How to Become a Research Assistant, Associate or Fellow in the UK

Research roles in UK universities

Research is the foundation of higher education. It generates the insights that fill textbooks, populate curricula, and inspire each new generation of students. The quality and extent of their research output is also increasingly the yardstick against which universities and individual academics are assessed. It may therefore come as no surprise that most academic roles in UK universities involve performing original research alongside any teaching. There are, however, three established roles that allow those interested in pursuing a research career to focus almost entirely on building their research skills and publication records in the early stages of their careers. In order of the level of experience demanded by each, these are the roles of Research Assistant, Research Associate, and Research Fellow.

This first section of this article explains the overlapping and distinct aspects of these roles, how they can help to advance your career, and the pros and cons associated with each. The second section provides information on how to find these roles, outlines the qualifications and experience typically needed to land each of them, and gives some practical advice for creating a strong CV and acing your interview.

Why be a Research Assistant?

What is a Research Assistant?

Research Assistants are among the most junior active researchers that work within a university. They are tasked with providing research and administrative support to more senior members of research staff, including Research Associates and Fellows, as well as permanent members of academic staff such as lecturers and professors. With few exceptions, Research Assistants have a fixed-term contract to provide research support in connection to a specific project or sub-strand of a project, which may encompass multiple studies. The amount of independence given to a Research Assistant varies according to their supervising principal investigator (usually a permanent member of academic staff, such as a professor), as well as the culture of the research group of which they are a part. Nevertheless, even at this junior level Research Assistants can be given significant responsibility for aspects of a research project and are expected to contribute their own ideas and initiative to the research process.

What does a Research Assistant do?

As a Research Assistant your exact responsibilities would depend on your field of research, the specific nature of the project you work on, and the needs of the larger research unit you work within. In all cases, however, it is highly likely that you would be involved in the collection of data, whether in the lab or in the field. This might mean learning new data collection techniques, whether through independent study, attendance at workshops, or working with more senior colleagues. You could also be involved in the design of studies, though you are unlikely to be given sole responsibility for this. Analysis of data is another area you might be expected to contribute to or even take the lead on, depending on the complexity of the analysis. This might mean familiarising yourself with new data analytic techniques and principles. In many cases, you will contribute to writing research papers, perhaps by helping locate and organise relevant sources, or even by drafting sections of a research paper, though you are unlikely to be given primary responsibility for writing a research paper at this level.

How will working as a Research Assistant help my career?

It goes without saying that working as a Research Assistant will help you to develop the skills and experience needed to progress in an academic career. The experience you would gain in this role would be particularly helpful for supporting an application for a funded PhD. Working in this role would also provide valuable insight into the inner workings of university research, and hence whether it is a career path you think you would enjoy. Whatever you ultimately decide, you will hone skills as a Research Assistant that are transferable to countless non-academic careers. By working in a supportive role, you would develop many broadly applicable administrative skills. You would also gain valuable team working experience by collaborating closely with other members of your research unit. And depending on the nature of your field and the project you work on, you may develop transferable skills around handling data; verbal and written communication; dealing with members of the public who participate in your studies; as well as sourcing, collating, and synthesising complex information—all skills useful to a wide variety of non-academic career paths.

What are the pros and cons of being a Research Assistant?

Pros Cons
Opportunities to consolidate and expand your research and administrative skills. Opportunities to make your own intellectual contribution to the project you work on may be limited.
Gain insight into how research projects are conducted and coordinated in an academic setting. Your work may be more closely monitored and externally defined than that of more independent researchers, such as PhD students, Research Associates or Research Fellows.
You will be supported throughout your appointment by more senior members of your research team. You are unlikely to have the chance to gain first authorship on a research paper, making this role less desirable if you already hold a PhD and are looking to advance your academic career.
You will gain many transferable skills useful for academic and non-academic careers, whether in research or elsewhere.  
Opportunities to gain co-authorship of academic articles, which should help to secure a more senior research position or funding to study for a PhD further down the line.  

 

Is working as a Research Assistant the right choice for me?

