Interview with a Research Assistant

in 9 to 5 type jobs, Careers in Medicine, University jobs

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What do you do for a living?

I am a research assistant in an Internal Medicine laboratory.

How would you describe what you do?

Our lab studies severe systemic inflammation caused by sepsis using a mouse model. My job entails much of the bench work associated with cellular analysis, molecular biology, mouse surgeries, and data collection.

What does your work entail as a research assistant?

The answer to this question depends on the day you ask. Some days I am performing cecal ligation and puncture (CLP) surgeries on mice and harvesting bone marrow stem cells from healthy mice for use on the sick mice. Some days I stain cell cultures with flourescent antibodies for use in flow cytometry. Other days there are no experiments so I clean the lab, organize data, type up procedures, and just try to stay busy with things I don’t normally have time to do. Essentially, some days are very busy and there is no time for lunch, and other days are very slow.

In any given month I will have used basic laboratory techniques such as ELISA, FACS, tissue culture subculturing, western blotting, gel electrophoresis, etc.

Daily I am using basic science concepts such as calculating molarity of a solution, figuring a dilution factor, using equipment such as pipets, beakers, graduated cylinders, centrifuges, incubators, and autoclaves.

I also order all the chemicals and disposables for the lab, keep up with our current stock, and maintain MSDS reports.

How did you get started?

I started working in a research lab as an undergraduate, went to school for my master’s degree, and then found this job. The job is really an entry level position into research science.

What do you like about what you do?

My job has periods of redundancy, but in general no day is the same. Yeah, I might do five ELISA assays in one week, which is redundant, but each assay has samples from mice that received various treatments, so it is always exciting to see the results in the end. Sometimes what you definitely think will happen does not, and then you have to go back and think about what could have caused that: personal error, misinterpretation, bad reagents, or perhaps the results are simply unexpected!
There is a lot of thinking and trouble shooting that you can’t find in many jobs.

What do you dislike?

Some days when there is a lot of bench work I get a cramp in my neck from looking down and my hand hurts from doing so much repetitive pipeting. My hand wouldn’t hurt if we had more sophisticated equipment so I advise anyone looking to do research to go to an institution that has a lot of money! LOL.

How do you make money/how are you compensated as a research assistant?

I am paid through a research grant. Grants come from various supporters: NIH, NSF, the university, etc. Once the grant money runs out, if we do not have a renewal or another grant awarded to us, I will have to find another job. This is what people call “soft money.” “Hard money” comes from the university or institution. My boss is paid with “hard money.”

How much money do you make as a research assistant?

Even though I am paid through a grant, the university sets my pay grade. The established pay grade for my position is level 4. This means that no matter how long I stay with the university, no matter how many people I supervise, no matter how many projects I am over, I cannot get a raise unless my position is changed. Generally, the university pays 40% of the established pay grade, so even though the government says the position is worth $32,000 a year, no one will ever be offered that amount. I gross 27K a year. I do not get paid overtime, but I do get holidays and sick days.

How much money do you make starting out?

Depends on your bargaining power. Sometimes there is nothing to negotiate as mentioned above. I would say for someone that is not highly qualified, they could at least get 25K.

What education or skill are needed to do this?

At least a B.S. with some experience. Even if you worked as an undergraduate someone would give you a chance. A M.S. would be preferred, and a PhD would be overqualified.

What is most rewarding about this job?

Finding answers. Big or small. Everyday you get to fit one more peice into your puzzle. It never gets boring when you think of it that way.

What is most challenging?

Being confidant in my abilities. I know I am a good researcher, but sometimes I get so nervous when I am handling expensive equipment or kits. In general everything turns out okay, but there is always that nervousness in the beginning. I try to hide it from my boss so that he doesn’t lose confidence in me, and sometimes he even acknowledges that a certain experiment is challenging and that we can repeat it if we need to. That helps take off some of the pressure.

What advice would you offer someone considering this career?

Go to an institution that has money and lots of collaborations. This way if your grant runs out, someone in another department can possibly offer you a position in their lab.

How much time off do you get/take?

I get 2 days a month, but I only use them when I have to. We don’t get every holiday like a bank, but we get most of them.

What’s a common misconception people have about what you do?

They think I must be incredibly smart and talented. Usually I tell people I am not, I just stuck with it. Just like learning to play the violin. You are terrible at first: you make mistakes, don’t know what comes next, can’t hardly make sense of things. Then when you practice for a very long time, you start to do things with more grace and the big picture becomes more clear, and before you know it you are wowing your boss with your insight.

What are your goals and dreams for the future?

I am applying to medical school now, but if that doesn’t pan out, I plan to stick with research. Maybe I will go back for a Master’s in Public Health degree or a medical lab technologist certification. I want to move up into a directors role if I stay in the lab, but I will need more than a master’s degree for that.

What else would you like people to know about what you do?

Working as a research assistant is not the same as being in grad school. It truly is a 9-5 sort of job. Most people do not work over every day, but it does happen when you are close to a publication or grant submission.

There are some really quirky professors out there. Sometimes you have to let their rambling go in one ear and out the other: learn to separate the fly poo from the pepper. LOL. Don’t ever feel like you have to put up with any form of harassment for the sake of your job or qualify your harassment experience as a result of “cultural differences.” Here, everyone who is an American citizen has the same rights.

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