Breaking In As A Writers' Research Assistant
Breaking In As A Writers' Research Assistant
The Research Assistant is a relatively new position in the writers’ room, and a great opportunity to launch your career. In fact, I once took over for a Research Assistant who used the position to prove themself and was promoted to a Staff Writer role, so these can be a great way to get your foot in the door as a professional writer.
A Research Assistant's job is essential for production as the information gathered allows the writers to not only be creative but also to depict accurate stories. It is this person's responsibility is to conduct research on topics requested by the writers. The information a Research Assistant provides may be used to develop a topic explored by the writers in a realistic, fact-based manner. For example, if they wanted a Research Assistant to find information on a criminal case, the Research Assistant would have to search for primary sources such as a trial transcript and recording, or secondary sources provided by the writers such as books and journals. A Research Assistant summarizes the information through a well-put-together document that is accessible to the writers. Although they rarely sit in the writers’ room itself, this position is beneficial to the writers’ room as the research can help create accurate depictions of their desired concepts, ideas, and situations related to the direction of a television show by providing accurate information to back their story ideas. Furthermore, it helps aspiring writers working as Research Assistants gain real-world knowledge that could prove useful as they develop their own writing samples to display to the wider community within the entertainment industry.
Anyone interested in becoming a research assistant benefits from a diverse set of skills. A key part of the research process is reading and therefore requires patience, discipline, the ability to pay attention, comprehension, and the ability to do at a rapid pace. Additionally, presentation skills are a necessity for the process of putting together a concisely organized document that describes the research in a way that the writing team would understand. Furthermore, a researcher should be able to respond favorably to feedback and pivot based on the writing team’s questions and needs.
I have professional experience as a Research Assistant in a Writers’ Room. In my most recent experience, I was asked to summarize multiple books that provided accurate information related to a specific mental health disorder. My notes provided the diagnostic criteria and behaviors consistent with the mental health diagnosis in question. My writers provided specific source materials from which I conducted my research. I read the source materials daily and provided summaries outlining my findings organized by different sections of the book, either by page numbers or chapters, depending on the quality and quantity of information. I also took notes based on a particular criminal case related to this disorder and created an abbreviated document containing key elements of the case and the diagnostic criteria in terms of how the individual associated with the case matched behaviors common with the disorder.
I got my start in the research room through a professional acquaintance. I met with the producer and we connected right away he was interested in me becoming the new research assistant. However, the process of becoming a researcher took time. I still needed to prove my skill. As such, over the course of three months, I had to conduct tasks that would potentially be expected of a researcher. The primary task (which ultimately did not apply to the particular production I would work on) was to work on annotations for practice. Annotations are a breakdown of each scene in a script and determining if a scene is fictional, non-fictional, or both. This process is key to a researcher’s job on non-fictional television projects because annotations are necessary for the legal department to protect the production from potential legal issues (i.e. lawsuits). I was able to succeed with the support of the producer and the previous research assistant and take the position with the approval and financial backing of the studio developing the project.
The research process was enjoyable, albeit not without its challenges. Research assistants need to be able to learn information quickly with tight deadlines. There were some situations that while researchable, required some technical knowledge I did not initially have when I was hired. This made the research process difficult, but interesting. Areas that needed further exploration included chemistry and psychology (though my psychology background helped provide a framework for understanding that subject). Fortunately, I had the past research assistant as my primary supervisor as well as the producer who had hired me to help clarify any questions I had. Their support and encouragement helped me overcome obstacles that came with the job and ensure that I gave the writing team information that allowed them to thrive creatively with an accurate understanding of the information I provided them.
As you're networking and looking for opportunities to get your foot in the door, these entry-level positions might not pay much but they're vital to learning the ins-and-outs of a Writers' Room and production. Always try to be open to expanding those skill sets and trying something at any level.
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About the Author
I graduated from Marymount California University in May 2019. I entered the entertainment industry as an office production assistant later that year in September. At the early stages of the pandemic in 2020, I worked as an executive/administrative intern at Tems Hearing for several months. Then in 2...