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Working with Research Assistants in the Field


RiDNet (Researchers in Development Network) Brown Bag lunch!

Last month RiDNet ran a training session for development researchers working with research assistants during field work. The session was part of the RiDNet Brown Bag series and was the first of 2016.

Dr Pete Steward, and PhD researchers Jo Clarke and Caroline Ward talked about their experiences of working with assistants in the field in Kenya & Malawi, Cameroon, and Madagascar. This seminar was attended mainly by first year PhD students working in developing country contexts, who will be carrying out fieldwork this summer.

First of all, the importance of research assistants to the researcher’s field experience was emphasised. All of the speakers recounted the invaluable support they had received from good research assistants.

The research assistant’s role is different to a translator, even though they may provide translation - it is so much more. RAs can help the researcher to understand local context and culture, provide practical support, conduct interviews and focus groups, facilitate workshops, take notes, help with organisational tasks, planning, reflection.... RiDNet01

A good research assistant is invaluable and integral to the research process!

So, this begs the questions - what is a GOOD research assistant and how does one find such a person?

Finding a research assistant

Here, networking is important. Contact local NGOs, University departments, research institutes and ask to be introduced to a potential RA, or see if they can recommend someone. Talk to other researchers who have returned from field work in your area to see if they have any recommendations too.

What skills should you look for in a RA? Skills of research assistants – what is the most important? Look for transferable skills. Problem-solving skills can be useful.

It is important to meet the research assistant first. Although decisions have to be made quickly, it is important to see that you are going to get along, as Caroline found, you can be spending a lot of time in cramped conditions with your assistant, so it’s pretty important that you actually like each other!

Also, consider if you need one or two research assistants, and if a gender mix is wise. As female researchers both Caroline and Jo found that having one male and one female RAs was useful.

Hiring a research assistant

Setting out terms of reference is another essential. Some flexibility and adaptability is needed, but it is important to be clear up front about expectations, in terms of wages and hours of work. In terms of what to pay RAs – you can’t expect to pay peanuts, but at the same time, paying a UK salary may not be appropriate. The speakers recommended that you check out the local going rate for research assistants and adopt something similar. Another way to approach this is to consider the wage for an entry level teacher, which requires some of the similar skills, and use that pay scale as a guideline.

It goes without saying that you should treat RAs how you would be expected to be treated yourself; you are the employer, so consider paid holidays and sick pay. Treat good research assistants well and it will pay off in terms of work done well! Pete's advice from his experience is “be generous and respectful, and you will get better results".


Getting to grips with your project and way of working

Preparation is extremely important. You should spend some time training your RAs on ethics; for example, anonymity of participants, ensuring informed consent, handling sensitive issues.

It is essential that RAs understand your project. Research assistants are working for you and want to do well, but it is important to be clear that this doesn’t mean that if they think something is not working right they should keep quiet. A badly translated interview questionnaire that doesn’t make sense can really skew your results. You must check that the understanding of language fits into the bigger picture of the research. Also, it is worthwhile to check with others to ensure that things are not lost in translation.

Be clear about project aims. For Jo, this was important and she spent a lot of time with her assistants going over terminology and practicing interviews with the staff of an NGO she was working with. Practicing before you start is really important!

Pete agreed that practice is really important – he found that even something as obvious as taking a measurement can be done in a different way.

You are giving the research assistant a big responsibility, especially when you are not a native speaker yourself. You are relying on them to capture the data that you want in the way you want. For Caroline, handing over the focus group to the research assistant was a big deal, but not being a native speaker herself it was too difficult for her to facilitate on her own. Her advice is to try it out, reflect on it and then the process will get better as you go along.

On the job challenges

One question that came up from the participants in the session was how to motivate RAs during field work. If motivation becomes an issue, remember that you are providing the RA with experience and a reference. Talk to the assistant about their expectations before they begin, and make sure you take time to ask them about their experience as you go along, and discuss any issues that arise.

Also, be sure that ethics information is passed on to RAs. Your RA may be from another region of the country and although it is likely that RAs are able to inform you about cultural sensitivity issues, consider that RAs may have to be reminded about dress codes and expectations of behaviour.

Another challenge can be the lack of preparedness of RAs for working in remote areas. In some cases the RA turned up in office wear which was inappropriate for traveling into remote locations. You should be prepared to provide more than expected in terms of equipment and materials for your research assistants.

If you are relying on one assistant, do you have a back up plan? It is important to have a plan in place for if your assistant become ill or has to leave suddenly to attend a family commitment.

The RA as part of the research process

All of the speakers agreed that co-planning and reflection is really important. Set aside time to talk to your RA to reflect on their experiences of the research and help you plan for the next day or week ahead. Discuss what is working well, what are their thoughts about the research process and data you are collecting. You could ask them to keep their own field diary.


The next RiDNet event will be an afternoon training session on Methods for research in Developing country contexts in May 2016