Each RAship has its own unique pros and cons. Here, we explore some of the more general pros and cons.
Through your work, you’ll get research experience, build on your coding skills, and absorb more of the existing economic literature. In addition to the skills you’ll gain from the work itself, many RAs also have access to seminars and classes (sometimes for free or a reduced cost - see our section on other opportunities), which can help strengthen graduate and job applications. On the personal side of things, you can build your professional network through relationships with PI(s), PIs’ co-authors, and peers. Your PI may be able to advise you on your career and personal research, though experiences vary. On occasion, depending on your contribution, the stage of the project, luck, and the PI, you could even end up co-authoring a paper with your PI(s). All of these factors can strengthen your applications to grad schools and ease your transition into independent research, if you decide to go that route.
If you think you might want to become a professional economist but you’re not totally sure, or if you are torn between pursuing policy work without a graduate degree versus pursuing academic work by entering a PhD program, working as an RA is a great opportunity to explore your options. You’ll be able to learn about research production and the publication process directly from your PI(s). Through both your PI(s) and your peers, you’ll likely be exposed to more than one “work style,” which can be valuable in helping you determine your own approach to work.
Letters of recommendation are necessary for graduate school admission. If you are interested in pursuing graduate studies, you may be able to supplement your college professors’ recommendation letters with one or more from your PI(s). Ideally, a recommendation letter can speak to your ability to succeed in graduate school based on a PI’s experience of working with you. If you are an international student who intends to go to grad school in the U.S., a letter from a PI in the U.S. can be particularly helpful in your applications. Over 80% of the RA survey respondents plan to get 1-2 letters of recommendation from their PI(s). 10% of the respondents plan to get 3 or more letters from their RAship.
Hours: Having more regular work hours (40 hours a week on median in the RA survey) is a nice change of pace from a student’s schedule. RA positions at academic institutions may also have more flexibility than a typical 9 to 5 job in where and when you do your work. Non-academic institutions such as the Federal Reserve Banks may also offer some flexibility, e.g. as detailed on the Chicago Federal Reserve Bank’s FAQs for RA positions: “RAs are expected to be present during regular banking business hours: however, regular schedules can be modified to accommodate class attendance.”
One important caveat here is that hours expectations can vary a lot across RAships. In some places, RAs might work more than 40 hours or even be expected to be available to be “on call” nearly always. If you value work-life balance, you may want to consider this dimension in choosing among potential opportunities (see here to learn more about evaluating positions).
Salary: This depends on the place and can vary with factors such as cost of living, but it is likely that you can earn a higher income as an RA than you can as a grad student. The academic RAs in the RA survey earned in the range of $40k to $65k per year. Many of the surveyed RAs at non-academic institutions had higher salaries, with most falling between $50k and $65k per year.
Note that many of the items listed here can also be a part of life as an economics grad student or a research economist in general. After all, an RA position is very much like an “apprenticeship” in economics!
Because of the nature of research, you may experience a lot of variation in the intensity of work. Some weeks (e.g., when nearing deadlines) you may have to put in extra hours, working late or on the weekends. It could be difficult to make plans around your work when time-demanding tasks pop up unexpectedly. However, if you set clear boundaries) for yourself and your work and manage expectations, you can still find work-life balance. With more practice, you can also become better at managing stress - a useful skill beyond the RAship, as well!
As stated in Princeton’s (Economics) Department Guidelines for Hiring PreDocs: “predocs are among the most vulnerable members of the economics community. … the supervising faculty member has tremendous sway over their future careers.” RAs generally report directly to their PIs, who thus have a lot of influence over day-to-day work life, letters of recommendation, graduate school applications, and/or later career trajectories. If abuse of power does happen, it may feel hard to speak up and/or seek recourse due to fear of retaliation. Some (but not all) workplaces have structures in place to make it easier for RAs to report issues to a third party (see here for more on how to reach out to a third party).
For the most part, PIs and other more senior researchers set the research agenda and assign RAs to projects. Coauthorship is uncommon.
On a day-to-day basis, you may be managing your own tasks without direct oversight. Larger, more structured research groups may have a hierarchy of senior PIs, junior PIs (post-docs, graduate students, or more junior faculty members), and managers to help manage workflow and answer questions, but this is not the norm in smaller groups or in cases where a PI hires a single RA. Many RAs, especially those with less work experience, may take some time to find a workflow that makes sense for them.
Being an RA can be isolating work if there aren’t other RAs working for your PI or if you are unable to interact with your PI on a regular basis. (That being said, there may be others working in your office that you can connect with - see our section on others in your office).
Some tasks that RAs spend a lot of time on can be tedious, such as cleaning data, making figures, debugging code, etc. These tasks are an opportunity to learn valuable skills (like writing good code!) but also may feel unengaging at times. Depending on the stages of the projects you are working on, it may not always be possible to have a mix of more and less exciting tasks.