The Elite Academic Underclass:

Research Assistants Are Not Xerox Slaves

Getting close to Harvard professors isn't easy. At schools like Swarthmore, Williams and Vassar, professors know their students by name. But not, it often seems, at Harvard.

In fact, one of the most frequently cited drawbacks of the University is based on the perception that Harvard professors are either too famous or too busy to be bothered by undergraduates. Often intimidated by the thought of speaking with "larger than life" professors, many students wander through four years of Harvard without ever going beyond crowded classroom encounters with faculty members. Professors are inaccessible to those who can learn the most from them, discouraged students often say.

But there are some undergraduates who make a special effort to take advantage of the resources available to them. "Harvard is what you make it," the bold will tell you. "If you take the initiative, the professors are there for you."

In pursuit of a level of faculty interaction that seems unattainable during the academic year, many students will wait out the undergraduate crowds and stay in Cambridge for the summer. They work as undergraduate research assistants, seeking to gain experience in their fields and hoping to endear themselves to one or more of the elusive masters of academia.

Mark O. Goodarzi '93, for example, has spent the past two months in a Harvard physics lab, working with Associate Professor of Biology Victor R. Ambros. Goodarzi injects DNA into mutant worms to locate specific genes.

"I'm constructing genetic mutants, "Goodarzi says. The budding scientist is eager to explain his work in detail, frequently using lingo that few but he and the professor can understand. "It's pretty complicated," he shyly acknowledges.

Although he has completed only one year of college, Goodarzi works full-time--about 50 hours a week--as a research assistant in the biology labs. He asserts that he did not get his job through special connections, but rather through his own persistence. Near the end of the school year, Goodarzi called a number of professors, asking if they had interesting projects he could work on over the summer. Little did he know his job hunt would introduce him to the world of genetic mutants.

It is a common misconception that summer research assistants seldom transcend the menial duties of an academic "go-fer," Goodarzi and others say. Summer interns are frequently portrayed as slaves to the xerox machine, pausing only to stir the professor's coffee. Interns are quick to counter, however, that they are usually assigned a full range of research tasks, often personally assisting the professor with important projects.

The reasoning behind the "go-fer" misconception, however, is not completely unfounded, they admit. Because professors' projects tend to be complicated, cutting-edge endeavors, it can be difficult to find meaningful tasks that undergraduates--with their limited experience--can undertake. And with limited funds and little time for training, even the most well-intentioned professor may be at a loss when charged with putting a research assistant to good use.

Several of this summer's interns say professors make an extra-special effort to make sure the work they give undergraduates over the summer is stimulating.

Jed D. Kolko '92, one of three undergraduates work in for Baker Professor of Economics Martin S. Feldstein '61, say he and Feldstein both recognized the limitations posed by Kolko's inexperience. But, as Kolko says, internships such as his are meant to be learning experiences, not just jobs.

"Certainly in most things an undergraduate is not as qualified as a grad student," Kolko explains. "But I get the sense that [Feldstein] is as interested in my learning something as he is in my producing something for him."

"Otherwise," Kolko says, "he would have hired someone with much more experience."

Indeed, Kolko admits he has had to do some drudge work. While he has gotten to work on a couple of special research projects--one on student financial aid, and another on Japanese productivity growth--he has also spent a good part of his summer putting together the new readings workbook for Social Analysis 10, the introductory economics course which Feldstein teaches.

But still, Kolko says his internship at the National Bureau of Economic Research never leaves him bored. "These are projects that [Feldstein] has wanted to work on," Kolko explains. "It's not as if he created busywork for me to do."