What It’s Like to Be an Undergraduate RA

By Mark Keane

When I first applied to be a research assistant, I duly noted that the application asked me what upper division economics classes I had taken. As a fresh transfer student, I had not taken any. I figured this would probably rule me out of contention but figured I would apply, anyway. I had determined there wasn’t much to lose.

About a week went by before doctoral student Mitch Downey sent me an email. He explained that because of my proficiency in programming he was interested in hiring me to be his research assistant. After Mitch and I met and I began doing some work for him, I was so excited to be around the environment of legitimate research at a great university like UC San Diego.

Initially, I was doing work in R-to-parse and format data to help understand how unionization in America affected the susceptibility of losing American jobs to outsourcing to China. I then taught myself how to scrape data from websites to gather data on agricultural subsidies and the companies that receive them. While I am still wrapping up these first two projects, we have begun work on a third exciting project. We will be looking at articles written by Colombian journalists in a bid to identify predictors in their writings that suggest they have a higher chance of being assassinated. We hope to discover whether the theories that those who speak negatively of the government or paramilitary groups in Colombia are targeted for assassination and to provide some data to enlighten or reject these ideas. In doing this, we will be running sentiment analysis and training a predictive model using techniques from machine learning to accomplish our goals.

Overall, I am very appreciative to Mitch for giving me the opportunity to work with him, despite my lack of upper division economics classes. I have thoroughly enjoyed my work for him while learning how to do new things. He has also been flexible and lets me work how I like and where I like, which is really cool. At the end of the day, I am just excited about having been afforded the luxury of helping out with some real graduate-level research and have found the experience invaluable. I would highly recommend that any other undergraduate economics students get involved, as well!

Published by the Department of Economics faculty and staff.
Designed by UC San Diego Creative Services and Publications
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