So You Want to be a Research Assistant Professor?

So after many years of blood, sweat, procrastination, and tears, you’ve finally completed your post-graduate studies and are now ready to put those 3 expensive letters, Ph.D., after your name. Congratulations, you’ve now made a significant impact (in your particular field of study), and the academic world is now richer by this much because of your contributions!

Now what?

For a lot of post-graduate fellows, it’s hard to imagine life without the constant specter of their doctoral thesis haunting them (is that why so many of us have a hard time finishing it?), which is why when we get our post-graduate robes and caps (and swords, if you’re in Sweden), some of us might feel a little lost: do we take up another field of study? Do we just teach? Do we do more research? What am I doing with my life?!

Relax: the second option is almost always the most logical one, not to mention the one that provides the steadiest of incomes. Of course, the competition will always be fierce; Ph.D.’s aren’t necessarily required to get tenure, but every other person vying for tenure will almost-always have a doctoral degree, so it’s best to have one anyway.

But to get there, you’ll have to go through a whole new career ladder. Oh, did you think getting your Ph.D. was the end of your journey? Far from it: after the completion of your doctorate, most Ph.D. holders will enter a postdoctoral research position to help your university and/or your academic institution of choice elevate that particular field of study into a specialization. During this time, you’re usually offered a position as a tenure-track assistant professor, the first step to becoming a full, tenured professor, suede elbow patches optional (a good gift for professors, by the way).

However, there is another career track that you should consider: becoming a full-time researcher dedicated to not just making an impact in your field of study, but also expanding it and creating even more specialized curriculums within your field. It’s like doing your Ph.D. all over again, only this time you don’t get to be part of a graduation ceremony once you complete a particular study. Yay, I guess?

For those brave souls looking to become full-time researchers, the first step is applying to become a research assistant professor. But what even is that?

What are Research Assistant Professors?

In essence, a tenure-track assistant professor and a research assistant professor are practically the same in terms of academic rank: they’re both junior ranks in the academic world, with the former leading towards full tenure as a professor while the latter leads to a full-time career as a researcher. However, during your time as a junior academic, you’ll most likely be tasked with research training, wherein you’d be assigned to learn under a senior academic (either an associate professor, a tenured professor, or a full-time research fellow), during which time they’re expected to train and mentor you in your field of study.

However, unlike tenure-track assistant professors, the role of research assistant professor is a non-standard professorial title. It’s offered in a lot of universities, but not all, as some universities are not equipped for postdoctoral research. Research assistant professors operate much like visiting professors, as they are usually appointed to their position only for a short amount of time: 2 to 3 years depending on their field of research and whether or not the external grants can still fund it.

What Do Research Assistant Professors Do?

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As the name suggests, research assistant professors are primarily tasked with researching the projects that they are being funded to work on. Research assistant professors are also highly encouraged to apply for, and win, external grants to fund their own projects (or any project that your University might task you with).

This position comes with its own pros and cons: first, because you’re primarily tasked with researching your particular field of study, you’d be working on something you’re completely passionate about on your own time, and being paid to do so. Being a research assistant professor comes with a whole lot of independence, as you get to run your research the way you want: labs are at your disposal, and so are other resources. After all, the University trusts you and your Ph.D. to be absolute experts in your specific subject matter.

On the flip side, however, if you thought fighting for a tenured professorship was tough, try working to secure grants: it’s extremely competitive, and you’d be going up against other geniuses of your caliber. And while you’ll be working on a project within your field of study, it might not necessarily be a project that you are personally championing. Most research assistant professors start off their careers working on other people’s projects, where you have to work really hard to prove yourself not only capable of being a subject matter expert but also capable of creating a new project and securing funding it for it through grant applications.

Do Research Assistant Professors Teach?

Although research assistant professors are primarily tasked with researching, it’s not uncommon for Universities to sneak in a few teaching responsibilities here and there. It makes sense: postdoctoral roles are usually training positions, which means that, whether you’re research-focused or tenure-tracked, you’ll most likely have to teach a class or two on your field of study. For most research assistant professors, this usually comes in the form of seminars, supervising an undergraduate research project, or mentoring Ph.D. candidates on their projects. While this is outside your purview as a research-based expert, it goes a very long way to assuring grant-giving institutions that you are responsible enough to manage the myriad moving parts of a project and that you’re a trusted expert on whatever you’re teaching.

As the job title implies, research assistant professors are in the same rank and level as tenure-track assistant professors. Unlike them, however, research assistant professors split their time with teaching and research. This might sound stressful, mostly because it is, but it’s a great addition to your resume and is a great indicator of your character as a researcher and an academic. Most important of all: while teaching isn’t a requirement per se, it is a critical deciding factor for University boards when they’re debating whether or not to offer you a research associate position in the future.

How Much Do Research Assistant Professors Make?

Because research assistant professors aren’t technically employees at their University (their salaries are paid for by the external grant-giving institution that’s funding the project), they don’t enjoy the financial perks of being a tenured professor, or even that of an associate professor. On average, research assistant professors make around $57,000 to $109,000 a year, depending on the grant, the school, the project, and even the state.

While it’s not chump change, what they earn is far less than what associate professors make, which is around $83,000 to up to $200,000 a year, and this is before tenure, where the salary goes up exponentially (not to mention that whole ‘unfireability’ thing tenured professors enjoy).

So is being a research assistant professor worth it? It is, but only if you’re truly passionate about your field of study. At the end of the day, it allows you to pursue your interests while gaining experience teaching (just in case the researcher stint doesn’t pan out). And you get paid the whole time, which, at least to me, is the best perk of all.

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