If you enjoyed the research components of your undergraduate and/or postgraduate education and are interested in exploring what a career in research has to offer, then working as a Research Assistant may be an excellent option for you. Even if you already know that you do not want a longer-term career in academic research, a Research Assistant position can still be a good way of building highly transferable skills that will help to strength your CV when applying for a range of non-academic jobs. If, on the other hand, you particularly struggled with or did not enjoy the research components of your degree(s), then working as a Research Assistant may not be the best choice.

Why be a Research Associate?

What is a Research Associate?

The role of Research Associate is almost always a postdoctoral research position, meaning that Research Associates have earned a PhD in a relevant discipline. It is also conventionally the first research appointment sought by an aspiring researcher after being awarded their PhD. In many ways, this role mirrors that of the PhD student in that it involves designing research studies, collecting and analysing data, and reporting research findings in academic journals and conferences. It carries a greater emphasis on publication, however, and often comes with a higher degree of autonomy from the project supervisor than is typical for a PhD student, who is expected to require more guidance.  Research Associate positions almost always come as fixed-term contracts, which are usually two or three years in length and funded as part of a research grant for a specific project or research programme.

What does a Research Associate do?

Holding a more senior research position to that of the Research Assistant, you would have substantially more responsibility for designing, conducting, and disseminating the findings of your research. In this position, you might also be expected to supervise the research projects of one or more undergraduate or sub-doctoral postgraduate students, as well as possibly taking on modest teaching responsibilities, like running a workshop related to your research specialism. Even at this relatively early stage of your research career, you would be expected to show a great deal of initiative in defining and designing your own research studies with advisory support from your supervising principal investigator. You may even be asked to contribute to writing research proposals to win grants for future research funding. Invariably, you would be aiming to publish the findings of your own studies as the lead author of one or more academic journal articles, as well as contributing your expertise to studies led by others. Given the high degree of agency and independence you would have in this role, it is particularly important that you keep abreast of new research in your field so that you remain alert to the latest methodological developments and gaps in knowledge where you could contribute novel insights.

How will working as a research associate help my career?

As a postdoctoral Research Associate, you would build on the research skills and subject knowledge cultivated during your PhD. If you are passionate about continuing to research the area you tackled in your thesis, then a Research Associate position would be an excellent choice for advancing your specialism further. That being said, the limited nature of these positions and the vast number of specialisms out there means that you may need to look outside your core area of expertise to secure a position. Fortunately, there are many advantages to moving beyond the narrow specialism of your PhD, and it should be possible to find a Research Associate position that draws on enough of your existing skills to make your candidacy viable. By giving you the opportunity to break into a new topic, subdiscipline, or field of study, a Research Associate position would push you to learn new methodological and/or analytic techniques while giving you a reason to acquaint yourself with a new body of literature, all of which would help broaden your opportunities in future. Indeed, a carefully chosen Research Associate post can be a means of steering your career in a new direction while giving you the opportunity to build a publication record essential to progressing in an academic career. The more advanced research skills and greater independence you would inevitably develop in this role are also valued in a range of careers outside of the academy, allowing you to skip entry level positions if you decide to branch out into another sector where research and project management skills are valued e.g., scientific industry, think tanks, local government, civil service, etc.

What are the pros and cons of being a Research Associate?

Pros Cons
Opportunity to break out into a new research topic and learn new knowledge, skills, and techniques. A higher degree of research specialism makes this role most suitable for those considering a career in research, and less suitable for those who already know that they do not want to work in research long term.
Plenty of scope to make considerable intellectual contributions to shaping a research project. The limited availability of such roles and the fact that they are usually tied to existing projects means that you might struggle to find a position which allows you to research your favourite topic.
Opportunity to gain first authorship on one or more publications in academic journals, making this a good role for PhD holders who want to embark on an academic research career. There can be significant pressure to publish in this role, with much of the responsibility for achieving this falling to you, particularly if you end up with a more “hands off” supervisor.

 

Is working as a Research Associate the right choice for me?

