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From “Taking Orders” to Being a “Self-starter”: Research Assistants and Postdoctoral Fellows’ Skill Development in Large Collaborative Research Projects

Published onOct 17, 2023
From “Taking Orders” to Being a “Self-starter”: Research Assistants and Postdoctoral Fellows’ Skill Development in Large Collaborative Research Projects

Like many nations, Canada competes on the global market as a knowledge-based economy. As such, the country needs employees with skills in self-direction, communication, adaptability, critical thinking, project management, and collaboration as well as technical skills and content knowledge to innovate and compete with other post-secondary institutions, companies, organizations, and countries (Bilodeau; Mitacs; Niemczyk, Expanding; SSHRC, “Report”). However, while there has been increasing use of collaborative projects in graduate course work, graduate and postdoctoral training remains primarily solitary in nature, which means limited opportunities for these individuals to fully develop these skills (Barry et al.; Bohen and Stiles). But what skills can a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow develop through their course work and associated training in school and beyond? What are the best ways to gain these?

One possible avenue of experience is as graduate research assistants (RAs) and postdoctoral fellows (postdocs) on faculty research projects (Niemczyk, “Preparing”). Students and postdocs can undertake a variety of research tasks, such as literature reviews, data collection and analysis, research write ups, experiments, and others. These faculty research projects are also becoming more collaborative in nature as research questions become more complex and require an approach that brings together teams of people with different skill sets and knowledge (He and Jeng; Kosmützky). This means that RAs and postdocs can gain experience in collaboration and project management as well as important content knowledge and methodologies (SSHRC, “Report”). These opportunities prepare students and postdocs for careers in the academy as well as private, public, and nonprofit sectors.

This context raises questions about the type of experiences that RAs and postdocs gain within collaborative research projects funded through faculty researchers’ grants. There is little research on the research assistance and postdoctoral training as “educational spaces where theory meets practice” (Niemczyk, Expanding 1). What training do they receive? How do they develop skills needed for the particular research project and employment beyond it? This paper will contribute to this discussion by examining the lived experience of research assistants and postdoctoral fellows in the Implementing New Knowledge Environments (INKE) project, a large, long-term research grant on electronic books.


Training research students and postdoctoral fellows is necessary for success in the knowledge-based economy within the university, public, private and nonprofit sectors and plays an important role generating new knowledge and innovation (CAGS; Niemczyk, Case Study, Expanding, and “Preparing”). They will use their professional skills, including academic skills related to their discipline, research ability and teaching, and broader transferrable skills such as communication, management, adaptability, critical thinking, collaboration, knowledge transfer, and ethics in academic and non-academic settings (CAGS; Lapointe; Mitacs; Niemczyk, Case Study; Nowell et al.; Pollon et al.; Rose; SSHRC, “Guidelines”). Given this need, it is imperative to train RAs and postdocs in research and other skills through hands-on research opportunities (Niemczyk, Expanding).

There are many different understandings of the role that RAs and postdocs play within the academy. Within the context of this paper, a research assistant is defined as someone “funded to work with a professor in a specific research project/program” (Nyquist and Wulff 3) related to the faculty member’s research (Edwards). A postdoc is an individual who holds “a temporary, ‘soft-money’ research position after receiving a PhD, who is working toward establishing an independent research program” (Helbing et al. 54). Soft money is funds that are not allocated on an ongoing basis. These are generally “fixed, short term positions engaged in full time research under the supervision of a faculty member” (Scaffidi and Berman 686) who draws upon “funds derived from research grants, research contracts, training grants, or other grants” (687). There are several important points for consideration of these positions. First, by these definitions, RAs and postdocs are typically under the supervision of a faculty member and working on that member’s projects, rather than pursuing their own research. Second, these positions are seen as learning experiences, particularly for the RAs (McGinn et al., “Fulfilling”; Niemczyk, Expanding; Weeks et al.) where they can develop the necessary abilities and competencies to become skilled researchers (Niemczyk, Case Study). These opportunities extend learning beyond the classroom to the benefit of faculty research (Niemczyk, Expanding; Scott). Finally, these opportunities often fulfill the mandate of funding agencies which includes the training of the “next generation of researchers” (McCloskey and Weaver 8).

