What Do Undergraduate Research Assistants Do?


This paper seeks to discuss the purpose of undergraduate research assistants to understand what they do. But before we get there, we need to understand what research is and why it is so important, and also need to know who we refer to when we speak of an undergraduate research assistant. In this discussion, I will include some examples we can look at that will assist us in getting a piece of in-depth knowledge about research assistants.

First, I discuss what research is and explain why it is relevant in our society. I then move on to discuss undergraduate students and their role in the field of research. I also include arguments from other scholars to substantiate my argument with a clear demonstration. And lastly, I conclude with a summary that revealed what undergraduate research assistants do. It is necessary and beneficial. 

To understand undergraduate research assistants, we first need to look at the definition of what research is all about. According to Bhattacherje’s (2012) research, it is a broad concept to understand for many people because they understand the concept. However, the research could be considered valid research only if it constitutes a scientific method (Bhattacherje 2012). It is scientists who define the term because it follows certain steps to be validated as research. For instance, it is argued that the “Scientific method refers to a standardized set of techniques for building scientific knowledge such as how to make a valid observation, how to interpret results, and how to generate those results” (Bhattacherjee 2012:5). This is something I related to when I conducted my fieldwork in Wesbank township in 2019. And is important to know the steps and set of skills to apply for methodology, especially when researching to collect qualitative data. According to Bhattacherjee (2012), research also follows five steps that define what would be considered true, valid research, and these steps are; identification and definition of the research problem, formulation of hypothesis, collection of data, analysis, and interpretation, and lastly explanation of the findings of a research problem. 

Based on the above argument, it’s what would be considered and accepted as true, valid research which constitutes the scientific method. And those are the steps that researchers need to follow. However, with regards to the relevance of research in our society, the research contributes to the needs of the people. According to Kleinhans (1994), research is important in helping to address social issues that people deal with daily. For example, crime is one of the major issues that continue to affect many people. Now research helps to expose the issues and the cause behind them. Research is also relevant in our society. As a result, it helps us to improve the safety of the people. Government can look at challenges that citizens face and come up with a solution to reduce crime. Identifying the problem, which is now considered a threat, is often due to the discovery found by researchers who researched a particular issue. For example, research can also explain the high rate of crime resulting from unemployment, lack of policing in the low-income areas where most people are faced with inequalities, and which is where the majority of the working-class people live (see Giddens 2009). Furthermore, everything explains what research is and why it is relevant in contemporary society.

Now that we know what research is and its relevance in the real world. It’s time to learn more about undergraduate students and their role in the field of research. This will help us gain knowledge on what undergraduate research assistants do, for we know that undergraduate research assistants are undergraduate students who enroll at university ( T.D.N. Silva et al., 2004). 

For example, when I was an undergraduate student at the University of the Western Cape. I eye-witnessed that lectures in the Anthropology department worked with undergraduate students on their research project. This was a way to prepare students for their future research projects – should they become interested in specializing in research. Because in undergrad, we were taught research theories and how to apply them when doing research. So lectures in the Anthropology and Sociology department employed students to research certain topics where they had to do a literature review before going to the field. It was a way students could learn and have practical experience in researching. In other words, undergraduates became part of those research projects in which they were asked to join to gain practical experience. As I discussed earlier, what is research and why it is relevant, we learned the duties of being a researcher that they need to have experience, not just a theory. This is why there are lectures and graduate programs that recruit undergrad students, in which they saw potential in them. Undergraduate students can now learn to collect and analyze data, write reports to address certain issues. Lectures and supervisors are there to assist and guide students. In that way, they get to grow and know the expectations at the postgraduate level. Let me explain. During my second and third years as undergrad students, we were given assignments requiring us to do fieldwork. I had to choose a topic to research, in which interviews and footnotes were necessary because all the information would be needed to write an essay and report my findings. However, I could not have managed how to do things if they were not explained to me, and especially if I had not worked with lectures to become a research assistant. Because undergraduate research assistants learn to do things they must know before graduation. In my case, I was able to do my honors research with the knowledge and experience I learned in my undergrad. This is why I was able to find participants for my study and get to know them day by day. 

The first thing I knew was that anthropologist researchers get to know people in a lengthy time. So when I worked on my independent research, I saw an opportunity to volunteer. Volunteer to work in my community for the Wesbank Women for Change project. That way, I was able to do interviews with my participants in a conversational style. I had volunteered not to make my participants feel uncomfortable – cause they would have seen me as an outsider and not wanting to disclose any information that I needed. My strategy worked because although they knew I was a student doing research, they ended up seeing me as one of their own. After all, I was part of the team. Through walking ethnography, I was able to observe and collect as much data as needed. And walking ethnography is an interview between the researcher and the participant in a conversational style rather than a formal interview (see Jones et al., 2008; Yi’En 2013). The point that I make to use myself as an example is to demonstrate the benefits of undergraduate students who become research assistants. Believe it or not, undergraduate research assistants learn to become better leaders of tomorrow. What benefits them also benefits the research companies and universities (see R.E. Landrum 2002). If we look at things from a broad perspective, we would note that many undergraduate students end up becoming lecturers while others become great assets to research companies.

