I got an email the other day from Academia.edu. Considering I left grad school almost a year ago, my first thought was, “How did they find me?” Turns out, my name had been mentioned in a research paper. It had almost completely slipped my mind that, while a sophomore at Boston University, I was a research assistant at the Harvard Laboratory for Developmental Studies. It wasn't as glamorous as it sounds—mostly I cold-called parents and asked if they wanted to bring their toddler in to participate in a scientific study disguised as a board game with me. Spoiler alert: four-year-olds are super bad at board games.
Despite the lack of glitz and glam and montages to “Weird Science” by Oingo Boingo, the experience was unique. I wasn't majoring in psychology, I wasn't planning to enter academia, and I didn't even like babysitting, really—but it was still an extremely valuable experience. You might be thinking, “Okay yeah, you get to name-drop Harvard. But aren't there better uses of my time than doing a scientist's or historian's busywork?” Maybe. I don't know your life. But academic research can be a useful tool in your arsenal as you enter the workforce—even if you aren't planning on becoming a professor or majoring in a STEM subject. How?
It demonstrates intellectual curiosity
I learned fascinating stuff in my time at the developmental studies lab. My study leader was doing research on priming, which I won't get into here but is really interesting and totally changed the way I think about basically everything. I'll explain priming to anyone in my life who asks—and plenty who won't. That kind of intellectual curiosity—of wanting to know something that might not be in your immediate purview—is an excellent quality to have in any job. Employers actively look for this quality, but it's a tough one to show on a resume. Citing academic research is hard proof that you are inquisitive and capable of thinking about a bigger picture.
It teaches you to communicate complex topics effectively
Once a potential employer sees “research assistant” on your resume, there's a good chance they'll ask you about the project. Most academic research, regardless of its department, is complicated. It's quite technical, and often deals with a very small aspect of a broad subject. You can probably explain what your research was, but what's important to remember is that your listener either has a limited understanding of the subject and/or doesn't want to hear you ramble for 10 minutes about ambiguous grammar structures. (I learned that the hard way.) Conveying complex ideas succinctly, in plain English, is what that “excellent oral communication” bullet you put on your skills list is all about. And doing something complicated that people will keep asking you about (like academic research) is a great way to bolster that skill.
It can spark valuable relationships
I didn't actually see my study leader all that much—he was a grad student at the time, not a full-time researcher, so he was busy with classes and whatnot while I dealt with his scientific housekeeping. But plenty of my fellow assistants had very close relationships with their researchers—and mentorships like that don't come around very often. Having a mentor you can really relate to is an excellent way to further your studies, as well as open some doors that might have otherwise been closed to you.
Academic research can seem like something that only benefits a STEM major or those going into other scientific or medical fields. But in my experience, it was an interesting look into a world that not a lot of people get to see, and it furnished me with some great talking points in my earliest job interviews. So perhaps take a look to see who needs a research assistant next fall—nearly all departments offer some kind of research opportunity to students, be it in psychology, history, or even foreign languages. You never know the kind of neat stuff you might learn.