This week all of the research assistants who work in the Trinity Research in Social Sciences (TRiSS) met officially for the first time over a sandwich lunch. It was an interesting opportunity to hear about the projects other students are working on and how similar and different they are to mine. Nearly all of the research assistants are working on economics projects and have data-driven and computational roles. Although I am also working with a team of economists, my role is that of a historian, gathering qualitative rather than quantitative information to create a cohesive background and foundation for our area of study.
At my position as a research assistant at Trinity College Dublin, most of my work is done independently and without and supervision. Because of this, I have been forced to adapt soft skills like effective communication and time management skills to stay on top of my workload while efficiently collaborating with the rest of my team. With a team scattered around the world, our communication is limited to email chains and a weekly zoom meeting. Although the team has made it clear that they are comfortable with me reaching out by email for assistance whenever necessary, waiting for constant approval and affirmation for all of my tasks would make it nearly impossible to complete all of the tasks I set out to accomplish.
Most of the projects I complete are brought up on my own accord, rather than the instruction of the project leaders. I have become comfortable enough with the goals of the team and the subject area I focus on to have a general understanding of what the most effective course of action is at any given point. From there, I search for sources on that subject which can include speeches, surveys, voting records, testimonies, and others. From there, I collect the most important information from that source, organize it into a clear and concise summary, and send it to the entire team with a message about why I approached this topic, what I found, and how I think it can help the project. From there, I receive feedback from the team’s leaders where they tell me what points I found that they think are the most important and what direction they would like me to take with that source or topic. This style of communication has allowed me to maintain a level of independence and intellectual creativity while remaining in line with the goals of the team.
The lack of supervision and deadlines in my position has forced me to develop time management skills to complete my tasks as quickly as possible while still producing high-quality work. The easiest situations to do this is when I receive feedback from other members of my team. With clear instructions, it is very straightforward for me to quickly do what is asked of me and update the team with the changes I made. By the time I receive that feedback, my individual work with that source or collection of sources has made me familiar enough to quickly find what I am looking for and produce and straightforward summary of my findings.
I struggle more in managing my time when I do not have any clear tasks and am broadly searching for a direction to take with my research. Sometimes I reach dead ends where I am not sure where I can find the information I am looking for. When this happens, I turn to literature reviews, or reading academic articles on the subject. I do this not only to gain a broader understanding of the subject but also to find mentions of primary sources that I believe can be useful for my research. Sometimes these articles introduce me to speeches and polls I may never have found otherwise. If the article is particularly useful for our project, I will email the team with a brief overview of the article and why I believe it is relevant and add it to the shared Dropbox folder. I find it much easier to manage my time when I have a clear task, like reading through articles on the Marshall Plan, than when I am searching blindly for a goal I have not yet decided on.
I have also developed hard skills like data cleaning, database navigation, and ArcGIS mapping. Some of my work involves drawing data from a variety of sources collecting it into spreadsheets that can be computed and converted into other forms for us to use. This data cleaning has greatly improved my skills with Microsoft Excel. I have also had to navigate databases like the New York Times Historical and others, using advanced searching techniques to find appearances of articles featuring keywords within time periods. I have also converted data collected using these methods into maps using ArcGIS software that show the geographic distribution of these events. I was introduced to this skill during my Digital Atlas Design Internship with Pitt’s World History Center, but my work at this position has greatly improved these skills. The global competencies I gained during this internship have helped me navigate a research team where everyone is Italian and speaks the language. I have just focused on my specialties and turned my differences into opportunities for me to provide a unique benefit to the team.