A graduate student’s research assistantship with a research group is a prominent role that mixes the rigor and high expectations of a demanding job with the opportunity for being mentored, participating in the public representation of a group’s work, and completing the graduate program with an impressive body of work.
RA positions offer a host of benefits: opportunities to extend your CMS education, to hone skill sets, and to cultivate real-world networks of media practitioners, artists, activists, educators, and scholars.
In addition—contingent on funding but almost always the case—your tuition expenses are covered, and you receive a stipend for living expenses and health insurance.
Your RA assignment is based on several factors, including how much funding a research group has available, project needs, and your own skills. The interests and preferences that led you to the graduate program in the first place play a big role as well. Faculty and research managers allocate time and resources, in part, with your talents and funding sources in mind, and you should budget your own time and resources to your benefit as well. (See the “Requirements and Rights” section below.)
Put that all together, and you’ll understand why changes in RA assignment are strongly discouraged. That’s the case for both you and the research managers. Assignment changes cannot be made without the approval of the research directors and the Director of Graduate Studies.
Requirements and Rights
Balancing a research position with coursework and demands outside of CMS can be challenging. So we want to outline your requirements and rights as a research assistant, acknowledging your concurrent academic obligations.
You’ll receive similar but more detailed and formal text to this effect after admission; consider that text official—any new or changed information there supersedes what comes below…
CMS RAs are required to:
- Work an average of twenty hours per week in their assigned lab
The CMS graduate program’s academic curriculum runs to about twenty hours as well, not including homework. So, you as a graduate student and research assistant will spend at least forty hours per week on campus.
We know that RAs may not work twenty hours every week in their assigned labs, but the total number of hours worked is expected to average twenty hours per week across the semester.
- Complete assigned projects and tasks in a timely and professional manner
- Attend meetings, symposia, and other project-related functions as requested by your research director
- Participate in periodic performance reviews
An RA Work Plan – through which RAs and research managers agree upon and document specific tasks and expectations – will guide your work throughout the semester and provide the criteria for your review. Results of the review will determine your eligibility for future RA funding, and inconsistent or poor performance can result in withdrawal of tuition and stipend support. We encourage RAs to discuss their experience frankly with their research managers during the review process. At the end of each semester, you’ll be asked to complete a confidential evaluation of your research assignment, which will be reviewed by the Director of Graduate Studies.
- Begin work during the first week of classes and continue through May 31st of the following calendar year, including during Independent Activities Period
RAs are not required to work during breaks within the academic year, but they are required to work throughout MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP) in January. Breaks include winter break, which runs from the last day of exams in December to the beginning of IAP in January, and spring break, typically the last week in March. Research managers may make exceptions to these work requirements for thesis-related travel you may have.
Depending on the project, students may be required to work in their assigned labs over the summer. You’ll receive extra pay. Students considering summer work opportunities elsewhere will discuss their plans with their research directors before the end of January. Once you’ve made that commitment to work on a project during the summer months, you’ll be expected to fulfill that obligation.
The serious wording again: Failure to fulfill these responsibilities will jeopardize your standing as a research assistant and may result in a withdrawal of support.
CMS RAs have the right to:
- Negotiate project tasks and completion dates with their research directors, as project deadlines permit
- Engage in work that is appropriate to their interests, skills, and academic coursework, as project needs permit
- Receive and request training to improve skills necessary for project work
- Request a transfer to a different lab at the end of a semester. Although the administration will consider all change requests, a transfer may not be possible. To ensure the best possible match between a student’s skills and research groups’ requirements, the Director of the Graduate Program, in consultation with the Head and research managers, may reassign an RA. This is not common practice, but, still, RA’s should understand that that their assignments are based first on research groups’ needs and funding.