When it comes to opportunities, "carpe diem" is the best approach. Seizing the prospect of involvement in undergraduate research is advantageous for the psychology major on many levels. This is true for the student with intentions of graduate school as well as the student using psychology as a base to accomplish alternative career goals.
Fundamentally, research opens an arena for the development of crucial educational goals such as fine-tuning critical thought and the carrying out discovery. It's a place where one is allowed to systematically search for answers the mind ponders in a standard, controlled, and reliable way.
Saint Anselm College, for example, provides freshmen through seniors the opportunity to explore this venue of research scholarship. The curriculum seeks to achieve eight goals outlined by the American Psychological Association report, "Liberal Education, Study in Departments, and the Arts and Sciences Major-Psychology" (APA, 1991): knowledge base, thinking skills, languages skills, information gathering and synthesis skills, research methods and statistical skills, interpersonal skills, history of psychology, and ethics and values.
To thoroughly achieve these objectives Saint Anselm developed a core curriculum that culminates in the senior requirement of conducting a faculty-sponsored research project that may be experimental, quasi-experimental, or a nonexperimental library-based research. Both faculty and senior student researchers encourage assistance of underclassmen, thus opening the research opportunity to all students.
The "senior thesis requirement in which student-generated research projects evolve over a sequence of courses is an essential part of a curriculum which emphasizes both knowledge of content and the critical thinking and communication skills" (McKenna, Finn, & Ossoff, 1995). Behavioral Statistics, Experimental 1, Experimental 2, and Senior Seminar carry the student through a curriculum that provides the academic and faculty support necessary to complete the senior thesis. This timeline follows the initial introduction to methods to the presentation in the form of a poster session.
Although the thesis experience is cumbersome and stressful at times, the student walks away with a greater knowledge of psychology and a sense of accomplishment. The primary goal is to creatively develop a hypothesis to answer a critical question. Next, the student discovers appropriate, reliable, and valid methods, then begins to collect the data and interpret the results. Upon interpretation, the student prepares for presentation, which increases skill development and enhances self-efficacy. Presentation may be completed via in-class presentations, web page creation, and poster sessions.
Integrating the previously discussed common goals presented in the 1991 APA report, there are three focal points that appear to be the most profitable from the undergraduate research experience: (a) development and application of skills, (b) higher level insight and analytic abilities, and (c) collaborative experience.
Skills Development and Application
Hands-on learning enables senior students to apply the skills learned in the classroom. They have the opportunity to take the knowledge gained and make it come to life. In the classroom, it's often difficult to fully grasp the concept when it's presented in a two-dimensional manner via lecture and textbook format without the benefit of direct experience. Learning to conduct literature reviews; discovering the process of methods selection; controlling for variables; conducting studies in appropriate manners; applying ethics, standardization, and professionalism; statistically working through the results; and preparing for presentation are key skills that will be fine-tuned through the students' research efforts. This process is more suitably understood during and following the "hands-on" research in the lab or field.
For the underclassman who may be an assistant to a senior student, this learning may occur in reverse order. The application may occur in the lab or field before the concepts are learned in the classroom. In this situation, it isn't necessary for the student to thoroughly understand the theory. The student is working with an upperclassman or faculty member who can serve as a mentor and carry the student through to an adequate understanding until a clearer insight is gained in the classroom.
If student involvement occurs as a freshman, the student will see the process in action before gaining an understanding of the "why" questions: "Why do we have to control for so many variables?" "Why do we have to have complete standardization?" "Why do we have to check for reliability and validity?" The student will have an advantage in the classroom environment because he or she will enter with a working knowledge of examples viable for explanation. The combination of the classroom and the lab is essential to obtaining a comprehensive understanding of the research process.
Higher Level Insight and Analytic Abilities
This familiarity gives one insight into an area of psychology that cannot be experienced by conventional methods of learning. Through research, the undergraduate has the opportunity to explore many types of studies in a variety of subdisciplines in psychology. By exposure to a potpourri of areas, students may more accurately determine their areas of greatest interest. Taking advantage of senior student research and faculty research can lead the student down unexpected paths.
Personally, I have developed friendly and working relationships with my elder peers. Not only am I grateful for the way they have guided me through research but also, as an older sibling paves the way through adolescence, they have laid the pathway for the process of graduate studies. In one case specifically, I have been fortunate to assist in their graduate research and attain a further insight into that level of study. It is hoped that this clarity and experience will be helpful in attaining admittance to a graduate program and being successful once working within the program.
Research opportunities are available largely through collaborative work with peer students and faculty mentors. The peer will be able to relate the student perspective of the workload to the underclassman, the methods of understanding, and of the steps necessary to be successful in research. Working with a faculty mentor enables the student to develop a professional relationship where the student doesn't become another face in the crowd, but rather is able to express his or her needs as a learner and consequently be adequately advised.
A survey of George Fox University alumni (Koch, 2002) reports "Students who were mentored were more productive in terms of scholarly output (e.g., conference presentations, publications). Those who were mentored also felt better prepared for either their current work position or graduate school" (p. 36).
