Finding our voice

Three research assistants explore academic life and support networks.

Research assistants (RAs) work in a wide range of different fields in the sciences and social sciences. At the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN), King’s College London (KCL) there are around 228 RAs working across 14 departments. Some RAs are based within universities, working collaboratively with colleagues ‘nine to five’ on someone else’s project, whilst some are involved in community or outreach projects, which can involve working long hours in isolation outside a university setting. Most are recent graduates for whom being an RA is their first job and a stepping stone to undertaking a PhD or DClinPsy. RAs have short fixed-term contracts and are usually in charge of their own development, often with little career information and training opportunities tailored towards them.

This insecurity can be daunting for new researchers who have recently emerged from a taught degree. Yet RAs are a core component of academia, and without us many projects would cease to progress; thus it is important that our contributions are recognised, and that our career and support needs are met.

The tree of us work together in the Addictions Department, and Stephanie (see below) founded the Addictions RA (ARA) Network to tackle some of these issues. We hold monthly meetings to provide opportunities to meet other RAs, share our experiences, obtain information about training courses and peer support regarding applications for PhDs and clinical training. We also invite speakers to provide advice regarding different careers and allow us to network with people both within and outside our department.

The ARA Network held the first event specifically for RAs across the IoPPN in May 2016: Career Initiatives and Networking for Research Assistants. The event was a huge success, with 35 RAs attending from eight departments. Through such events and by working with professional services at the organisational level, we hope to ensure that each RA feels they are part of their department or team, and that they are provided with adequate support. RAs from another IoPPN department (Psychological Medicine) have established their own network, which we have directly supported, and we hope to continue working to help RAs across KCL and other universities set up, and connect, their own networks. If you are interested in setting up your own RA network, or connecting with ours, e-mail [email protected].

Stephanie Fincham-Campbell: ‘I work on the Alcohol Theme of the CLAHRC (Collaborations for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care), primarily on a randomised controlled trial evaluating the effectiveness of an assertive outreach service for people who are frequently admitted to hospital due to alcohol-related problems. I have been an RA for four years and this is my third project. The careers support I receive varies a lot depending on the department, my line manager and the number of RAs on the team. Access to career opportunities has largely depended on my type of work: office-based work has allowed me to attend training courses, departmental meetings and develop the ARA Network, yet in the past it has been easy to miss out on the wealth of available opportunities available whilst doing data collection with a short-term contract – time can really fly by! Developing the ARA Network has helped address these issues by making information instantly and easily accessible. It’s a way to get to know RAs on other projects and makes working in the department a great place to be, whether that is by offloading about a chaotic day or discovering events to attend. Now we have a platform to receive and share information within the department and across the Institute.

Our network makes the world of academia a less daunting place, and befriending people with shared challenges and interests is really useful. We are an approachable and supportive group, which makes such a difference when facing competitive PhD and DClinPsy applications, which can be extremely stressful, isolating and at times overwhelming.’

Rachel Simpson: ‘I have a three-year contract as an RA working on a national trial of adherence to relapse prevention medication for alcohol-dependent patients. I am the only researcher covering Yorkshire & Humber (11 alcohol teams and 20 pharmacies), working with a range of people from pharmacists to nurses to the clients themselves. RAs are the interface between participants and research, so it’s important to engage participants and build rapport. This role can be challenging, particularly if participants are going through a difficult or stressful time during treatment, but it is rewarding to build relationships with people and witness their recovery journey. The variety of the RA role is one of my favourite parts of the job. In a typical day I travel to clinical teams, meet with staff and participants, explain the study, obtain consent and complete study measures. My aim is to continue working in academia and ultimately do a PhD in alcohol research. I keep connected to the ARA Network by Skyping into meetings for support and information, and engaging with KCL training opportunities where feasible from my base.’

Katie East: ‘I work in the Nicotine Research Group developing measures to assess whether e-cigarettes are renormalising smoking. This is my first fixed-term job since leaving university, and although many aspects are similar – data analysis, writing reports and papers – the nature of the RA role is substantially different from that as a student. I am one of only two RAs in our team, and can go for days at a time with little social contact except emails. Yet on the flip side, you’re entered into a field where everyone knows everyone else and networking (including conferences) is essential for career development. Furthermore, with a 10-month contract, even immediately after securing my job I was searching for PhDs, one of which I obtained and am due to start soon. I really enjoy the work I do, yet initiating a career in academia can be incredibly overwhelming. I arrived at the department as the ARA Network was being developed; it provided a platform for me to befriend other RAs, explore career options and gain peer support and advice when applying for the PhD position and funding.’

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