The duties of RAs and postdocs can be varied and depend on the particular project upon which they are working. Tasks include:

  • Conducting literature reviews and annotated bibliographies

  • Applying for ethics approval

  • Designing a research study and drafting research proposals and grant applications

  • Collecting data, including interviewing, administrating surveys, and conducting experiments

  • Undertaking qualitative and quantitative data analysis and interpretation, including transcribing and coding

  • (Co)writing reports, conference papers, and publications

  • Presenting papers at conferences (Cumming et al.; Edwards; Grundy; McGinn et al., “Fulfilling”; Niemczyk, Case Study and Expanding; Nyquist and Wulff; Pollon et al.; Scott)

To undertake these tasks, postdocs and RAs draw upon and enhance several skills such as computer and technological skills, time management, project management, use of intellectual knowledge from course work, and prior work experience, which can include previous RA work (Edwards; Grundy; McGinn et al., “Fulfilling”).

RAs and postdocs often describe these experiences positively and recommend them to others (Cumming et al.; Edwards). They realize that these opportunities provide the potential to gain research skills, grow intellectually, be exposed to new or different areas of research, and learn by doing. By being fully immersed in a project, they can learn the way that a research team functions and collaborates. Conference attendance also provides the potential to network and become members of a community of scholars. At a practical level, the ability to (co)author articles and present conference papers adds lines to one’s CV (Edwards; Ethington and Pisani; Grundy; Scott). They also gain self-confidence and independence as researchers (Grundy; McGinn et al., “Fulfilling”; Niemczyk, Case Study). And finally, there are financial benefits to these positions as they are generally paid (Grundy; McGinn et al., “Fulfilling”; Niemczyk, Case Study).

Case Study

Operating from 2009 to 2016, INKE was a seven-year research project, funded through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Major Collaborative Research Initiatives program. This funding program focused on large-scale integrative and collaborative research projects and supported the training and development of students and postdocs in collaborative and interdisciplinary research (SSHRC, “Major”). INKE’s budget included $2.5 million cash from SSHRC with approximately $10 million in cash and in-kind contributions from partner organizations.

As a multidisciplinary team, INKE explored electronic books and reading and studied “different elements of reading and texts, both digital and printed” and contributed “to the development of new digital information and knowledge environments” (Raymond G. Siemens et al. 1). Drawing from 4 countries and over 20 institutions, there were 42 researchers and consultants, 53 undergraduate and graduate research assistants, and 19 postdoctoral fellows (INKE). Initially, the team was divided into four sub-research areas, including Interface Design, Textual Studies, User Experience, and Information Management. In year 2, INKE was reorganized into three areas, including Interface Design, Textual Studies, and Modelling/Prototyping (Siemens and INKE, “Firing”). At the half-way point, the team achieved its final structure with two sub-research areas, Interface Design and Modelling/Prototyping (Siemens and INKE, “Research Collaboration”).


As part of an ongoing research project to understand the nature of collaboration in a large, long-term research project (Siemens and INKE, “Developing,” “Faster Alone,” “Firing,” “From Writing the Grant,” “’INKE-Cubating,’” “Research Collaboration,” “Responding to Change,” and “Understanding”), members of the research team, including RAs and postdocs, were interviewed on an annual basis. The interview questions focused on the nature of collaboration and its advantages and disadvantages within the context of this research project. By using interviews, as opposed to surveys, the researcher invited the interviewees to focus on the topics that were most important to them. The researcher could also ask probing and follow-up questions (Marshall and Rossman; McCracken; Rubin and Rubin)

Data analysis used a grounded theory approach where findings emerged from the data. The approach used several steps. First, the data was organized, read, and coded to find emerging categories, themes, and patterns, which were then tested for emergent and alternative meanings within and across interviews. This process was ongoing with constant comparison between codes, concepts, and data (Glaser and Strauss; Marshall and Rossman).

