Considering applying for a job as a student assistant at my university, I was desperately seeking for an article or any kind of information about the duties, tasks and challenges in that position.
Despite an only vague idea and limited understanding of what could await me, I applied and got the job. Now, with an eight month working experience I would like to unveil the more or less hidden secret of student assistants and to provide an insight into the everyday life of a “professor’s brownie”.
First of all I would like to mention that since student assistants commonly work for only one professor, tasks as well as the range of responsibilities vary. Your job is to support your professor academically, in any form whatsoever. Therefore, this article depicts only an example of a daily routine performed by a student assistant working in the disciplines of social science and humanities. However, I hope my experiences contribute to a wider impression and maybe obtain clarity for those who are thinking about entering the academic food chain.
“So, what exactly do you do?”
In trying to answer that question – way too often heard to reply in the same boring and memorised way – I have developed a range of answers over the last few months. “Well, basically you are doing everything your professor does not want to do” is my humorous response delivered with a wink and mischievous smile. But to finally provide an informative reply, most of the time I am looking at the current state of research and researching or obtaining scientific literature and statistics. On that point, I am spending a lot of time working with databases, going to the library and trying to comprehend research papers as fast as possible in order to pre-select and offer something that might become the fundamental basis of future research and lectures. No pressure!
Further tasks are proofreading, organising literature, creating reference files and projects, complementing bibliographies, quoting, photocopying, scanning and in rare cases translation work.
Moreover, and referring to the previously mentioned comparison with mythical creatures named brownies, student assistants do a lot of work that is often imperceptible and almost invisible for an outside observer. To name just a few: organising, communicating and maintaining an overview of (return-)deadlines and the body of literature.
Is it the right position for me?
As in any profession, there are some requirements and desirable abilities that are important, helpful and some even imperative to have. Based on these, the following questions can help to work out if the job is right for you:
- Are you stress-resistant?
- Can you multi-task, organise and communicate in a team?
- When considering your current life situation, can you afford to work intensively on maybe a different topic or research area and maybe work more hours than you get paid for?
- Are you good at carrying books?
- Are you prepared and educated enough to support the research process?
- Are you interested in the research area the academic you would work for is focusing on?
What's more, I advise you to gather concrete information about the area of responsibilities in advance. Ask at the secretary’s office, your department, and particularly for experience reports from current or former student assistants. You will get the opportunity to ask at an interview, when they will ask you "Do you have any questions for us?”. If you are not asked that question you can take the initiative as a last resort; preferably at the very end.
The perks of being a student assistant
It goes without saying that employment as a student assistant can have tremendous advantages and benefits. Nine months ago I realised that this view was already widespread; the amount of applicants mirrored the interest in that obviously coveted position. So let us have a closer look on the dreams, hopes and realities associated with this job.
First thing's first: As an (undergraduate) student, you cannot really get a better position or actually a position in the academic sector at this certain point of your education. Especially when considering an academic career, work experiences as well as networking are advantageous. Further perks are:
- Valuable insights into the everyday life of academics, researchers, scientists, lecturers, PhD candidates and secretaries. These insights are limited to some extent due to fewer working hours as a student assistant. Nevertheless, you get an idea what it is like and what they do. This might contribute to casting off the rose-coloured glasses and seriously reflect on whether it is the true path for you. Moreover, it broadens your horizon and leads to a better understanding of the effort and energy everyone puts in. This again helps you to appreciate university and your privileged position as a student even more.
- At this early stage in your academic career it can only be considered helpful to know the rules. What do I mean by that? In every institution unspoken rules dominate behaviour. Some name it “internal socialisation” and others would say you are developing a certain “habitus” (referring to Pierre Bourdieu). This enables you to freely move in the field of academia. Feeling safe to address academics or dignitaries, talking to them, discussing and exchanging ideas, all of this becomes possible.
- Being present and known at your department may reveal itself as a “professional springboard”.
- Since your job is to support the research process, you are in ongoing academic training, updated in the current stage of research and you are very likely to acquire new knowledge as well as guidance by professionals.
- Lastly, being needed and feeling important and valuable is a marvellous feeling and very satisfying.
Before I finish, I wish to emphasise how grateful I am to experience working as a student assistant and that I am able to pass on my knowledge and experience. I was warmly welcomed in my team from the very first day and although I am working under time pressure and carrying many responsibilities I personally think it is absolutely worth it!
However, this cannot be taken for granted and the job might not be right for everyone. I personally think that because it demands and asks much of you, the position of a student assistant polarises people, so you can tell quickly whether you like it or not.
Some final words: Take action, do not be ashamed to ask for further information or to talk to professors, know about your aims in life but also dare to question these. Maybe you will find yourself in the position of a student assistant one day, maybe not. But do not only do it for the benefits in the future. The most important thing is that it suits you! It is your first contact with academia and this one should be pleasant. At least that is what I wish for you.