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Research Assistant

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Each year, thousands of hours go into scientific, informational and observational research. Thousands of volunteer research assistants will work alongside trained, paid researchers to help move the projects forward.

Volunteer research assistants help with research in a number of different areas. For example, a volunteer research assistant might help a nonprofit organization by researching the types of grants that the organization can qualify for. Another might work with a wildlife organization, tagging and logging information about birds or other animals. Another might work in an agricultural setting, trying to find ways to increase crop yield or prevent damage cause by insects.

Research assistants volunteer for many different reasons. Some want to help with a program that interests them. Others are working toward a career in the field.

Frank Eversole is the executive director of the National Defense University Foundation in Ft. McNair, DC. He says research assistants should be able to use periodicals, textbooks, reference materials and video to collect information. They should be able to review data, communicate in writing and use computer-based library directories.

As science progresses and organizations grow in size and number, the need for volunteer research assistants may increase, according to Stephen Winter. He's the assistant refuge manager at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alamo, Texas. "Research assistants will be just as essential in the future as they are now," he says.

"I think they could be utilized more often, because I see the job market becoming more competitive, and employers should realize that it's not too hard to find people who are willing to work for free."

James Smith is the bander-in-charge at a bird banding station. He is also chairman of a bird observatory. He says there are many opportunities for students who want to volunteer as research assistants.

"[Volunteers] help extract birds from the mist nets, weigh, do wing measurements, fat content, and age and identify birds that are caught," he says. "They eventually are allowed, under supervision, to band the birds. In addition, they do a daily census route identifying and counting the birds encountered on the route."

The experience that volunteers gain is helpful to their careers, says Smith. "The volunteers benefit from the actual hands-on field experience that they have at a bird banding station," he says. "They have additional qualifications to add to a resume. They leave here with a letter outlining what they were involved with, the number of hours spent in the field and someone that they can use as a reference."

Julia Henshaw is a volunteer research assistant at a marine institute. She says that her volunteer work has helped her to understand what a career in marine biology would really be like. "I'm learning skills that I will need in my career. And I have a lot of fun with what I do."

Henshaw admits that some of the things she sees during her volunteer shifts are sad. "I was with a group once that rescued a loggerhead turtle that had gotten tangled in one of those plastic six-pack rings. The turtle hadn't been able to get loose from it, and so his shell had grown around it. By the time we found it and cut the ring away, there was a permanent indentation in his shell from it."

Despite the occasional downfalls of volunteering, Henshaw recommends volunteering to anyone who wants to get involved. "Go for it. Check with the organization you want to volunteer with to find out what they need," she says. "Most organizations will be happy to have you, and you'll make friends and learn things that you just can't learn in the classroom. It's different being in the field."

Eversole says there are other reasons why students should volunteer as research assistants. "The volunteer has a unique opportunity to work closely with some of the leading experts in their field, learning the development process that eventually leads to publication of a work."

He's quick to note that organizations also benefit from having volunteers as well. "The organization benefits from having a trained assistant, provided at no cost to the institution, who can enable the researcher to focus on the project or study and use their valuable time in a more constructive manner," he says.

"I think the future for volunteer research assistants is bright. Many postgraduate programs require their candidates to participate as a research assistant. And there are always more requirements for their services than there are qualified candidates to meet those requirements."

How to Get Involved

Different programs have different volunteer requirements. In some cases, volunteer positions are open to anyone. In other programs, volunteers need to complete certain college courses.

Universities and nonprofits, such as conservation or wildlife organizations, may require volunteer research assistants. Check with your university or with a local nonprofit organization that interests you. You can also check websites like or for volunteer postings. (Type "research" into the search field.)

There may be costs associated with volunteering as a research assistant. Some organizations will provide all necessary equipment. Others may require volunteers to provide their own equipment.

Physical requirements vary depending on the program. Some programs need participants to lift heavy objects. Others need only willing minds.


Sea Turtle Research and Education Program
Learn about one overseas volunteer research assistant program
Search for various volunteer opportunities throughout the country

Volunteer Match
Search for volunteer jobs near you

World Volunteer Web
Find international news, information and resources on volunteering

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