A total of seven research assistants and three postdoctoral fellows were interviewed. Several individuals talked with the author multiple times. The research assistants included undergraduate, masters, and PhD students. The interviewees came from History, English, Visual Arts, Graphic Design, Philosophy, Egyptian Studies, and other disciplines.


Experience with Collaboration

For the most part, the RAs and postdocs were new to collaboration. It was not part of their educational experience, in part due to the disciplines in which they trained. Despite the newness of collaboration as an experience, the RAs and postdocs were very positive about the opportunity. RA7 called it an excellent and unique experience. Another felt that they were lucky to get this opportunity (RA2). A third RA found that they were able to engage in the project’s research context and went on to say that collaboration allowed for far-reaching and ambitious projects with interesting ideas from a wide variety of disciplines (RA1). RA3 realized that the opportunity meant that they met people from Canada and around the world. Finally, RA4 found work on INKE the most collaborative team that they had worked on.

By being part of INKE, they gained unique experiences that may not be afforded to RAs on other projects where tasks might have only been to scan and photocopy documents and other manual activity (RA2, RA7). Instead, they got the ability to engage in more intellectual work, including writing papers and presenting at conferences (RA1, RA2). As RA1 stated, the work was challenging. The postdocs echoed these thoughts. One of the postdocs saw this position as an opportunity to learn new skills and gain more publications than would be possible on one’s own (PD1).

The RAs and postdocs were involved in several layers of collaboration. First, at those institutions where there was a cohort of several RAs, they shared an office and held weekly meetings as a group with their supervisors (RA1, RA2). As a result, the individuals formed a team and were able to support each other. As a second layer, RAs and postdocs were incorporated into the virtual meetings of the sub-research areas (RA3, PD1). These gatherings gave these individuals exposure to the other researchers, RAs, and postdocs as well as introduction to the other projects undertaken by the larger team because projects were discussed on the calls. These interactions were so important that those postdocs who were the only ones at their institution reported feeling isolated and wished that there was potential to meet with other postdocs (PD2).

Type of Tasks

The RAs and postdocs were involved in a variety of tasks, including literature reviews, environmental scans, working with different software applications such as Zotero and Basecamp, writing and presenting conference papers, writing journal articles, conducting user studies, developing prototypes, and programming (RA1, RA2, RA5). There was opportunity for travel to conferences and to present at a yearly national conference in digital humanities. Some also had the opportunity to attend the international conference in this discipline (RA5). Attendance at a conference was a new experience for many of the RAs, especially the opportunity to present a paper. This experience of a variety of tasks and opportunity to attend a conference was so positive that RA2 recommended that other RAs take advantage of these possibilities to enrich their experiences. As mentioned above, the RAs and postdocs realized that this was a situation unique to INKE.

View of the Project and Team Members

As the RAs and postdocs gained experience in collaboration and a variety of tasks and skills, they had one common refrain. They had a desire to gain a complete view of the project, not merely their particular slice. As one commented (RA5), they only had a fragmented view and did not see the larger picture, especially when they began working for INKE. They did not realize the full scope of INKE and its individual projects until their second semester working for it. They wanted to understand the ways that their own projects fit in the larger research (RA2). It was important to have the larger context (RA6). Another (RA3) echoed this thought with a desire to know who was doing what and had what skills. Knowing this would make it easier to know who to approach when one had questions.

To fill this knowledge gap, the RAs and postdocs took several steps to familiarize themselves with the larger project and team members. For some (PD2, RA6), it involved going to conferences and meeting the team members. Others recommended surveying the project’s online project management platform and website (PD2, RA2). Regular meetings with other RAs, postdocs and team members were also important for getting a sense of what others were doing on the project (RA2). Finally, the supervisors were a source of knowledge about the collaboration, team members, and its associated projects (RA4). However, given the scale and scope of INKE, it was still difficult to get a full knowledge of the project even after several years on it (RA2).

