording and coding.

From an individual’s point of view, the relationship between experienced researchers and student-researchers is an important aspect to take into consideration. Learning to do research demands from both flexibility in dealing with issues of time and may require some patience until the assistant manages to administrate logistic and access problems. Moreover, it requires effective communication between the parts involved as both have to make space in their diaries for short meetings and email exchanges in order to deal with incoming difficulties and doubts. When it comes to time management, it is also important to mention that the assistant has to allot some time for reading and becoming familiar with the research topic, with some basic literature on the field being investigated, and with the previous stages of the investigation.

What has to be gained by doctoral students is a greater awareness of the complexities and difficulties of using some research tools as well as the development of strategies to deal with them. Such learning process may be helpful to students’ own investigation and invaluable for their future research activities. What may be gained by experienced researchers is the opportunity of observing other trainees at work, besides the ones they are currently supervising and, by doing so, becoming able to devise better mentoring strategies to deal with future students.

From the institutional point of view, giving students the chance to have contact with a wide range of research contexts and to work with expert researchers may count positively towards their student services records and institutional evaluation. Besides that, it may foster the communication and knowledge exchange between different departments, schools and universities.