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Research Assistantship Policy

This policy outlines the expectations and responsibilities for graduate research assistantships in the Biostatistics graduate program.

Biostatistics is a collaborative profession by its very nature. Thus, training in a collaborative research environment is a critical component of a graduate student’s education in Biostatistics. At Vanderbilt, the primary mode for advancing this training is through closely supervised Research Assistantships (RAs), although students often have other opportunities to get involved in collaborative research outside of these formal arrangements. RAs provide a unique opportunity for graduate students to work closely with faculty on both collaborative and methodological research. Senior graduate students help faculty facilitate research activities; a critical role that allows faculty to efficiently impart their expertise and improve their academic productivity. Graduate students become highly successful research apprentices largely because RA training provides a closely supervised and extended learning opportunity in which one can learn to apply and refine their new statistical and communication skills.

RAs are typically assigned during the fall semester of the 2nd year and begin in the spring semester of the second year. The graduate program works with RA supervisors to identify students who are a ‘match’ with, or who can contribute to, an ongoing project. Efforts are made to continue, or further, any existing collaborations that the student is currently engaged in. Students are encouraged to talk with faculty they would like to work with to see if that faculty member has funding available to support a RA. In the absence of an obvious pairing, students are matched to potential RAs based on their methodological skill set, prior experience, professional interests, and opportunity. Student and faculty input is welcome in the process (they should talk to the director of graduate studies), and students should keep in mind that opportunities are sometimes limited.

It is standard policy for every research assistantship to have a primary Biostatistics mentor, whose role is to supervise the research assistant and provide professional mentorship. This mentor may or may not be the student’s dissertation advisor. RA effort and work product will be closely monitored by the Biostatistics mentor, who is also responsible for facilitating a professional environment and professional communication between the research team and biostatistics collaborators.

Research assistants are expected to behave and dress professionally, maintain frequent communication with their supervisor and colleagues, perform the job in a satisfactory manner, meet deadlines on time, and maintain good academic standing in the program. Communication is a key element of successful collaboration. Don’t be afraid to over communicate; it is rarely possible to do so. Most research assistantships are NIH funded meaning students cannot accept any other form of financial support from a Vanderbilt or NIH source (small honorariums and travel support are exceptions). Questions about this should be directed to the director of graduate studies or the graduate program coordinator. Assistantship duties are varied, such as data cleaning, database support, reporting on data quality, developing analysis plans, executing analysis plans, reporting on completed analyses, study designing, statistical coding, computational and simulation support, methodological development, literature review, technique exploration, manuscript preparation, grant writing, and presentations development.

A full RA is equivalent, in working effort, to a half time staff Biostatistician position. This translates to 920 working hours per year, assuming a standard Vanderbilt working year that includes the following days off: eight (8) university holidays, two (2) weeks of vacation, seven (7) days for sick and personal time, and five (5) days for comprehensive exams. Spread evenly over the 46 working weeks in year, 920 hours translates to 20 hours per week. This effort does not have to be equally distributed throughout the year, but the distribution must be respectful of project deadlines and classroom responsibilities. For example, students might work 15 hours per week during the school year (36 weeks) and 38 hours per week over the summer (10 weeks). Projects deadlines will ultimately dictate how this effort is spread over the year and RAs are encouraged to discuss this with their biostatistics supervisors upfront. PhD candidates in Biostatistics have already completed their comprehensive and qualifying exams. As such, the five (5) days allotted for exams is added to their total RA commitment. Hence, for senior students, the yearly RA commitment is 960 hours per year (~21 hours per week). Note that this is the minimum satisfactory effort commitment.

There are eight (8) university holidays (New Year’s day, Memorial day, Independence day, Labor day, Thanksgiving day, Christmas eve day, Christmas day, New Year’s eve). The five (5) comprehensive exam days are reserved for the week when comprehensive exams are administered (usually this is the last week in May). Vacation timing should be coordinated with the Biostatistics RA supervisor. Plans for how sick and personal time will be handled should be discussed with the Biostatistics RA supervisor as well. From project to project, there is wide variation in how this time will be tracked; students can often ‘make-up’ time by accomplishing computational tasks at home. If you are sick, please stay home and inform your supervisor. Refrain from exposing your colleagues to your illness.

RAs are sometimes expected to be productive beyond the traditional workweek from 9 AM to 5 PM. Evenings, weekends, summers and academic breaks are often excellent times to engage in research activities. When meetings (RA, research or otherwise) happen outside working hours, the meeting location must be appropriate and comfortable for all, e.g. on campus, public coffee house, or public restaurant for lunch meeting. Graduate students are not expected to be available 24 hours a day for 7 days a week. Rather, it is hoped that graduate students excited by their RA collaboration or independent methodological research will embrace the project during highly active times. It is not unusual for key breakthroughs or important insights to come at odds times. Don’t let the structure of a traditional workweek keep you from grabbing a new idea and making it your own.

Student academic performance and RA progress is reviewed at least twice a year. Continuation of funding is dependent upon the student making good academic progress in the program (as determined by their Dissertation Committee, Advisor, and Director of Graduate Studies) and satisfactory performance on their research assistantship. When these conditions are met, funding typically lasts for at least five years.

Version: October 2015