Being a Research Assistant: A Personal Reflection
Published: April 19, 2022 by Ed Matlack
I graduated from the iSchool in the Fall of 2021 with a Master’s in Informatics, specializing in both CyberSecurity and Health Informatics. Before entering into the program, I had spent thirty years in the software industry as both an engineer an engineering director. I am currently doing independent research in the fields of communications and decision science at both the ICANN lab at SJSU and the DDML at Carnegie Mellon.
I became a research assistant on Dr. Ghosh’s ICANN lab team during my final semester before graduating, where I worked on two projects. The first was qualitative coding and analysis of sentiment from a body of global tweets related to COVID-19. The work was used to continue research on response sentiment to COVID-19 topics communicated on Twitter, and how it varried over time and from different communication approaches. I also was on a team that developed economic models to analyze the costs and benefits of different features within conversational search in order to predict optimal conversational search strategies.
I did not have the most up to date background in statistics and math, so model development was a challenge for me. I found that working with a strong group of motivated students was extremely rewarding, in that it accelerated my learning of model development and challenged me to improve. Most of my strength came from supporting team communications and problem analysis, where my industry experience could best provide guidance for the lab team. In addition, the formalized writing experience I practiced during the pursuit of my degree, helped a great deal in the work we did in developing our project submissions.
The experience I received while a research assistant on the ICANN team was instrumental at furthering my research goals. Having hands on experience in developing models and writing research papers for puplication based on the results, are critical skills for pursuing further academic study or independent research. In particular, both statistical and cognitive modeling are skills in high demand and can be applied to nearly all information intensive work fields across most industries.
Being a research assistant is not easy, particularly if your team is entirely remote. You must be self-motivated and interested in pursuing scientific discovery, which is incremental and can seem slow. It is important that you commit to your milestones and work well as a team member with accountability. These are all critical skills in the job market as well, so mastering them, in addition to the technical and analytical skills you master, will serve you well in future job or academic pursuits. Finally, it is fun and massively rewarding to discover new understandings about how the world works. Being a research assistant helps build the skills that will allow you to do this for a lifetime, regardless of your career path.