If you are considering working as a Research Associate, then you probably already have enough experience from your time as a PhD student to have a relatively clear picture of what life as a Research Associate would be like. In most respects, this role is similar to that of the PhD student but with a somewhat higher degree of independence, a greater emphasis on publication, and greater opportunities to supervise student projects. If you are looking to build on or add to your existing research skills and knowledge, a Research Associate position offers a good way to do this. However, you should bear in mind that the pressure on Research Associates to publish can be considerable, and maintaining the motivation and perseverance needed to achieve this goal in the face of the sorts of setbacks that are typical of the research process is not always easy. If you are not passionate about research, it would be well worth considering other options at this stage.

Why be a Research Fellow?

What is a Research Fellow?

Before considering the role of Research Fellow, it is important to first clarify precisely which position is being referred to. This is because the title of Research Fellow is sometimes used interchangeably with Research Associate in denoting the same position. In this article, Research Fellow refers to a more senior research position than that of the Research Associate, usually at grades 9 and above for university research staff. It is also used to refer to individuals who have been awarded a research fellowship, which is a grant that pays their salary and research costs. The more competitive research fellowships can even provide an early career researcher with the resources needed to set up their own lab or research unit.

As a more senior research position, Research Fellow presents a natural progression for Research Associates who want to gain more experience on the managerial side of conducting research, usually on the path to landing a permanent academic position. Research Fellows generally play a large role in defining research agendas and will design and manage numerous studies over the course of their appointment. Of all the positions considered here, Research Fellows have the most autonomy and independence in carrying out their research, yet they may still work alongside a more senior principal investigator who acts as mentor and partner. As with most university-based research positions, Research Fellow positions come as fixed-term contracts. These vary in length, but can be up to five years in some cases, allowing ample time for Research Fellows to build their publication records.

What does a Research Fellow do?

Being in the most senior of the three research positions under discussion, you would as Research Fellow have a large degree of responsibility and autonomy for defining, managing, and disseminating the findings of your research projects. Although you may still work closely with a more senior member of academic faculty who acts as the principal investigator for the projects you work on, you would be expected to contribute much more extensively to the design and management of these projects. This may include managing more junior members of your research unit, such as Research Assistants or Associates. In taking a more leadership-based research role, you would be aiming to publish multiple journal articles during your appointment, both as first and co-author. You would also be expected to contribute to, or lead on, the writing of grant proposals to secure funding for future research projects. In some universities, you might also be eligible to supervise PhD students. You could also be expected to contribute to departmental teaching, though to a significantly lesser degree than most permanent members of academic faculty, such as lecturers.

How will working as a Research Fellow help my career?

As a more senior researcher, you would as a Research Fellow be developing skills and a publication record more specifically tailored towards pursuing a long-term career as an established academic researcher. By developing these skills in the university context, the experiences you would gain would be most applicable to helping you secure a position as a permanent member of university faculty as the next step on the traditional academic career path. Indeed, research fellowships are often explicitly advertised as opportunities to take your career as an early career researcher to the next level by giving you significant leadership and managerial experience. Nevertheless, these same skills would also put you in good stead to break into research or non-research careers outside of academia wherever research, and people and project management skills, are valued.

What are the pros and cons of being a Research Fellow?

Pros Cons
You will have lots of independence to shape your own research agenda and follow your interests. Specialising further as an academic researcher means that even though this role will give you valuable transferable skills, it may not be the best option for someone unsure that a longer-term academic research career is for them.
You will gain more experience managing larger projects and junior researchers, putting you in an excellent position to apply for permanent faculty positions after your appointment expires. The increased managerial responsibility you are likely to take on may be daunting to if you are used to working under close supervision.
You will be afforded the time and resources to significantly expand your publication record. The pressure to publish in this role is high, with your future academic career, should that be the path you choose, largely hanging on the number and quality of publications you manage to produce.
Opportunities to take on teaching and supervisory duties, giving you a sense of whether the traditional academic career path is the right choice for you, and valuable experience to add to your CV if you decide that it is.

 

Is working as a Research Fellow the right choice for me?

