I’ve been polling colleagues about their experiences working with student research assistants. I’ve asked them what does (and does not) make for a successful professor-RA relationship. I’ve compiled some of their thoughts, added a few of my own and tried to articulate the unspoken messages I gathered in my hallway conversations.
1. If you say you are going to work 10 hours a week, then the professor expects you to work 10 hours a week. For the entire period. Don’t go AWOL after week 3 if you’ve agreed to work for, say, 12 weeks. If you do go AWOL, there better be a really good explanation.
2. If you have plans to go away over summer vacation, let the professor know when you interview for the position, not after you’ve already accepted.
3. If the professor is hiring summer research assistants for general assistance, as opposed to help on a particular article or project, let your professor know what kinds of work or research that would interest you (within the general genre of the professor’s specialty). Do this during the interview for the position.
4. A good way to test whether you understand a project to which you’ve been assigned is to ask your professor to listen to your “play back.” You can say politely, “Just to make sure I understand it is what you are asking me to do, let me say back to you what I think the project is.” This doesn’t make you look foolish; it makes you look smart and responsible.
5. Always ask when an assignment is due.
6. Often or occasionally, professors will ask you to do menial, administrative-type work. It is not a good idea to say, “Couldn’t your administrative assistant do this, Professor?” The professor already has decided that you are the best person for the job. Second-guessing gives the (perhaps unintentional) impression that you consider yourself “above” making copies, page-checking, ordering books inter-library loan, etc. None of us is.
7. You will be indispensable to your professor if you know how to blue-book, or at least consider the Bluebook your friend. Hey, these are just the standard citation rules for our profession. We all know they are not intuitive. Get over it.
8. Keep an “assignment log” in which you write down a short description of any project you have been given, the date on which it was given, any deadlines imposed by the professor, the location of your work (either in hard copy or stored on your computer hard drive) and the status of the project (completed, waiting for comments from professor, etc.). That way, when the absent-minded professor asks you two weeks before the start of the semester, “Where is that research memo you did for me about res judicata?” you’ll know exactly when you completed it and where it is, in case your professor needs another copy.
9. Remember that this is a professional relationship. Be on time for meetings. Meet deadlines. Use proper spelling, punctuation and grammar in all communications.
10. Don’t ask your professor questions to which you readily (I mean really readily) can find the answer yourself. My favorite is, “Where is Professor X’s office?” There is, after all, a directory of all office locations posted at the entrance to the school and in other places.
11. If you don’t have enough work to do, let your professor know. Often a faculty member gets so involved in a particular project that he or she may not “remember” to give you more work (or even remember how much work she gave you). When you do not have enough work and you do not let your professor know, the prof thinks you are avoiding him/her and trying to get out of working.
12. Set clear beginning and ending dates for your employment as a research assistant. As your ending date is approaching, make sure your professor remembers that it is coming.
13. Some professors prefer in-person communication to e-mail communication. I know this seems “illogical” to many law students, but it is true. Ask or determine what your professor prefers. Even if your professor says “email is fine,” don’t be shy about sticking your head into his or her office from time to time. Face time for the sake of it is a waste; face time that helps you make a human connection with someone is not.
14. Get to know the law librarians. They’re smart, knowledgeable and have heard most requests before. They can do a whole lot more than just help you with Westlaw problems or point you toward the F.Supp. Often the librarians have been working with certain professors for years, and they know what the professor means when she asks an RA to do x or y.
15. Never forget that in every interaction — with the librarians, with school administrators, with classmates, with your professors — you are establishing your professional reputation. You may be wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but the way you carry yourself and how you perform as a research assistant in particular will become known among the school community (especially the faculty). If you do a great job, your professor will be a great ally for the rest of your career.