As a learner-centered research University, DLSU has undergone several efforts in improving its research productivity for the past years. Last 2014 and 2015, DLSU was cited by the Scopus Elsevier database as the most productive research institution in the Philippines with over 1,780 research papers published and 12,203 citations gained as of March 2016. Part of this promotion of a research culture is hiring undergraduate students as research assistants (RA).
How do you become an RA?
Research assistantship varies per college in terms of salary, workload, and time commitment. Some of the research assistantships are required in academic departments such as Literature. On the other hand, undergraduate students may also apply as RAs in one of the 11 research centers in DLSU. However, the needs of each research center vary depending on their financial capability to pay the students as well as the current load of research projects being undertaken.
Software Technology Department Assistant Professor Briane Samson, who is also the former head of the College of Computer Studies’ (CCS) Center for Complexity and Emerging Technologies (COMET), lists down two main reasons why they adopt undergraduate research assistants.
One is that for practical reasons, there are currently more undergraduate students in the University as compared to graduate students. On the other hand, they perceive their research undertakings as a service learning component in education. “We present them with real world projects and research questions,” Samson adds.
In terms of the criteria for selecting RAs, Samson explains that they generally look for four characteristics: genuine interest in the research being undertaken, technical expertise in computer programming, openness, and good previous working relationship. Samson adds that most of his RAs are his former students.
RAs under COMET perform a variety of tasks depending on the nature of the research project. “At the beginning, they read literature and synthesize content. Most of the time, they extract and process data, create models, and then develop tools. Our [RAs] have residency. They decide when they want to work in the lab,” Samson enumerates.
There are also several internal and external opportunities available for the RAs of COMET. These include workshops, side projects, professional community meet-ups, conferences, and competitions. “As a learner-centered research university, it is essential that we make our students collaborators,” Samson expresses.
Samson believes that by hiring RAs, it increases the professors’ productivity because they also need to allot time for teaching. On the other hand, the experience exposes undergraduate students to a different career path aside from the industry, as well as encourages them to become future research leaders.
“Stay curious and be consciously incompetent. It essential for us to know what we do not know for us to create new knowledge. In DLSU and in other [higher education institutions] like [University of the Philippines], being in the academe is a very rewarding career. You get to do a lot of research and you have the support of the institution,” Samson advises, when asked of what advice he can give to students.
Experiences as an RA
For students like Nicolle Magpale (IV, CS-ST), she was recruited in COMET because her thesis group’s topic was about complex systems. “My main task, together with my group, is to research and develop a traffic prediction model. Every day, we try to do small tasks such as cleaning the data, reading a part of a paper, or even just asking questions to our adviser,” Magpale explains.
According to her, the tasks in their research project may seem minimal, but it helps them gradually make progress. Her research group also meets at least three hours a week and focus on doing the project as well as making sure everyone is on the right track. “Aside from doing research, the lab (COMET) also offers various seminars that can help develop our skills in our field. This gives us a great opportunity to learn more than what we are taught inside the four walls of our classrooms,” Magpale shares. Another advantage of being an RA is that the student gets to build a network and learn from the experiences of other members.
Magpale is currently working on a research about a weather-aware traffic prediction model that she argues is fit for developing countries like the Philippines. She shares that although the stress in conducting the research is high, the dedication of the team makes it fulfilling. Moreover, through the research, her team discovers more about themselves in terms of work ethic preference as well as approaches in work.
When asked what advice she can give to undergraduate students who are thinking of becoming an RA, Magpale states that if their time permits, then go for it. She elaborates, “I believe that being a research assistant is a great opportunity for students to be exposed to research possibilities in their field and to discover themselves more in terms of their working dynamics. Although if you decide to become a research assistant, make sure that you are really in on it. Working on something half-heartedly would just lead to half-baked results.”
Apart from research assistantship, other opportunities available for students especially when they are looking for experience and personal income include the University’s Student Assistantship and Resource Training (START) Program. START serves as an alternative source of financial support for students, wherein “students will be immersed in the Lasallian work environment.” While these opportunities are available, undergraduate students have the option to maximize them in order to gain work experience while still being a student.