A Few Months In, Helpful Tips

So now that I’ve been a research assistant at the USIP for a few months I feel like I can finally offer a few tips to the current or future fellow RA.  For a short time I was learning the ropes and getting acquainted with the organization, the position, and the people.  Then for a few weeks I was diving into the work, reading everything I could find on the topic I’d be studying until at the end of every day I was saturated with knowledge on Indonesia.  I read everything from security strategy and policy to current events and geography.  Then once I felt more comfortable with the region and the topic I began to delve deeper, trying to identify patterns, opinions, and policy strategies.

I have hit comfortable days where I’ve spent the day reading and absorbing information, frustrating days where every research trail leads to a dead-end, and high energy days where I’ve found everything I set out to find and finish the day still trying to print or organize all the information I gathered.

At this point I’d like to present a few helpful suggestions that I would write to myself or anyone in a similar position, which I have gathered over the past two months.

Here they are:

  1. Be friendly around the office.  Smile at the people you meet or see, and offer help if you see that someone needs something you can give.  Being pleasant and helpful creates a comfortable environment for you and everyone around you, not to mention the people you work with can also often be helpful resources.  You never know when you might need help with a project and the fewer strangers you work with, the better!
  2. Set a daily agenda for yourself.  Often a Fellow is concentrating on setting up interviews, focusing on their writing process, or attending meetings and events and they don’t have time to find specific tasks for you.  Without a set agenda, you could spend a day jumping from task to task as they occur to you and finish a day with nothing completed!  Making a task list for yourself helps you to stay on track and accomplish work without instruction.
  3. Get an outline of the forthcoming book or report you are helping to do research for, and read through it regularly to keep yourself on track.  Research can be a winding road that occasionally leads either to nowhere, or to information that while interesting has nothing to do with your project.  You could wind up spending hours reading something that turns out to be irrelevant if you don’t keep your goals and research questions in mind as you read.
  4. Get to know your desk mates.  I work in an office space with about a dozen fantastically interesting and funny people and our discussion and banter makes my day fly by.  Reading alone for hours at a computer would drive anyone crazy, so I try to keep in mind that while sometimes I have to buckle down and put my headphones in to get work done, talking to the people around me usually makes my day.  They are also often helpful in the research department– if I don’t know where to find certain statistics or policy reports or I’m stuck, someone around me almost always has an idea of where to look.
  5. Pack your lunch.  Eating out every day can get expensive, and walking several blocks to buy food and wait for it can take time away from either work or relaxing moments with coworkers in the break room.  It doesn’t take long to whip up a casserole or rice dish at the beginning of the week and put it in tupperware containers, or throw together a salad the night before.  I am always grateful to have home-made food ready to heat up in the kitchen when I get hungry for lunch and not to have to go out to buy an overpriced sandwich.
  6. And lastly, love your work.  Don’t apply for a job somewhere that you hate just because someone else suggested it would help your resume.  Do your best to find an organization you respect, and a project that strikes your interest.  And if the job truly sucks, find something to love about it because if you love it your interest will show in your work.  Good work and a good time, who can ask for more than that?

(The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policy positions.)