The Role of a Research Assistant in Public Health

Published on: Nov 5, 2023

Research is an essential part of public health work. It is so essential, in fact, that research activities are integrated into the 10 Essential Public Health Services Framework, which is commonly taught in accredited public health graduate schools.1 Using research to assess health issues supports the creation of policies, interventions, and programs that improve the well-being of communities, and doing this work requires dynamic teams. Research assistants play an essential role in the day to day of study activities. 

In this article, we'll explore the common responsibilities of research assistants in public health, other people they commonly collaborate with, challenges they may face, and advice for those considering pursuing a public health research assistant position.

What does a research assistant do?

Research assistants can provide support throughout a research project, from study development, through data collection and analysis, all the way to the presentation on findings. In public health, research assistants can participate in a wide range of disciplines, including epidemiology, health policy, and health education.

What are typical duties and responsibilities of a research assistant?

While there is a lot of variety in the day to day of research assistant positions, there are some core tasks that public health research assistants can expect to do. These include:

  • Data Collection:

    Research assistants are responsible for collecting data through surveys, interviews, observations, or data mining. They ensure data accuracy by following established study protocols.

  • Literature Review:

    Research assistants also support literature reviews, which consist of reviewing academic journals and databases to gather related articles and study publications that inform the research questions. In organizations that rely on grant funding, literature reviews are often used to provide supporting evidence and context for the health issues being addressed.

  • Data Entry and Management:

    To draw meaningful conclusions, researchers need accurate data that is meticulously entered and managed. Research assistants organize, clean, and maintain databases for analysis.

  • Data Analysis:

    Depending on their skill set, research assistants may assist in quantitative analysis using software such as SPSS, SAS, R, or STATA. This involves running statistical tests, creating graphs, and interpreting results. Research assistants may also assist in analyzing qualitative data using software like Nvivo or Dedoose, which are commonly used in social science research.

  • Report Preparation:

    Research data can be shared in a wide variety of formats depending on the audience, including academic publications, presentations, and written reports. Research assistants may support other members of a research team by preparing research papers and drafts. 

  • Making Ethical Considerations:

    Public health research can involve human participants, and making ethical considerations is crucial. Research assistants help ensure that studies adhere to ethical guidelines. This may involve assisting in achieving approval from a local institutional review board (IRB) and ensuring that IRB approved protocol integrated into research activities.2

There are also tasks less commonly associated with the role of a research assistant in public health. These might include:

  • Grant writing:

    Organizations that rely on external funding may rely on support from research assistants with proposal writing. However, some organizations have designated grant writers and managers.

  • Presenting research findings:

    Research assistants may have the opportunity to present study findings at research conferences through poster or oral presentations. Research assistants more commonly support in the preparation of reports but depending on the funding and structure of the organization, you may have access to professional development opportunities that allow you to present findings on behalf of the research team.

  • Research design:

    While assistants support at various stages of the research process, contributing to the development of studies is typically outside of the scope of these positions. The research design process requires years of experience and extensive knowledge of research methods. This will be led by the primary researcher.

  • Complex analyses:

    While research assistants are expected to analyze data, there are some analytical methods that require extensive education and experience. For example, complex statistical analyses on census data may require a health research team to make subjective decisions about how what data is included in the data set and how it is categorized. An experienced statistician is typically consulted for this type of high-level thinking.

How do public health research assistant roles vary?

Because research is an integral part of public health work, the title of research assistant is better thought of as an umbrella of jobs than a very specific set of duties. The experience of working as a research assistant can vary greatly by several factors including industry and topic area.

Some of the different sectors that a research assistant may work in include:

  • Academia:

    These roles typically involve supporting research projects led by a faculty researcher. In higher education, tasks can vary greatly depending on the needs of the researcher, and in some cases, the personal interests of the student researcher.

  • Government and Public Service:

    In government and related institutions, research assistants help collect and analyze data to understand health trends and inform public health policy. Government positions may also have more specific target audiences, such as an elected official’s office or special topics caucus.

  • Non-Profits and NGOs:

    In non-profit organizations, research assistants support community-based research projects and program evaluations. This can include research conducted by the organization itself or in support of other organizations.

  • Research Institutes:

    Federal agencies such as the NIH and CDC provide training programs for early career researchers.3,4 There are also think tanks like Urban Institute that conduct research to inform policy and program development.5

  • Consulting Firms:

    Consultants work with public and private sectors to provide project-based solutions to pressing health issues. This may include support with research-related tasks. ICF is a well known research consulting firm in the field of public health.

The tasks of research assistants also vary greatly by subject matter. Some disciplines in public health and closely related fields include:

  • Life Sciences:

    Research projects related to biology and other life sciences will have more of a focus on quantitative analysis and laboratory skills. In a research lab in the health care setting, clinical research assistants provide support by running experiments and laboratory techniques, including those with living organisms. For example, a job description posted at Thomas Jefferson University for a Cancer Biology Research Assistant requires that candidates know how to perform biochemistry and molecular biology analysis and cell and tissue analysis.6 Other projects may involve clinical trials with human participants, such as drug therapy trials.

  • Social Sciences:

    As a social science research assistant your work may include both quantitative and qualitative data. For example, a health policy research assistant may be tasked with analyzing quantitative poll data or summarizing existing health policies into a policy brief. A psychology research assistant may run experiments with live subjects and document data points at time intervals or analyze verbal responses using qualitative software.

  • Epidemiology:

    A research assistant in epidemiology might assist in outbreak investigations. They might also conduct experimental studies, which involves setting up experiments, managing data as they run, and ensuring protocols are followed and variables are controlled.

