Insights From a Survey of Research Associates/Assistants in Economics and Development in India

Prashansa Srivastava & Anahita Karandikar

Research Associate or Research Assistant roles (RA) have become increasingly common and sought o ut. They are often considered gateways to Ph.D. or master’s programs. However, information on these opportunities — how to get them and what they entail — is typically passed only through informal networks. To make information on RA roles more transparent and accessible, we surveyed 156 current and former RAs working in the economics or development sectors in India. The survey was conducted from January 24, 2021, to February 21, 2021. We shared the survey over e-mail, WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn using our personal accounts. Our respondents comprised current or former RAs from 56 different academic and non-academic institutions in India. Though we cannot claim that our sample is representative, we argue it provides the best overview to date of individuals in RA roles in the economics or development sectors in India. The respondents in our study work at institutions such as Brookings India/CSEP, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi School of Economics, EPIC-India, Good Business Lab, IDinsight, IFMR Lead at Krea University, Indian Statistical Institute, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Innovations for Poverty Action, International Food Policy Research Institute, J-PAL South Asia, Observer Research Foundation, Oxford Policy Management, and Pratham Education Foundation.

Demographic Background

In this study, one of our goals was to understand who is getting RA positions. Most RAs in our sample are Indian citizens who belong to the “General” caste category and identify as Hindus. The graphs below show the distribution of responses to questions about caste and religion. Further, 96.1% of our respondents come from families where parents have attained at least an undergraduate degree. This is nearly four times the Gross Enrollment Rate in higher education in India, which was 24.5% for the years 2015–16 (Government of India, 2018). This data makes a strong case for taking active steps such as affirmative action to increase the representation of people from historically marginalized or oppressed backgrounds.

Respondents’ Religion and Caste

Current Institution Characteristics

Our respondents are primarily employed full-time (5.8% of responses are from RAs engaged in part-time roles). Most of our sample (71.2%) is employed in organizations that are classified as “academic” (primarily, universities and research labs). The average duration of RA roles is 1.78 years, so most RAs appear to spend between one and a half to two years before moving on to graduate studies or other professional pursuits. Respondents from our sample work out of various locations. The map below shows this distribution.

Academic Background

All respondents have an undergraduate degree. Economics is the most common undergraduate major (72.44%), followed by engineering (9.62%), and business or commerce (5.13%). Mathematics (17.3%) and statistics (16.0%) are the most commonly chosen undergraduate minors. Additionally, 77.56% also hold a master’s degree, and a much larger share (39.67% — nearly four times the rate for undergraduate studies) complete their master’s from foreign universities. Once again, economics (59.61%) is the most common graduate field of study, followed by public policy and governance (10.1%), and development studies (8.4%).

To understand the additional skills and experience applicants have before starting as RAs, we obtain information about courses taken outside of undergraduate and graduate coursework, experience with statistical tools and programming languages, and research experience. Interestingly, most respondents have not taken any additional mathematics courses (such as real analysis, linear algebra, or calculus) or monitoring and evaluation before the start of their employment. This is likely because their undergraduate and postgraduate training already covers these subjects. The most popular additional courses elected are for programming or statistical tools (completed by 37.4% of the sample).

Most applicants are equipped with some programming experience. STATA is the most popular tool, and 75% of applicants report familiarity with it prior to the start of their role. This is followed by R and LaTeX, with 38.5% and 32.1% of applicants having prior knowledge of the tools, respectively. In addition to prior programming experience, prior research experience is also relevant. Only 9% of those applying have no prior research experience. Most commonly, applicants have conducted independent research (through dissertations or term papers) or have research internship experience.

Prior Experience with Programming/Statistical Tools and Research

Application Process

The other main objective of this study was to make information about RA roles and how to get them more transparent and widely available. According to our study, most respondents find out about the role through job portals and organization websites (35.42%), their personal networks (31.25%), through their faculty members (20.83%), or by sending out cold emails (20.83%). The hiring process for most applicants starts in January, though it appears that applicants are hired all year round. The average duration of the application process is one to two months.

Applications to academic organizations require a considerable amount of material, typically consisting of a CV, cover letter, academic transcripts, letters of reference, an application form through a portal or organization website, and coding samples. In addition to university requirements, applications for positions at non-academic organizations more commonly require a writing sample.

Coding exercises are more common in roles at academic organizations. To elaborate, 71.2% of respondents that work at academic organizations report being required to complete a coding exercise while only 31.1% of their non-academic counterparts report the same. The coding exercise generally requires a specific tool to be used; for instance, 91.3% of respondents complete the coding exercise in STATA. Half the survey respondents state that the exercise takes between zero and four hours, while another quarter report it takes five to nine hours. About half of the respondents confirm that they were required to submit a written test involving a case study.

