How to hire a research assistant for your ISTLD project

Your ISTLD project has been approved and now it is time to hire a research assistant (RA). Keep in mind that it can take up three weeks to process an appointment. RA appointments are coordinated and created by the ISTLD Administrative Coordinator.

If you have an RA already, great! Please start at Step 4. If not, we've outlined steps for you to follow to find and hire the best RA for you and your project. First and most importantly, start with a well-structured and accurate job description, and ensure the posting is well-circulated and posted for a sufficient amount of time. The good news is the ISTLD team is here to help you with the process from start to finish through job posting templates, examples of successful postings, and a tested means of getting your posting to the best, appropriate candidates. 

The value of RA positions
Next to being a teaching assistant or tutor marker, being an RA appointment is the next viable part-time job for our student population. RA positions are usually held by graduate students in their home departments and are usually related to their or their thesis supervisor’s disciplinary research area. RAships are valuable for all students as they provide a source of income and valuable experience towards their academic and research careers.

Your role in the research assistantship
Although the RA is employed by ISTLD, and ultimately SFU, you are their supervisor. You are responsible for negotiating with the RA their hours, duties performed, expectations, rate of pay, and performance review (your RA may ask you for a reference!). Our research tells us that RAs who are involved early on in the project, learn more and have a better overall experience. Depending on your RA’s experience and skillset, you may have more of a role developing and mentoring your RA. Be sure to keep this in mind when drafting your job posting and interviewing: how much time do you have? Are you looking for someone who can working completely independently? Are you willing to train the RA on basic tasks?

Are you new to the role of supervisor? Let us know! We can definitely help with tips and tricks to keeping both you and your RA on track throughout their appointment.

We can help your RA with things like:

  • survey and other research tool design
  • tips and techniques for conducting & transcribing interviews and focus groups
  • data collection, representation, and (qualitative & quantitative) analysis

Step 1: RA job description & posting: Tasks, job requirements, rate of pay

You've already outlined this in your proposal and you'll need to think about the specific tasks you want your RA to do, the qualifications required to do the tasks, and the time allotted. In addition, you'll need to determine an appropriate rate of pay.

We have resources to help you with this:

Need some inspiration? Take a look at some RA postings we have posted on our website >>

Considerations for job descriptions and defining RA duties:

  • RA positions must be at least 60% research related
  • RAs must not teach and RA appointments must not be top-ups for TA appointments;
  • RAs should not be doing the work of other employee groups on campus;
  • RAs must not do any TA/TM or Sessional instructor work, such as, but not limited to:
    • assigned instruction;
    • preparation of handouts, problem sets, quizzes, exams and other materials;
    • marking; or
    • development or adaption of audio visual material and preparation of experiments
  • Be accurate about the duties and responsibilities required
  • Use clear, concise language
  • Use non-discriminatory language

Still need help? The ISTLD Administrative Coordinator is here to help! ( or 778-782-3122)

Step 2: Advertise the position

There are various ways to advertise your RA posting. The most obvious and convenient is via a graduate student email list in your home department. The ISTLD can assist with advertising via Twitter, the ISTLD home page, Dean of Graduate Studies (maillist, webpage, & Facebook) and to our email list of graduate students looking for RA opportunities. Contact the ISTLD Administrative Coordinator ( for more information.

Step 3: Selecting the right RA: Application review, interview tips, reference checks, & FOIPOP

Deciding who to hire
You want to hire the best person for the job. That means ensuring the applicants meet the minimum qualifications that you have determined are important for the success of your project. Deciding on the best candidate can be challenging. This is where application vetting, the interview, and reference checks all come into play.

Reviewing the applications

  • Ensure short-listed applications meet your minimum qualifications and requirements. Make a rubric and treat this like an assignment, scoring the applications on specific criteria. The criteria must be clear in your posting.
  • Does the application include everything that you asked for in the posting?
  • As a commitment to supporting our students, it is strongly encouraged that SFU students are hired for RA positions

The interview
The goal of the interview is to expand the application by asking specific questions about past experience and details from previous positions. Past behaviour and experience are excellent indicators of future behaviour, and can help you determine if the applicant has the skills, knowledge, and experience you are seeking. At the beginning of the interview be sure to introduce yourself, talk briefly about the project and what their role would be, and outline how the interview is going to go.

Interview question tips

  • Ask candidates to walk through their resume and specify areas you want them to highlight: How they did a task? Define their role on a project or a team, and be sure to have them describe their level of responsibility.
  • If there is a skill or experience that is important for your project (e.g., working collaboratively in a team, qualitative data analysis, NVIVO), be sure to ask specifically about it. What were the challenges? Successes? Make notes so you can follow-up during the reference check.
  • Avoid hypotheticals and instead ask for a past experience. Hypothetical questions can lead to stock answers. Remember, past behaviour is a great indicator of future behaviour. Instead of asking, “How would you deal with a difficult student?” ask “Can you tell me about an experience you’ve had when dealing with a difficult student/person/customer?” You can ask follow up questions to draw out what they would have done differently, what about that experience changed the way they handled other situations, etc.

Reference checks
You should only ask for references from candidates you are considering hiring or if it comes down to deciding between two final candidates. This is your opportunity to fact check, so be specific in your questions. References should be supervisors or project leads who can confirm not only what the applicant has outlined in their application, but what they have said in their interview. Two to three referees are sufficient.

Freedom of information, protection of privacy, and confidentiality
A final word about checking references and the application process. You can only consider information that has been obtained during the application process. Furthermore, you cannot disclose any information, including who has applied to the position, to anyone outside of the process or the administration of the position. Word to the wise: all applications and notes made during the process need to be kept under lock and key for one year and then destroyed, as per SFU Record Retention ( The ISTLD keeps all of the administrative employee files for the successful applicant. You can pass along all the documentation you’ve collected during the application process to the ISTLD’s Administrative Coordinator, who will ensure that all policies are followed.


Step 4: Contact the ISTLD Administrative Coordinator to set up the RA appointment

To set up the RA appointment, you will need to provide appointment details and some RA paperwork (for first-time employees) to the ISTLD Administrative Coordinator. Refer to your initial email from the ISTLD Administrative Coordinator for a checklist of the required information.

Please note that all completed forms should be forwarded to the ISTLD Administrative Coordinator.

**Please note that an RA appointment can take up to three weeks to be processed depending on the time of semester, if it is the RA's first appointment, and the current pay period's end-date.