If you already have postdoctoral research experience and are looking to gain greater independence in shaping your own research agenda on the path to establishing a long-term academic career, then becoming a Research Fellow would be a great way to achieve this. If, however, you already have several publications, some teaching/supervisory experience, and are happy to dedicate a much greater portion of your time to teaching, you may prefer to apply to university lecturer positions, which would allow you to split your time more evenly between teaching and research. On the other hand, you may already be confident that teaching is not for you, or perhaps you are tired of the instability of jumping from one fixed-term research contract to another as an early career university researcher. If so, you might prefer to take your research skills outside of the academy and apply them in an industrial, commercial, or public sector setting. Research positions in these sectors rarely afford the same degree of intellectual autonomy enjoyed by Research Fellows, but they can nudge you onto a career track that offers greater stability and the possibility of avoiding teaching entirely.

How do you become a Research Assistant / Associate / Fellow?

Securing any of the research roles considered by this article requires having certain academic qualifications, relevant previous experience, and the skills and qualities needed of an academic researcher. What these are and how you can demonstrate that you have them to prospective employers is the topic of this next section.

Where can you find these roles advertised?

Research Assistant / Associate roles

Research Assistant and Research Associate jobs can be found on many online jobs boards, including the careersinhe.com jobs board. Positions are also advertised on universities’ own websites, including those pages dedicated to specific departments. If you are already working or studying at a UK university, new openings at your institution may be initially advertised internally, and only publicly made available if a suitable applicant cannot be found within the university. It would therefore be worth making sure you are on all relevant mailing lists for positions arising internally within your institution. This should be possible by contacting your university’s careers office (if a student) or HR department (if a staff member).

Another route to securing a Research Assistant / Associate position is to be named on a research grant application that incorporates funding for the position you are hoping to secure. This grant proposal would need to be submitted by a principal investigator, which could be your existing supervisor or another faculty member from your department. It therefore pays to network with faculty members who work in research areas that interest you and are a good match for your skills. More speculatively, you could email appropriate academics from any institution to enquire whether they anticipate any Research Associate roles becoming available in their labs or research groups in the future. While these positions are likely to be publicly advertised, being proactive in enquiring after such roles helps to demonstrate your enthusiasm, which can only go in your favour should you ultimately apply.

Research Fellow roles

Research Fellow positions are also found on academic careers jobs boards, though these will tend to be restricted to roles tied to existing projects. However, there are various research fellowship schemes offered by external funding bodies, as well as universities themselves, that allow applicants to propose their own programme of research to pursue over the duration of the fellowship. One online repository containing details of an impressively large number of such schemes can be found here.

Becoming a Research Assistant

What qualifications do you need to be a Research Assistant?

The minimum academic qualification required for most Research Assistant positions is an undergraduate degree, though some will stipulate that you must hold a postgraduate qualification such as a master’s degree. It would normally be expected that your degree(s) incorporated modules on theoretical and practical aspects of research, including a dissertation based on some original research you conducted. Having a PhD would likely give your application an additional advantage, though as a PhD holder you might consider whether you would not be better off seeking a more senior research post for which you are qualified, such as Research Associate.

Qualifications
Always Essential Sometimes essential Desirable
Undergraduate degree (with substantial research components). Postgraduate qualification (e.g., master’s degree) with substantial research components.

 

Postgraduate qualification (e.g., master’s degree).

PhD or other doctoral degree.

 

What do academics look for when hiring Research Assistants?

Previous experience

If you apply for a Research Assistant role, it will generally be the principal investigator(s) and/or more senior researchers attached to the associated project that assess your application. They will naturally want to establish that you have sufficient prior research experience, in both the theoretical and practical sense, to effectively deliver the research support they require without having to train you from scratch in all competencies relevant to the project. While you may have relevant research experience from your undergraduate and/or postgraduate degrees, it would be of significant advantage to have wider research experience to cite, particularly where this demonstrates your initiative and passion for research. This experience could be gained by volunteering to help out on one or more research projects in a university department. The best way to find these opportunities is to email academics directly to ask whether they have any voluntary opportunities available. Many over-worked academics will be only too happy to have an extra pair of hands to help out with routine but time-consuming tasks like data collection and data entry. If you are a student, there may also be more formal opportunities for you to work on research projects in your department over the summer. While you might not relish the prospect of sacrificing your hard-earned time off, capitalising on such opportunities would greatly increasing your chances of landing a Research Assistant position after you graduate. Alternatively, you might already have relevant work experience as a Research Technician or in another position outside of academia. This would undoubtedly strengthen your application.

