Access to research assistantship opportunities in global north and global south

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Abstract

The development of postgraduate students as researchers is a key objective in higher education internationally. Research learning spaces such as research courses, research workshops and research assistantships nurture postgraduate students as the future generation of researchers as they develop theoretical and methodological knowledge. Research assistantships represent a unique educational space for postgraduate students to acquire research knowledge and skills while assisting faculty members with their research studies. Students engaged in research assistantships have the potential to acquire valuable skills as they learn how to conduct research that could ultimately contribute to knowledge creation (Pearson and Brew 2002; Steward 2010). At the same time, researchers are able to mentor dedicated students, enhance their research outputs, and co-author journal articles or co-present at conferences. Overall, international literature informs us that research partners ‒ scholars, students and institutions ‒ recognise the potential for and importance of mutually beneficial outcomes when postgraduate students work as research assistants. In fact, research assistantships as hands-on research learning opportunities are being increasingly recognised as essential to the development of competent researchers. Yet there is a scarcity of literature investigating how institutional practices and regulations influence doctoral students’ access to research assistantships. Moreover, limited literature informs us that there is no central place within researched institutions to look for information regarding research assistantships. Exploration of practices and regulations at our universities in Canadian and South African contexts echoes the concerns identified in the scholarly literature. In addition, realising the scarcity of literature around access to research assistantships validated for us the need to open academic dialogue on this topic in order to promote fair access for all postgraduate students. To that end, our goal is to showcase postgraduate students’ accessibility to research assistantships in our contexts representative of the global north and the global south. To achieve that goal, we explore how research assistantships are distributed, unmask practices that limit or even exclude some postgraduate students from these opportunities, and present a way forward based on fair practices and regulations.

The impetus for this article originated from our realisation in informal discussions that although research assistantships are powerful spaces to shape competent researchers, the opportunities were limited only to a few students. Committed to principles of fairness and inclusiveness, we decided to extend our informal analytical discussions and transition into an interpretive research approach where meaning-making is the primary goal for the understanding of social phenomena. Following the common methods used in interpretive research, our study draws from (a) document analysis pertaining to research assistantships at our universities, (b) informal conversations with administrators familiar with organisational characteristics of research assistantships, (c) our personal and professional experiences within research assistantships, and (d) a comprehensive literature review that provided the context for the research assistantships and informed us about the potential of and access to research assistantships. We identified the main themes emerging from our readings and incorporated them within this work. As to document selection and analysis, we engaged in reviewing and analysing documents and online information related to research assistantships at the two universities. We located the documents through searches of faculty and institutional websites, personal documentation as well as recommendations received from colleagues and administrators. The document analysis provided additional insights into the ways research assistantships are managed at the universities concerned.

Although this interpretive study is not driven by any specific theoretical framework per se, we are also not operating in a theoretical vacuum. Our theoretical starting point was informed by a social practice perspective on learning posited by Lave and Wenger (1991), who argued that learning is a process of participation in communities of practice. The authors present a notion of legitimate peripheral participation as a particular way of engagement whereby a learner participates in the actual practice of an expert, the process by which newcomers become part of a community of practice and eventually become full participants. Recognising legitimate peripheral participation in our work encompasses research assistantships as educational venues for developing future researchers. Postgraduate students able to access research assistantships gain opportunities to become part of a research community, learn research skills, generate intellectual capital, and most importantly, begin the transformation toward becoming independent researchers. Yet, as this article will illustrate, access to research assistantships is delimited by institutional practices and regulations that may either promote, restrict or prevent students’ legitimate peripheral participation. The findings from global north and global south showcase a deeper understanding of access to research assistantships and raise questions related to the inclusiveness of postgraduate students in a community of research practice. Both contexts illustrate practices and regulations in place that promote as well as prevent access to research assistantships. Some of the shortcomings relate to the advertising and distribution of research assistantships that contributed to unequal access to research assistantship opportunities. Considering that the culture of academia has embraced research as its highest value and that comprehensive universities have adopted missions to discover, produce and share knowledge, it is somewhat surprising that research assistantships seem to be in the process of development in terms of organisation and distribution at both institutions. The multiple data sources considered in this study highlighted how inaccessible research assistantships can be to some students and thus how institutional practices can hinder postgraduate students’ participation. Although our exploration is context specific, the findings offer quality recommendations to improve students’ access to research assistantships within and beyond the institutions investigated. We anticipate that the findings may help students understand access to research assistantships, assist academics in hiring research assistants, and inform administrators and academic programme committees about possible organisational changes to be made. Ultimately, a more inclusive approach to research assistantships would lead to an increased number of skilled young researchers able to contribute significantly to the research capacity of a given institution.

Keywords: novice researchers; postgraduate students; research assistantships; research education; research training

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Toegang tot navorsingsassistentskappe aan universiteite in die globale noorde en globale suide

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