Professionalization and Confidence Building

The RAs and postdocs gained skills, confidence, and professionalization through their work. One area where they gained knowledge was academic skills and awareness of academic cycles, timelines, and contexts. As RA1 mentioned, they were introduced to academic timelines when they drafted, presented, and published conference presentations and papers with other members of the team. This thought was echoed by other RAs (RA2, RA4, RA5). Another learned the ways that a large SSHRC grant operates (RA3). The use of Basecamp, an online project management space, allowed RAs and postdocs to see how other researchers do things (PD2). RAs even had opportunities to draft emails to fellow team members (RA2), an important professional skill.

Throughout their time with INKE, the RAs and postdocs gained natural skill progression and development. At the beginning of their time working with INKE, one RA indicated that they needed to take orders but by the end of their time as RA, they were self-starters. This was because they gained a greater sense of the way the collaboration was working and ways to interact as a team (RA2). They needed to overcome their feelings of intimidation that they felt when interacting with people about whom they were reading in their coursework. They initially had concerns that they would make a mistake and were not sure when to speak up about the research (RA1). Another echoed this with a sense that at the beginning they felt “just like a student” but by the end of the year they felt like a collaborator with little sense of a barrier between supervisor and RA (RA5). This sense of confidence was a necessary skill. As one of the postdocs mentioned (PD2), one needed self-confidence to be able to interject ideas within team discussion. Ultimately, the skill development allowed RAs and postdocs to help shape the discussion around the project’s research, rather than merely add to it (RA7).

Beyond skill development, the RAs and postdocs had an opportunity to become part of an academic community, both within the grant and beyond. They met people from Canada and internationally at conferences and formed a “real time” academic community (RA3). It became a matter of “who knows you,” not merely who one knows (PD1). They also had an opportunity to develop a scholarly network as a new researcher. With the opportunities afforded to them to present and publish, postdocs, especially, built a strong CV, something with which humanities postdocs in traditional, self-funded postdoc positions often struggle to achieve in their experience (PD3). This was also the case for RAs, particularly those who were interested in pursuing further PhD studies (RA5).

Overall, the RAs and postdocs found the INKE work contributed to their own research, intellectual development, and professionalization through interactions with other team members, conference presentations, and exposure to a larger academic context (RA7, RA5, PD1).


The RAs and postdocs who had been on the project for more than one year played a mentorship role. They met their replacements and provided an orientation to them so that they would have an understanding of the work and projects (RA3). They provided leadership when supervisors were not present (RA4), and they helped ease new members into the team (RA2).


Though graduate training through course work and thesis/dissertation remains primarily a solitary activity, opportunities through participation in faculty research exist to broaden the development of important skills and knowledge that graduate students and postdocs will need for future employment, whether within or beyond the academy (McGinn et al., “Becoming Researchers”; Scholars’ Lab; Lynne Siemens et al.). This case study provides insight into the types of experiences that research assistants and postdoctoral fellows can gain through large collaborative projects. Overall, these RAs and postdocs had very positive experiences on many different levels and were thankful for the opportunities (Pollon et al.).

Like RAs and postdocs from other studies (Cumming et al.; Edwards; Grundy; McGinn et al., “Fulfilling”; Niemczyk, Case Study and Expanding; Nyquist and Wulff; Pollon et al.; Scott), these individuals conducted literature reviews and environmental scans, collected and analyzed data, prepared abstracts and presented at conferences, and (co)wrote articles. Given the nature of INKE’s research on electronic books and their affordances, they also conducted user studies, developed prototypes, and programmed software and interfaces. They were exposed to common project management platforms. These experiences meant that the RAs and postdocs gained skills and competencies such as collaboration, project and time management, written and oral communication, and research as well as disciplinary knowledge (Grundy; Mukamal et al.; Niemczyk, Expanding). The end results were CVs and résumés that allowed them to be admitted to PhD programs for further studies or be employed after graduation or at the completion of their postdocs (Siemens and INKE, “Developing” and “Faster Alone”).

