doing other people’s work and your own

So, I will be an RA this summer for a public policy prof, working on coding cases and I need some advice. I’ve been talking to another grad student friend, and she’s suggested 20 hrs/week, so that I’m sufficiently engaged with the project, well remunerated, and still with time to work on advancing my own research.

The underlying project is interesting (a judicial behavioral analysis of sexual harassment cases), but I’m basically doing highly trained monkey work–coding cases into variables, for a dataset of about 1,000. Like in two months.

I’ve already started, reading the coding scheme, background work, and getting set up in the office–I will work from his computer (or a remote VPN client), so that all of the work is saved on the same file. I do not like the idea of commuting, but I wonder if it will make me more efficient, even though I like my ergonomic home work station.

Any advice?

1. Is 20 hours too much?

2. How should I spread out the hours? 4 hours/5 days (the other 5 hours on my own work) or roughly 7 hours for 3 days/week with 2 days + weekends to focus on my own work? I ask, because I have to submit a strict schedule, as he can’t access his server when I’m logged on.

3. Although the “work at home or office” question is highly individual, I’m largely agnostic on this–perhaps the thing to do is to just try out the different environments and see which one works best for me. But what have you found to work better for you? I’ve never had an office (damn underfunded universities), so I am curious. I’ve always worked from home, and it usually works for me, but lately I wonder if I would be even more productive if I wasn’t able to procrastinate by cleaning something.

Thanks for the advice!

6 thoughts on “doing other people’s work and your own”

  1. During graduate school I worked in the graduate student computer lab. I had a laptop I could use at my school office or elsewhere, and there was a desktop at home, but the only place that I could really get immersed in work was the lab.

    Even now I rarely write at home. I’ll grade and read, but nothing that I need to be able to do without distractions.


  2. I’m too old to respond as a worker, so I’ll respond as an employer. At my school, positions are defined on a % basis that automatically imply hours per week baselines. An RA that is part of your “own” research agenda tends to have a kind of open-ended definition, and if the prof is your advisor, s/he may expect it to be open-ended. If it is not your “own” research (and even if it is, really) the hours per week expectation is an important topic for open discussion. I would consider 20 hours per week to be right, because most of our research positions are 50% appointments and that is kind of the standard. You need to ask others at your institution to find out how things are normed there.

    I think keeping a schedule and a work log is a good idea any time you are doing work for others (and probably when you are doing it for yourself.) This lets you take a professional stance toward the employer: Here’s how I’ve been spending my time, here is what I’m getting done. Does this look right to you? Proactively asking for supervision paradoxically puts you in a stronger position than going off on your own, not discussing things, and hoping you are meeting the person’s expectations.

    Keep in mind that “trained monkey” work is part of the job for an academic. I still do a lot of essentially clerical work as part of my own research, and over many years I’ve learned efficient ways to do it. So don’t feel demeaned by it. Treat it as a basic part of research that you may be doing your whole career. However, this kind of work can be mind-numbing and eye-straining and body-stressing and is probably better done in blocks of a few hours at a time. On the other end, all the “how to write a lot” people stress the importance of working on your own writing at least an hour or two a day, so you can remember what you are doing and stay engaged. All of which seems to imply that an orderly schedule of doing both kinds of work every day is probably better than having separate days for the two kinds of work.


  3. At my university, 50% is also 20 hrs per week. And 20 hrs is the maximum allowed. If this isn’t a regular position, you might consider asking the professor what their expectations are. That’s also a good way to make sure they won’t work you to death, or if they’ll allow 15 hours per week. [I worked for one professor who demanded 20 hours per week, not 19 hours and 56 minutes.] If it’s a matter of finishing the project, will you get the full pay if you finish it in fewer hours?

    Definitely keep a log. For schedule, I’d recommend 4 hrs, 5 days a week (i.e. mornings or afternoons). If it’s mind numbing, it’s really hard to go for long periods of time. And that would give you a good week-day schedule.


  4. I agree on what everyone else said about 20 hours. I’ve been doing 40 for my summer RA, and it’s harsh. 20 is about right.

    Something to consider about the number of hours per day is your tendency to get into the zone. Sometimes, I do best when I start a project and just go for a long period. It becomes Zen and the Art of the Code Monkey. If you are similar, it might be a good idea to plan longer days for that, and then you could have other days planned for other work.


  5. OW, important reminder that tedious tasks remain throughout research. Graduate students sometimes complain to me about this and I wonder if they understand the profession they’re getting into.

    Are you being paid by the hour? 20/week sounds reasonable assuming that meets your financial needs.

    People have different work styles. It works better for me to focus on one main project per day. If that’s how you work then it may be best to allocate certain days for RA work and certain days for your own work. I suspect you could figure out what works best for you after trying both systems (this and the split-days version) for a few days.


  6. Congratulations on your RA-ship and finding someone who is interested in making sure that you are advancing on your own work. I don’t have the experience to warrant giving much advice on most things (I’m an advanced grad student finishing my fifth year), but I think that I can complement OW/WW’s advice from the employee side.

    I think that the number one issue that both OW and tamsynx bring up is good — talk to your professor up front about what expectations are – both in terms of effort and what you are expected to be doing. I would also add that it is very important to set up regular meetings. I have worked for three projects, all with different faculty members who are great scholars and good, kind human beings. But, in all three cases, they wanted me to be doing very different things and I have been the most miserable when I have not set up time to talk to them regularly to make sure that what I am doing is correct. Things that one faculty member wanted me to do were very different from the things another wanted me to do. And there is nothing worse than doing a month’s worth of work to find out that is not what the professor wanted.

    I would also add that being a “trained monkey” has been an invaluable experience for me. I learned to program Stata because I was given what seemed like an impossibly large project to accomplish as an RA. It gave me a real application that made it worthwhile to spend time learning something it would have been difficult to justify doing on my own projects on my own time — never mind not having the data on which I could experiment. I’ve also learned really important steps to the research process by doing the mind-numbing “trained monkey” that has helped me focus my own research questions and analytic strategies. And made me much more efficient in my own work.

    One thing that others haven’t mentioned, but I would suggest is to also talk with the professor about any projects that you might be interested in working on from the data. If you are interested in the overall project and you have a good relationship with the professor, you’ll likely find trends in the data that interest you. I think that it has been a great experience working with senior researchers on projects with their data. And, while getting paid is nice, it’s better to also work on building your professional relationships and your cv.

    I’ve found that it is a completely personal decision. I have a situation now where I work two days a week between 8-10 hours a day on my paid work and leave the remaining three days for my own work. I think that works well for me because I have three completely uninterrupted days for my own work. But like most others have said, I think that it is completely personal. Good luck!


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