We now get the idea of what undergraduate research assistants are all about. As we know, research itself it’s broad, and it depends on what field we focus on. As for social scientists, they do things the way I have discussed and explained concerning the scientific method, which is the only way to validate the research. Therefore, undergraduate research assistants continue to follow up the instructions given to them to either do face-to-face interviews or analyze the data they’ve collected. This also reminds me of the time when I had to do my sociology assignment. In this particular case, we were selected as a group of 17 students who had to focus on a budget of the low-income family. Reasons for this, our lecture was interested in the social determinants of health that concerns higher-income family, middle-class family, and low-income family. Although, as undergrad students, we were divided into groups, our mission was to interview people from different backgrounds, do literature reviews, look at the statistics, and analyze the data. Based on our findings, we were asked to write reports and do a presentation. The lecture took all the information and included it in her chapters of the book she was writing. From that example, we had assisted the lecture with information that was part of our assignment we had to do. Other than that, lecturers often ask undergraduate students in the third year to assist with readings and marking tutorial assignments of the first-year students.

These expectations are there to assist undergraduates and prepare them for post-graduate studies. Yet, in undergrad, students are still new, and therefore they continue to learn lessons they do not know. This is why lectures take undergraduates and allow them to work on different projects, and there are also graduate programs that assist students throughout universities and colleges. 

Another important point to take note of is the way of thinking. When undergraduates are exposed to research programs that benefit them, they become critical thinkers in the end. This shows the growth that has taken place in them. Even during office hours, students often help lecturers with marking and filing some of the important portfolios in the office or assisting the administration where help is needed. Everything clearly shows they are limited to work on research projects because there is a variety of other things they can do.

One of the professors I know from the University of the Western Cape, Heike Becker, in the Department of Anthropology. In the years, she conducted her research in the Cape Flats on the outskirts of Cape Town, South Africa. To look at new identities in post-apartheid South Africa. In her article called “How We See Our Culture: Photographic self-representation from the Cape Flats, South Africa” (2015), its a great example of ethnographic work in which you can see the qualitative research that she worked with people to find new information about new emerging identities in post-apartheid South Africa. I mention this because such research projects require lecturers to work with students in collaborating with participants, for we know that students are often there to assist the lecturers in their research projects. Now such opportunities are learning experiences to see how things are done. Put it this way. A student might see how the lecture speaks to participants in the field. Then after interviews, the lecture can show the undergraduate students how to analyze data by beginning to transcribe some of the interviews. Also, to look at the themes that come up and take those themes to see what academic articles link to each theme. As time goes, the undergraduate research assistant gets to see the missing gaps or what has changed over the past years, even come up with a solution to the problem or discover what was problematic that no one could see. Those are some fruits that undergraduates tend to benefit from. And of course, it’s all because students partake in many research projects, working with professionals who continue to guide and show them how it’s done. 

Furthermore, this paper has discussed and revealed what undergraduates research assistants do. I have provided examples and draw on articles I have read. Most importantly, I had discussed what research is to give a clear understanding before we jumped to the undergraduate research assistant. Also, I have made it clear why research is relevant in the contemporary world, and I had discussed the involvement of undergraduates in the field of research. And to conclude, it is obvious that undergraduate students benefit from taking the path of becoming researchers who had acquired knowledge and skills to make this world a better place. As I had discussed, it is students who benefit and people they will be working with in the future. And it does not change the fact that they are future researchers and leaders of tomorrow. 


Bhattacherjee, A.2012. Social Research: Principles, Methods, and Practice, pp.28-34.

Becker, H. 2015. ‘How We See Our Culture’: Photographic self-representation from the Cape Flats, Sourh Africa. Visual Anthropology 28 (5): 373-397. 

Giddens, A. & Birdsall, K. (2001). Sociology. Cambridge, England: Polity Press. 

Kleinhans et al.1994. Between Research and Society: The Young Academy, pp.11-30. 

Silva et al.2004. Role of the Undergraduate Student Research Assistant in the New Millennium, Cell Biology Education, Vol.3,pp.235-240.

Yi’En, C. 2013. ‘Telling Stories of the City: Walking Ethnography, Affective Materialities, and 

Mobile Encounters’ Space and Culture, 17(3), pp. 211-223.

What Do Undergraduate Research Assistants Do?

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