Just as importantly, the RAs and postdocs gained confidence as researchers and enhanced their capacity for the work (Grundy; McGinn et al., “Fulfilling”; Niemczyk, Expanding and “Preparing”). In one study, RAs expressed feelings of intimidation at the start of their assistantship but felt more capable and confident with mentoring and supervision as time went on (Hulse-Killacky and Robison). This confidence also came from the fact that the RAs and postdocs were making intellectual contributions to the project and seen as collaborators, not merely students.

Beyond skills and confidence, the RAs and postdocs’ experiences on this project provided an opportunity to build networks and a research community. As they outlined in the interviews, they had meetings with the other RAs, postdocs, and supervisors, and were included in sub-research area group meetings which meant that they met other members of the larger research team. They also attended and presented at national and international conferences, some for the very first time, and met other academics researching the same field (Niemczyk, Expanding). This sense of belonging was so important that PD2 who did not have RAs and other postdocs located at their institution had to work to create community by developing the connections on their own. Connecting with others in similar positions on projects was very important (Niemczyk, Expanding; Perna and Hudgins; Weeks et al.). Limited interaction with other team members and supervisor can limit the educational opportunities of these positions; overall, these experiences allowed the students and postdocs to feel like collaborators and members of a research community (Niemczyk, Case Study).

Just like other studies (Niemczyk, Expanding; Weeks et al.), these RAs and postdocs wanted to understand the larger project and their role within it. They gained some of this knowledge through meetings with their supervisors, mentoring from RAs who had been on the project longer (Expanding), exploring the project management platform, attending conference papers, and (co)writing articles.

Recommendations/Implications for Practice

This research provides recommendations for practice to maximize the learning opportunities and skill development for RAs and postdocs.

First, potential RAs and postdocs should seek out these types of opportunities on faculty-funded research projects as a way to gain skills in project management, research, collaboration, communication, and others. These experiences should be done to complement their training and future career plans (Niemczyk, Expanding; Rogers-Dilon). As these interviewees recommended, RAs and postdocs should take advantage of the potential to develop networks by attending team meetings and conferences. These networks can be important for next steps in one’s career.

Second, beyond using these individuals to accomplish research tasks, faculty members should shape these positions to ensure that students and postdocs develop skills, knowledge, and confidence in their ability to be independent researchers and ultimately be employable in a variety of contexts (Niemczyk, Case Study). This means giving these individuals more than photocopying and data entry and instead assigning a wide variety of tasks which can be oriented towards skill development (Grundy; McGinn; McGinn et al., “Fulfilling”). Further, faculty members should incorporate the RAs and postdocs into the larger team so that they can develop skills in project management and collaboration (Bilodeau; Kishchuk). This incorporation can be supplemented by orientation sessions on research, its methods, and timeline for work, and sharing of the research proposal and grant application (McCloskey and Weaver). Faculty members should also hold regular meetings with the RAs and postdocs to answer questions, mentor and discuss learnings (Grundy; Weeks et al.). Finally, longer term contracts are preferable to shorter ones to allow for more learning (McGinn et al., “Fulfilling”; Niemczyk, Case Study).

Third, academic departments can also play a role by providing space for RAs and postdocs to work so that they feel part of a community. These common spaces also enhance the opportunities for these individuals to mentor each other (Grundy; Kishchuk).

Finally, funding agencies can continue to encourage the training of RAs and postdocs as highly qualified personnel with academic and general professional skills, those that can be used in a variety of settings, with grant funding (SSHRC, “Guidelines”). They can ensure sufficient funding for RAs and postdocs and encourage faculty researchers to hire them on longer contracts, so they gain more learning opportunities and skill development (Edwards).

Overall, these interviewees have shown that it is possible to learn and develop skills and competencies in a variety of areas by working on faculty members’ research. They have been prepared for employment in the academy as well as private, public and nonprofit sectors.

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