  • Health Education:

    On the other hand, a research assistant in health education might contribute to the development and assessment of educational materials by reviewing past literature and evidence-based practices.

Who do research assistants collaborate with?

Collaboration is an essential part of public health research, and research assistants interact with a variety of professionals daily, including:

  • Principal Investigators (PIs):

    Research assistants work closely with a principal investigator, who provides guidance, oversight, and direction for the research project. This person may also be referred to as the primary researcher.

  • Other Researchers:

    Collaboration with other researchers fosters a multidisciplinary approach, enriching the research process. Research Assistants may collaborate laterally with other research assistants, or vertically with senior research assistants, research associates, or project managers that can provide additional guidance.

  • Data Analysts:

    If not performing data analysis themselves, research assistants collaborate with data analysts to interpret and make sense of collected data.

  • Community Members:

    In community-based research, research assistants engage with community members to collect data and ensure the research aligns with their needs. They can also represent the research team at community events.

  • Ethics Committees:

    Research assistants communicate with ethics committees to ensure research protocols meet ethical standards.

  • Healthcare Providers:

    When conducting clinical research, research assistants might collaborate with healthcare professionals like doctors and nurses to gather data from patients.

What challenges do public health research assistants face?

Public health research assistants encounter various challenges in their roles, including:

  • Ensuring Data Quality:

    Maintaining data accuracy can be challenging, especially when dealing with large and complex datasets.

  • Time Constraints:

    Balancing multiple tasks within tight deadlines requires effective time management. This can be particularly difficult for research assistants working on multiple projects with competing deadlines.

  • Ethical Dilemmas:

    Navigating ethical concerns, particularly when working with sensitive populations, demands careful consideration. As a research assistant, you will likely have an encounter with a study participant that requires deliberation with the team to decide on the best resolution.

  • Technical Skills:

    Keeping up with evolving technology and statistical methods is essential for effective data analysis. You may need to attend seminars or workshops to learn how to use new software.

  • Communication:

    Effective communication with team members, especially those from backgrounds that are different from your own, can be challenging. However, it is crucial for successful collaboration.

Why should I consider being a research assistant?

If you’re interested in pursuing an MPH, you likely don’t think of research assistant as the final destination in your career, and you may wonder why you should even consider a research assistant position. The truth is that research assistant positions are commonly viewed as a career stepping stone, and that’s okay! Research assistant roles are a great opportunity for undergraduate students to gain research experience and explore a topic area of interest. 

While pursuing graduate school, a graduate research assistant position can help you form professional connections with researchers in your field and conceptualize your own research projects. Becoming a research assistant is also a great way for a career switcher to pivot into public health and gain entry level experience. Some positions may also qualify for academic credit towards the completion of your academic program. 

If you are considering pursuing a position as a public health research assistant, here are some valuable tips:

  • Build a Strong Foundation:

    You’ll want to develop a solid understanding of research methodologies, statistics, and ethical considerations in public health research.

  • Hone Your Technical Skills:

    Familiarize yourself with statistical software and data management tools commonly used in public health research. These include SPSS, STATA, and R for quantitative statistical analysis and Nvivo or Dedoose for qualitative analysis.

  • Work on Your Communication Skills:

    Enhance your ability to communicate findings effectively to both technical and non-technical audiences. Consider joining a public speaking group or pushing yourself to lead a class presentation.

  • Network:

    Networking is a great way to learn about different opportunities and get career advice from people in your field of interest. Connect with professionals in public health or related fields by attending conferences, participating in workshops, and utilizing online platforms. Consider reaching out to a researcher doing work that you are interested in. You can use tools such as Google Scholar to identify publications that pique your interest or look at the Department contact pages of your academic institutions to find faculty member contact information.

  • Market Yourself:

    If you’re interested in a research assistant job but don’t have any previous experience, don’t worry! There are several places that you can demonstrate research skills, from retail jobs to undergraduate coursework. To create a competitive research assistant resume, review your previous experiences and highlight activities that demonstrate your ability to collaborate, multi-task, and collect and analyze information.

Public health research assistants serve as the backbone of research that contributes to the well-being of communities. The next time you read a research assistant job description, consider the information outlined in this article and find a role tailored to your career interests.

About the Authors

Written by:

Wandia Mureithi, MPH

Wandia Mureithi, MPH is a public health project manager working in research and evaluation. Wandia received her Master’s in Public Health from Drexel University in 2022. Since beginning her career in 2018, she has been engaged in research projects and program evaluations related to sexual health, human trafficking prevention, tobacco prevention, opioid misuse treatment, and diabetes prevention. 

In addition to her work projects, Wandia is interested in reducing maternal and child health disparities and advancing social justice in public health. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Wandia Mureithi portrait photograph

Wandia Mureithi, MPH

Education: Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health

Reviewed by:

Katherine Paul, MPH

Katherine Paul, MPH is a senior project manager at a leading medical communications and publications organization. She supports multidisciplinary teams handling large-scale accounts, the deliverables of which improve health outcomes and patient well-being. Ms. Paul holds a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree in Health Promotion from Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health and passed the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) shortly after graduation. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Dickinson College.

Ms. Paul previously worked at a public health non-profit where she managed all aspects of diverse health-related projects, including the implementation of a randomized controlled clinical trial on sexual health for teens with developmental disabilities, as well as the evaluation of a statewide tobacco cessation program with more than 20,000 annual cases. She has developed and delivered posters and presentations at national conferences including the American Public Health Association (APHA) annual meeting. 

Opinions and information published by the author here on are of my own and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of my employer or other organizations for my designated roles.

Katherine Paul

Katherine Paul, MPH

Editorial Lead

Education: Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health

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