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Research is the Best Way to Travel
by Peter J. Giordano, PhD (Psi Chi National President) - Belmont University
Category: Presidents' Messages
One of my favorite rock lyrics is "thinking is the best way to travel" by the Moody Blues, a band I listened to in high school. When I heard these words years ago, I had no idea I would one day connect them to the importance of research experience for undergraduate psychology students. One of my favorite rock lyrics is "thinking is the best way to travel" by the Moody Blues, a band I listened to in high school. When I heard these words years ago, I had no idea I would one day connect them to the importance of research experience for undergraduate psychology students. For the purposes of this essay, I am going to take some literary license and morph that phrase into "research is the best way to travel." Read on and you will see what I mean.
As a Psi Chi member, I'm sure you are familiar with the emphasis that Psi Chi places on the science of our discipline. Even if you are planning a career as a counselor or clinician as many psychology students do, you understand that psychological science forms an essential foundation for your thinking as a professional helper or "people toucher," as one of my undergraduate professors used to say.
In preparing to write this President's Message, I asked eight former students to reflect on how their research experiences as undergraduates in my department affected their intellectual and career development. The narratives they sent me via e-mail are by no means scientific data in the traditional sense. But I do think their thoughts demonstrate some important principles at work as one is learning the skills necessary to conduct empirical research. In the remainder of this essay, I will paraphrase what they wrote and then draw some general conclusions based on this admittedly limited and nowhere-close-to-random sample.
Christy Spears Brown is in the dissertation stage of her PhD training in the developmental psychology program at the University of Texas at Austin. Christy identified her research experience as perhaps the most important part of her undergraduate education. In fact, her undergraduate research projects helped her decide to seek a career in developmental rather than clinical psychology, which was her initial goal when she chose psychology as her major. Christy also noted that the critical thinking skills she gained through her research experiences are important in other aspects of her life, a theme I'll return to later in this essay.
Wendy Rodgers Harrison obtained her master's degree in industrial/organizational psychology from Middle Tennessee State University and is now employed as a loss control analyst in the risk management department of a corporation here in Nashville. "Research taught me to THINK," was Wendy's response to my question about how research experience affected her development as an undergraduate. Wendy mentioned the specific skills she gained from doing independent research, but kept returning to the importance of analytical thinking and an attitude of healthy skepticism toward information and claims that others make.
Both Dan Corts and Carla Strassle received their doctorates from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Dan in experimental psychology and Carla in clinical. Dan is now an assistant professor at Augustana College in Illinois, and Carla, nearing the end of a postdoc, recently accepted an assistant professor position at York College of Pennsylvania. In replying to my question, Dan underscored the significance of presenting his research at professional conferences, an experience that enhanced his confidence when he interacted with and compared his studies to those of graduate students at the conferences. Carla highlighted her transition from viewing research as a means to an end (i.e., it will help me get into graduate school) to regarding research as an end in itself (i.e., "if you've got questions, you can find answers"). Both Carla and Dan also emphasized the relevance of an empirical approach to a variety of situations in all walks of life, a comment similar to Christy's.
Randy Rogers is in the final stages of a PhD program in health psychology at the University of North Texas. Like many graduate students, he is busy juggling research, teaching, consulting, and course work responsibilities. In reacting to my question, Randy gave high marks to the "intellectual exercise" of becoming a skilled problem solver. Randy also noted the personal growth that comes with undertaking any challenging task that stretches one to grow and mature.
The last three students I mention are recent graduates who are currently employed full time but have plans to attend graduate school in the future. Natasha Lindley Varnick is a placement coordinator for Middle Tennessee Intercept (a home-based counseling program), which advertised for someone with a master's degree; Natasha secured the position, in large part, because of her extensive research experience as an undergraduate. Natasha conveyed that the research skills she gained--thinking critically, forming hypotheses, analyzing data--also connect to her work with clients and their families. The empirical attitude she gained from research, she said, has become a natural part of how she thinks about clients and their situations. Josh Petersen and Rose Brummett are both research analysts at Vanderbilt University, Josh in the Program in Human Genetics and Rose at the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies in the Center for Evaluation Research and Methodology. Josh emphasized the skills inherent in taking a systematic approach to dig deeper into answering questions, using logic as a starting point but needing to augment logic by collecting data. Rose asserted that in conducting research one gains knowledge that cannot be gleaned from textbooks--professional skills in applying statistical knowledge, speaking in public, and writing research articles.
Taken together, these reflections by some of my former students tell a compelling story of the benefits of conducting research as undergraduates. All emphasized how learning to be a researcher improved their ability to think critically and to sharpen a variety of professional skills that have broad application in many work settings. I recognize that not all Psi Chi members will seek graduate degrees, but the same principles apply. The skills you acquire from learning to conduct research and think as a scientist--asking good questions, forming testable hypotheses, thinking critically, applying your statistical knowledge, speaking in public, writing clear research reports--all these skills will have direct payoffs in any work setting where you might find yourself employed.
Professor Jesse Purdy, the current national past-president of Psi Chi, is fond of saying that research experience changes lives. I agree with him, and the student reflections in this essay support his observation. Take a careful look through this issue of the Eye on Psi Chi and you will see the ongoing support that Psi Chi offers your research activities. With Regional and National Convention Research Awards, NSF/REU and Summer Research Grants, and the Undergraduate Research Grants program, you have a number of excellent opportunities knocking at your academic door. Check out page 48 of this magazine for a summary of these award programs, speak with your Psi Chi faculty advisor, do some planning ahead, and take advantage of what Psi Chi has to offer! Hopefully, as you zero in on one of Psi Chi's many programs to support your research, your life will be changed along with many others who have traveled a similar path. Research is the best way to travel.