What are the most important things to include on your CV?

There are many distinct features of an academic CV, and it is important to follow general guidelines when structuring your document. At this stage in your research career, you are unlikely to have extensive research experience to list on your CV. It is therefore important to highlight both the “hard” and “soft” skills you have gained from the research experience you do have. This could mean detailing key techniques you used in carrying out the research for your final year dissertation(s), including any lab or data analytic techniques you employed and/or software you are proficient in. You could also indicate the academic literature you know well, along with any group projects you have taken part in. Where the skills you used for your dissertation(s) do not greatly overlap with those of most import to the project you are applying to, you could mention any specific modules or mini-projects from your undergraduate and/or postgraduate degrees where you learned techniques relevant to the current role that you could build on. You should, of course, mention all of the research experience you do have, however minor, including any voluntary work you have done. If you excelled in any particular aspect of your degree, it would also be worth giving your grade-point-average for the module in question. For example, if you achieved a 2.1 in your undergraduate degree overall, but a first in your final year dissertation, it would be worth emphasising this.

There is a fair chance that the role you are applying to would involve presenting research at an academic conference. It is therefore important to list any academic conferences you have attended or presentations you have given, even if these occurred only within your department.

If you are listed as an author on any academic publications, or have any publications yet to be submitted that you are currently working on, these should also be listed in a dedicated section of your CV. You should also list in another section any honours or awards received for work you did during your degree or in the workplace.

Referees would normally include the supervisor(s) for your final year project for your undergraduate and/or postgraduate dissertation(s). However, if you are not confident of receiving a glowing reference from your final year supervisor for whatever reason, you could approach any other member of academic faculty or senior research staff you have worked with as part of a voluntarily assignment or other substantial project from your degree. If you have relevant work experience outside of academia, you might want to include your manager for that role as a reference.

How can you stand out at interview?

General advice for excelling in interviews for academic positions can be found here. Nevertheless, it is worth considering what is particularly relevant to an interview for a Research Assistant role. Of paramount importance is that you show genuine enthusiasm for the project, ability to speak competently on the relevant academic literature, and evidence that you have already given considerable thought to some of the practical, methodological, and theoretical issues connected to the project and how these might be overcome. If this sounds daunting, do not panic! Your interviewers would not be expecting an expert-level disquisition on the project. They would just want to see you are motivated, have taken the time to do some background reading prior to your interview, and can think critically about issues connected to the project.

Becoming a Research Associate

What qualifications do you need to be a Research Associate?

Research Associate positions are generally advertised as postdoctoral research roles, meaning that applicants are expected to hold, or be in the latter stages of acquiring, a PhD. Nevertheless, if you do not hold a PhD but have experience designing and carrying out research projects in a non-academic setting, your application may still be considered, provided you hold at least a master’s degree.

What do academics look for when hiring Research Associates?

Previous experience

Academics hiring Research Associates are looking for many of the same skills and experience they value in Research Assistants. Nevertheless, at this level they will want to see evidence that you have conducted multiple research studies from start to finish at a publishable standard of rigour and originality. This would typically be in the form of a PhD thesis and/or research publications with you as lead author (though having one or more co-authored papers would also strengthen your application). A record of managing research projects in a non-academic setting would also help to demonstrate your suitability for the role, provided that this research can be shown to be of an academic standard (e.g., research you conducted within a pharmaceutical company). Previous experience working as a Research Assistant would be advantageous but certainly not essential if you have plenty of postgraduate research experience. Experience of presenting your research at academic conferences would be expected at this level, though its absence is unlikely to be a deal-breaker if your experience is strong in other areas. Experience supervising undergraduate research projects would also help to give your application an edge. This is because such experience suggests that you have leadership skills useful for collaborating with junior colleagues working on the same project, potentially including Research Assistants, master’s students, and PhD students.

What are the most important things to include on your CV?

