If math/econ background and high test scores are the first two pillars of good preparation, research assisting is the third. I worked with three different finance professors, and even though I didn’t do anything flashy or award-winning, the work helped a lot in my applications.
Finance faculty members make the final admissions decisions, and they basically want to know two things: Are you smart enough to be a successful academic researcher? and Do you want to be a successful academic researcher? They also want to know that you speak English well enough to teach, but that’s a topic for another day.
Research assisting helps you in three ways. First, it lets you find out if research is something you really enjoy. A lot of research assisting is simply data gathering and processing, but that represents a huge part of the professor’s work, as well. You also learn a lot more about the overall research & publishing process by spending some time and building a relationship with a professor. Second, research assisting gives you credibility when you say in your applications and interviews that you know what you’re getting into. There are many cases of bright young students who end up dropping out of doctoral school because they discover they don’t like research. Since most Ph.D. Finance programs only accept 4-6 students each year, even one dropout is a huge cost. Third, research assisting lets you build relationships. The academic world is very small. If you research with Dr. _____ and he puts a good word in for you with a friend at the University of _____, it could make all the difference.
I once had a professor explain it to me this way: “Research assisting works a bit like an apprenticeship. You need to learn the trade of academic research before you can be successful on your own, and that means you need to find someone who will work with you and give you an opportunity to learn.”
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