Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

What We Learned about Mentoring Research Assistants Employed in a Complex, Mixed-Methods Health Study

Academic journal article The Canadian Journal of Higher Education

What We Learned about Mentoring Research Assistants Employed in a Complex, Mixed-Methods Health Study

Article excerpt

Students are mentored in the research process by faculty members in many contexts within higher education. This can involve: faculty members mentoring graduate students throughout the process of completing a thesis or dissertation (Earley, 2007; Humble, Solomon, Allen, Blaisure, & Johnson, 2006); graduate students participating, in an unpaid capacity, in research collaborations with faculty members on research that results in peer-reviewed publications (Paglis, Green, & Bauer, 2006); students working on a faculty member's research as a class project (Wulf-Andersen, Holger Mogensen, & Hjort-Madsen, 2013); or an independent study on a topic of interest to the student (Moore, Scarduzio, Plump, & Geist-Martin, 2013). In this study, we focus on a mentoring context that has received less research attention: situations in which faculty members employ research assistants (RAs) to work on faculty-directed, funded research (Rossouw & Niemczyk, 2013). While these RAs are employees, their positions are also developmental and educational, which adds complexity to a traditional employee-employer relationship (Edwards, 2009; Rossouw & Niemczyk, 2013). It is exploring this dual role of employee and trainee that guides our work and contributes to our understanding of how to provide a positive educational and employment experience to RAs.

While knowledge generated from research is a key measure of a faculty member's performance (Hobson, Jones, & Deane, 2005), large-scale research endeavours typically rely on RAs, who support researchers in the implementation of the study objectives. Indeed, research funding allows for the hiring of RAs to support time-poor faculty members in the implementation of time-intensive research tasks (Hey, 2001). Large-scale health research projects can involve the implementation of complex study protocols and interaction with study participants, which invariably require the involvement of RAs. Research assistants engage in diverse tasks requiring advanced skills, including the ability to recruit and retain study participants (Cambron & Evans, 2003), and tasks requiring specific technical and analytical expertise (Hobson, et al., 2005). Consequently, investigators running large-scale studies take on the role of mentor to support and manage an array of activities engaged in by paid RAs.

Until quite recently, little peer-reviewed research focused on RAs (Edwards, 2009; McGinn, Niemczyk, & Saudelli, 2013). While research results are shared through various mechanisms, knowledge gained through the implementation of research projects is rarely shared (Cambron & Evans, 2003; Earley, 2007). A recent special issue in the Journal of Research Practice focused on RAs (McGinn & Niemczyk, 2013), although not all of the articles examined paid RAs. In this issue, Naufel and Beike (2013) focused on the ethical treatment of RAs and identified several elements to include in a RA Bill of Rights as a preliminary step in ensuring that RAs are treated ethically. Our research can contribute to this type of document.

While students participate in research assistantships for many reasons, a primary one is to learn new research skills (Niemczyk, 2010). There is some emphasis in the literature on the importance of training for RAs to implement research involving human participants. Training can help faculty mentors and individual RAs to identify research activities that fall outside their specific abilities, interests, and preferences (Naufel & Beike, 2013). Cambron and Evans (2003) examined RA experiences when implementing large-scale clinical trials and offered recommendations to improve future training methods. They emphasized the need to train RAs to better manage the boundaries of their role and their responsibilities with respect to implementing data-gathering protocols with participants.

Other researchers have identified strategies that faculty members who hire and manage research staff can use to ensure high-quality research implementation efforts (Kang, Davis, Habermann, Rice, & Broome, 2005). …

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