A good overview of how to structure and what to include on an academic CV at this level is found here. It is nevertheless worth emphasising key points. If applying to be a Research Associate, you likely have a greater wealth of research experience than the average Research Assistant applicant. Hence, a larger portion of your CV should be dedicated to covering the breadth of your experience. This will mean being more selective in the details you provide about the research projects you have led or being involved in, making sure to provide extra details about techniques used or studies conducted only where these are particularly relevant to the requirements of the role to which you are applying. It is also especially important at this level to provide some general information about your research interests at the beginning of your CV to demonstrate that you are a more independent researcher with your own ideas and areas of interest.

More emphasis will also be placed on your publication record at this stage of your career, so any publications you have authored should be listed, along with any manuscripts in preparation. All presentations you have given at conferences should be listed, including the titles of any presentations you have given along with the name, time, and location of the host conference(s). Any awards or honours you have received should also be included.

References would ordinarily be sought from your PhD supervisor(s) or other academics or research staff who have supervised research you have conducted. If the bulk of your research experience has been accumulated outside of academia, you might wish to include an appropriate workplace manager. Nevertheless, if you do have significant academic research experience, it would generally be better to include academic referees.

How can you stand out at interview?

Aside from following general interview advice for academic roles, standing out in a Research Associate interview will depend largely on how well you can demonstrate that you have thought critically about the project attached to the position you are applying for, as well as the quality of your ideas for taking the project forward. This is not to say that you need to prepare an elaborate project plan, but your assessors are sure to be impressed if you arrive at interview with concrete ideas for what research questions or hypotheses you would like to explore, what studies you might perform, which of your existing research skills you could bring to bear in the process, and which techniques you think would be most important for you to learn or build on.

Becoming a Research Fellow

What qualifications do you need to be a Research Fellow?

To qualify for a Research Fellow role or win a research fellowship grant, you would need a PhD in a relevant discipline. You would also need a record of published work in academic journals. As the most senior academic research position of those considered here, you are unlikely to get a research fellowship on the strength of research experience alone without also holding a PhD. At this level, a record of research success in an academic context is expected.

What do academics and funders look for when hiring Research Fellows / awarding research fellowships?

Previous experience

To succeed in securing this more senior research position, you would normally need to have a few years of research experience behind you in addition to holding a PhD. This would usually be in the form of prior experience working in a postdoctoral research position, such as a Research Associate role. It could otherwise be in the form of research you have performed to an academic standard outside of the academy, provided you hold a PhD. You might get away with having less extensive research experience if the more limited research you have conducted was of particularly high impact, which would normally be determined by the impact factor(s) or the journal or journals you have published in, as well as the number of citations your papers have received since publication. Of particular importance is that you can demonstrate an ability to work independently. Any leadership experience you can cite, such as supervising postgraduate student’s research projects as a more junior postdoctoral researcher, would be especially advantageous at this level.

What are the most important things to include on your CV?

In addition to following general advice on how to construct an academic CV, it is especially important as a Research Fellow applicant that your CV clearly states your independent research interests, which should connect to previous research you have published. You should also place greater emphasis on the skills you have acquired around leadership and research management. This could be in the form of student supervision, management of any Research Technicians or Research Assistants, as well as any involvement you have had in writing grant proposals for research funding. You should also list each of your academic publications, drawing particular attention to those achieving the highest impact in terms of the publishing journal and their citation count. It is also more important at this level to highlight any teaching experience you have, as well as any leadership roles you have assumed in the past. Examples might include having coordinated a seminar series, having helped to organise a conference, or having served as a representative on a departmental board.

How can you stand out at interview?

Aside from following general interview advice, it is particularly important as a Research Fellow interviewee to demonstrate that you have a plan for either driving an existing project forward or for leading a programme of original research, depending on the position in question.  In both cases, it would be to your advantage to show that you have deeply considered not only pertinent theoretical and methodological issues but also the more managerial aspects of realising your research vision. It would go in your favour, for instance, to show that you have given serious thought to how you will maximise the value of limited financial resources, how postgraduate students and more junior members of research staff could contribute to your research to mutual benefit, and how your research ideas connect to the broader strategic vision of your funders or overarching goals of the project you will be helping to lead. This would help to reassure the interview panel that you have the bigger-picture insight into the managerial aspects of the research process needed to take on significant leadership responsibilities of the sort given to Research Fellows.

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