Typically, applicants are required to complete two rounds of interviews. Most commonly, the interview is conducted by the Principal Investigator (PI) of the project, the Research Manager (RM) of the project, and the Project Director or Project Lead. For non-academic roles, interviews are generally conducted with the Senior Leadership Team of the organization. The most likely topics to be discussed during the interviews are soft skills, experiences and goals, and prior research, programming, and professional experience. In interviews for positions at academic organizations, prior research experience (discussed with 83.78% of respondents) and programming experience (discussed with 50.45% of respondents) are more popular touchpoints for the interview.. Finally, 35.26% of respondents claim they applied to one to three positions simultaneously, and another 27.5% of respondents state they applied to four to six positions.

Day-to-Day Life, Salary, and Benefits

One of the key points of investigation is what being an RA entails. Through our survey, we asked respondents to report how much time they spend on a range of activities, including direct fieldwork (field planning, training, and spending time in the field), data analysis, administrative tasks (maintaining accounts, making vendor payments), technical tasks related to research implementation (questionnaire design and digitization, running data quality checks), data cleaning, and working on their personal research agenda and personal skill development. We find that RAs spend their time on data cleaning (42% report spending more than 15 hours a week), data analysis (35.9% report spending more than 15 hours a week), and survey design and data quality monitoring (29.2% report spending more than 15 hours a week). A much smaller portion of time is allocated to administrative tasks, personal research agendas, and personal skill development (6%, 11.97%, and 15.61% report spending more than 15 hours a week, respectively, on these tasks). More than three-quarters of the sample use a coding or statistical tool in their day-to-day work. STATA is most used, followed by R and LaTex. Further, tools such as Tableau and Spark are more likely to be used by RAs working at non-academic institutions.

Time Spent Per Week on Each Category of Tasks

The median monthly salary for full-time RAs is INR 58,667. We find some differences in the salaries paid to those working at academic and non-academic organizations. The median salary for the former is INR 60,000, while it is INR 54,000 for those engaged at the latter. A little more than half the respondents report that their organization provides free health insurance or a health insurance subsidy. To address other opportunities for growth and learning, 63.5% and 49.4% report that they are provided access to seminars and conferences, respectively. Moreover, 53.2% and 35.3% obtain access to training sessions and free courses, respectively.

Team Interaction and Support for Personal Development

As our final research goal, we sought to understand the extent of team interaction, support for personal and professional growth, and the future plans of RAs. More than half the RAs in our sample exchange messages with PIs once in one to three days and speak to their PIs once in three to seven days. About 37% report that they discuss their professional development and careers once in two to six months, while about 22% report doing this less than once in six months. Further, 41.6% of the respondents are the sole RAs on their project. Of those that work in teams of two or more, interactions with other team members happen every one to three days.

As the pathway after working in an RA role is usually graduate school, we also asked about the number of letters of recommendation they expect to obtain from this role. On average, RAs expect to get two letters of recommendation for their work. Only 37.18% expect to be co-authors on research output. We find that the likelihood of co-authorship is almost twice in non-academic organizations when compared to academic ones: In the former, 55.6% of RAs expect to co-author papers, while only 29.73% hope to do so in the latter. Lastly, RA roles seem to increase interest in pursuing a Ph.D.; in our study, more than half the sample report an increased interest, while 30% experience no change in their intention. Moreover, nearly half the RAs in the sample state that they expect to go on to do a Ph.D.

Qualitative Responses

Our study also asked open-ended questions about the RAs’ experience so far and advice that they have for future applicants. In terms of their experience to date, respondents articulated their varied work-life balance situations, and how these roles have helped them understand their prospects and build skills that are valuable for graduate school. Personal and professional growth is mostly self-driven and dependent on the amount of free time that they can find after work.

Respondents have valuable advice to share with applicants on different aspects of the role. First, respondents suggest building a rapport with professors and developing coding skills before applying to this role. They also recommend applying widely and not self-censoring the application. The most common advice on how to select the right position is to talk to previous RAs and ask your potential supervisors a variety of questions on different aspects of the job. Respondents also emphasize the importance of mentorship and a support network and recommend keeping that in mind while making the decision. In addition to practical advice such as honing problem-solving and organizational skills, respondents advise prioritizing mental health, being clear about your expectations from the role, and building and maintaining good relationships, whether with your PIs or enumerators, to truly succeed in the role.

In conclusion, our survey shows the need to make hiring for RA roles more diverse along dimensions such as caste and religion. While this survey is a small effort to reduce barriers to information, a larger push to reach those who may not have access to the personal or academic networks that most commonly provide access to these roles is required. Lastly, support during the course of the application process, especially to gain experience in statistical tools, programming languages and research seems crucial. As a follow-up to this data collection exercise, we aim to put together a community sourced Research Associate Guide. This is intended to be a living document, created with contributions from the wider RA community, that will include resources, tips and other insights. If you would like to contribute to this project, please write to Prashansa Srivastava ( prashansa.srivastava98@gmail.com) or Anahita Karandikar ( anahita.rkarandikar@gmail.com)

(For our full survey results, see the data appendix here)

Originally published at https://anahita-rkarandikar.medium.com on March 22, 2021.

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