Your Guide to Landing a Research Assistant Position

Your Guide to Landing a Research Assistant PositionThis week we welcome guest writer and attorney Hannah Myers to discuss how you can go about finding a Research Assistant position as a law student and what you can gain from this role.

Before we can get into how to get a Research Assistant position, you should know what a Research Assistant actually does. Research Assistants work for a professor as basically exactly what it sounds like–research. This could range from helping out with courses that a professor teaches, long-term projects they’re working on (like a law review paper, a book, or a presentation), or even doing your own project that they oversee. It varies depending on what the professor needs, what your law school encourages faculty to take part in, and what time of year you’re working.

Benefits to being a Research Assistant

One of the most valuable aspects of being a Research Assistant is the connection between you and the professor. If you play your cards right, being a Research Assistant will give you a professional contact and reference for the rest of your legal career. Professors are often extremely well-connected with legal academics, as well as with their local legal communities. While they may not all be actively practicing attorneys, they’re bound to know a LOT of people who are!

Further, being a Research Assistant is excellent for your resume. It’s something different than clerking for a law firm or some of the other more generic positions law students have. And of course, working on an extremely interesting project can give you some interesting talking points in interviews. When I was a Research Assistant, I helped my professor with an amicus brief he was filing with the Supreme Court. Every single interviewer I’ve had since has asked about it since it’s still a stand out on my resume.

Next, being a Research Assistant is one of the more interesting and dynamic positions you can have as a law student. It’s not all research, and you’re almost always doing something different every day. I was a Research Assistant for a year and a half, and I did everything from data analysis, teacher-assisting my professor’s 1L classes, bluebooking his law review article footnotes, talking to his co-authors, to actual research and writing. The possibilities are endless.

Leading Up to being a Research Assistant

It’s not all fun and games. Research Assistants are usually the teacher’s pets, and often get personally selected and offered the position. Thus, it’s really important that you’re setting yourself up well before you ever start looking into becoming an RA.

Most importantly, get good grades. Know what’s going on in your classes. Raise your hand, ask questions, and participate. If you’re wondering why class participation can help you outside of being an RA, check out this article.

Also, make sure you intentionally interact with your professors outside of class. Join organizations they supervise and go to networking events that they’re attending, even if it’s just to swing through and say hello. Professors like to hire RAs that they genuinely like as people, not just star students.

When You’re Ready to Start Looking for RA Positions …
  1. Understand how your school’s RA positions work. Every school is different. Some schools wait until specific professors request RAs; others have a budget allocated for every single tenured faculty member. The more you know about the process, the higher your chances are of securing a spot.
  2. Ask your professors if they’re looking for RAs. Some professors are scatterbrained and don’t remember that they have the option of hiring an RA or that their current RA may be graduating. I’d recommend putting feelers out about halfway through the semester after you get a good grade on a large assignment (like a research memo or midterm). If a professor you want to work for doesn’t have a position available, ask if they know of anybody who’s looking. Even if it’s a professor you don’t know that well (or at all), you can still be their RA.
  3. Get a project ready if you have one to research! Sometimes professors don’t hire RAs because they have no idea what the RA could actually be doing. Solve this problem by having some ideas ready to go, whether there’s something you’re interested in researching that happens to do with their field, or something that combines their area of expertise with another field that doesn’t appear to connect at first glance.
  4. Be flexible. Have some alternative options if a full-time RA position isn’t available. You could work part-time (or for free, if you can afford it). Have a list of things you’d be interested in helping them with, like bluebooking their footnotes, putting together PowerPoints for their 1L classes, or researching potential law review articles for them to write.

Then, once you finally land the job, make sure you know exactly what you’re doing by reading these 6 keys to Research Assistant success.

If, however, you don’t get the job, that’s okay too. There’s plenty of other fascinating work for you to do as a law student. Check out this podcast episode on job search basics for 1Ls.


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About Hannah Myers

Hannah is a recently-barred attorney who practices mostly family law, estate planning, and bankruptcy. She works for a small law firm in Northern California. Throughout her time in law school, she participated in the inaugural Accelerated Honors Cohort at University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law, was a judicial extern for the Honorable Chief Judge Sargis of the United States Bankruptcy Court, and studied abroad at the University of Salzburg under retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. When not in the office, Hannah enjoys road trips, hiking and running with her rescue dog Captain, and reading historical fiction novels.

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