This mentorship often leads to professional presentations. At conferences, researchers gather to present their studies. It's not only a time to gain experience with public presentations but an equally advantageous prospect to learn about other projects, meet peers with similar interests, gain contacts to further those interests, and open other opportunities.
In a survey of 96 undergraduates conducted by Finn and Ossoff (1998), it was found that the overall opinion of conference attendance was highly valued. Of the total surveyed, only 8% attended a conference previously, but of those who had attended, 71% expressed moderate to extreme interest in future attendance. Of the seniors surveyed, 30% had previously attended. Of all students who had attended, 100% were moderately to extremely interested and 98% believed that the Psychology Department should continue to sponsor off-campus conference visits.
It can be inferred that as a student progresses from freshman to senior, the level of interest increases from one of purely interest to one of interest accompanied by action taken to nourish that interest.
Initially, faculty-student collaboration may seem intimidating. Faculty members recognize this barrier for students. In an article published in Eye on Psi Chi entitled, "Involving the Undergraduate in Research," Ossoff (1998) wrote, "Let's face it, to approach a faculty member about becoming part of a research group is considered a daunting task by the undergraduate. Although we faculty would like to believe it is so, students are not necessarily going to be drawn to the glow of our intellects like moths to a flame, no matter how brightly we may radiate (p. 19)."
Recognition of this enables faculty to address this issue of student trepidation and help to make the student more comfortable. The student who is able to achieve this comfort level early in his or her undergraduate studies has a strong advantage and a beneficial head start. More interests can be tapped and more opportunities become available such as conference presentations. This prospect of presentation, which has the possibility of leading to publication, serves as yet another incentive for student participation in research at the undergraduate level.
By attending a school with a very active student-faculty interchange, the opportunities were available as I walked in the door as a freshman. For students without this asset, it may take an extra initiative to begin research. Making use of your Psi Chi chapter and reviewing the Psi Chi website (www.psichi.org) for research tips and funding resources is an excellent place to start. Discuss with your fellow Psi Chi members, officers, and faculty advisor how to increase student research involvement within your department.
For example, you may want to conduct a survey to rate the level of faculty interest in working with student researchers and in sponsoring them at conferences. The survey might consist of questions focused on rating both faculty interest in (and availability or incentive for) faculty research and student research. To better understand the motivation for professors to assist with student research, talk with the department chair or even the dean of the college. They may shed light on faculty incentives. Often funds are available for student research, publishing possibilities within the university, options of working with students via an independent study, and the internal rewards of guiding students through this important process. Then facilitate a follow-up meeting with both the faculty and the Psi Chi chapter to discuss the level of interest of the faculty, the students' perspective, and faculty incentives. Your Psi Chi chapter may even summarize these ideas in a department publication, providing clear ideas for the faculty.
The importance of faculty-mentored research is mentioned throughout this article. Once interest and value of research is established, one must set up methods of advertisement of desired involvement. Work with the faculty to do so by posting signs and sending e-mails. As much as we students look to the faculty for motivation and excitement in our major, often professors can look to us to provide similar incentives.
In addition to research within the department, students may seek and develop a resource listing of available student research internship sties within the community. By becoming proactive about your interests, you may start a ball rolling that will pick up surprising speed as you find more and more people who share your interests. You will have provided a venue for these interests to flourish and the benefits of undergraduate research will be achieved.
Get Involved Early
The importance of undergraduate research becomes evident in the experiences and opportunities one may encounter along its path, including positive preparatory experiences for graduate school, development and application of skills, higher level insight and analytical abilities, and collaborative experience. The Insiders Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology (Sayette, Mayne, & Norcross, 1998) states, "research experience . . . is one of the most important admission criteria in nearly all PhD programs in clinical and counseling psychology." This guide also references a graduate school admission study (Eddy, Lloyd, & Lubin, 1987) that agrees that "there is simply no single better way to enhance an application than by obtaining research experience." Therefore, I highly recommend taking the initiative through your Psi Chi chapter to make undergraduate research a greater focus. If you are fortunate to be at a school that is active in undergraduate research already, take advantage of it. Get involved early!
American Psychological Association. (1991). Liberal education, study in departments, and the arts and sciences major' psychology. Washington, DC: Author.
Eddy, B., Lloyd, P. J., & Lubin, B. (1987). Enhancing the application to doctoral professional programs: Suggestions from a national survey. Teaching of Psychology, 14, 160-163.
Koch, C. (2002, Spring). Getting involved by getting a mentor. Eye on Psi Chi, 6 (3) 28, 36.
McKenna, M., Finn, P. E., Ossoff, E. P. (1995, January) Evaluation of process and outcome of active learning: The undergraduate research experience. Participant idea exchange at the 17th Annual National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, St. Petersburg Beach, FL.
Ossoff. E. P. (Spring 1998). Involving the undergraduate in faculty research. Eye on Psi Chi, 2 (3), 18-20
Ossoff, E. P., & Finn, P. E. (1998, January) An evaluation of a faculty-sponsored student research. Poster presented at the 21st Annual National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology. St. Petersburg Beach. FL.
Sayette, M. A., Mayne, T. J., & Norcross, J. C. (1998) Insiders guide to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology. New York: The Guilford Press.