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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2005
Promoting the Purpose and Mission of Psi Chi Through Undergraduate Research
Jesse E. Purdy, PhD, Southwestern University (TX)

This paper was adapted from a presentation given as the Psi Chi Keynote Address in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Founding of Psi Chi and the 50th Anniversary of the Founding of the Southwestern Psychological Association. The Keynote Address was presented April 9, 2004, at the annual meeting of the Southwestern Psychological Association.

In this paper, I provide a brief and recent history of Psi Chi discussing the means by which the executive officers and the members of the National Council promoted the purpose and mission of Psi Chi. In addition, I consider the programs that Psi Chi leaders instituted during the past decade and a half and show that a significant portion of those programs provide opportunities for undergraduates to engage in research, opportunities to present their findings, and recognition for such work. I next consider why Psi Chi leaders committed funds to these programs and how engaging undergraduates in psychology impacts their education and their future while simultaneously promoting the purpose and mission of Psi Chi. Finally, I discuss how psychology faculty might increase the number of students that they involve in research and earn teaching credit for those efforts.

Purpose and Mission
Psi Chi is the national honor society in psychology whose purpose is "to encourage, stimulate, and maintain excellence in scholarship of the individual members in all fields, particularly in psychology, and to advance the science of psychology". Its mission is "to produce a well-educated, ethical, and socially responsible member committed to contributing to the science and profession of psychology and to society in general." Over the years, the executive officers of Psi Chi and members of the National Council have emphasized different aspects of these two statements, but all were committed to these ideas.

The Cousins and Wilson Years
Ruth Cousins served as the Executive Director of Psi Chi for 33 years from 1958-1991. Under her leadership, Psi Chi became an honor society joining the Association of College Honor Societies in 1965. From that point forward, Psi Chi evolved from a national student organization that simply "stored one's membership" to an organization whose members have demonstrated significant scholarship. Under Ruth's leadership, Psi Chi became the largest psychological society in the world and with $1 million dollars in the bank, she left the organization financially stable. Ruth and the National Council focused on Psi Chi as a national honor society and its mission to support and recognize scholarship. The society played a less direct role in advancing the science of psychology.

Kay Wilson succeeded Ruth as Executive Officer of Psi Chi in 1991. Under her leadership, Psi Chi chartered its 1,000th chapter and its reserves topped $3 million. With this growth, Kay and the National Council resolved to take a strong and proactive approach to provide Psi Chi's members opportunities to advance the science of psychology and to receive recognition for such contributions. Their focus provided dramatic growth in the number of awards and activities offered to Psi Chi members, and in the quantity and quality of its programs offered at the national meetings of the American Psychological Association (APA), and the American Psychological Society (APS), and the regional meetings of seven psychological associations.

Psi Chi's Current Programs
Prior to 1991, Psi Chi offered two national research awards. The J. P. Guilford Undergraduate Research Award was given for the best undergraduate research paper and the Edwin B. Newman Graduate Research Award, cosponsored with APA, was given for the best graduate level research paper. In addition, Psi Chi sponsored the Lewis Lecture presented by a prominent psychologist at each annual meeting of the APA.

Currently, Psi Chi's total awards/grant program has increased by a factor of ten and now provides $225,000 annually to its members. Awards and grants programs added since 1991 include the following:

  • Psi Chi/Allyn & Bacon Psychology Awards Psi Chi/Erlbaum Awards in Cognitive Science
  • Psi Chi/APS Albert Bandura Graduate Research Award
  • Psi Chi Regional Research Awards
  • Psi Chi APA and APS National Convention Research Awards
  • Psi Chi Undergraduate Research Grants Program
  • Psi Chi Summer Research Grants
  • Psi Chi Distinguished Speaker Series
  • Psi Chi sponsored NSF/REU Research Grants
  • Psi Chi Faculty Advisor Research Grants
  • Psi Chi/Thelma Hunt Research Grants Undergraduate Psychology Research Conference Grants
  • Psi Chi/SuperLab Research Grants
  • Psi Chi/Ruth Hubbard Cousins National Chapter Award
  • Psi Chi Regional Chapter Awards
  • Psi Chi Model Chapter Awards
  • Psi Chi Regional Faculty Advisor Awards Psi Chi Website Awards
  • Psi Chi Florence L. Denmark National Faculty Advisor Award

With the addition of these programs, Psi Chi leaders took strong steps to advance the science of psychology and to recognize those who contributed. These steps included developing and sponsoring programs for regional meetings and national meetings of APA and APS. Such programs are geared toward the student, and recent titles include, "Getting In and Staying In Graduate School," "How to Develop and Maintain Your Vita," "Important Courses To Take in College," "Career Options With a BA or MA Degree," and "Securing Research and Internship Experiences." At these meetings, Psi Chi also offers opportunities to see, hear, and meet nationally prominent psychologists through its Distinguished Speakers series. In addition, the Eye on Psi Chi offers numerous articles of interest to its members, and the Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research publishes scientific research conducted by psychology undergraduates.

In addition, Psi Chi supports the presentation of research papers and posters through several programs. The Regional Research Awards program provides up to 78 awards of $300 each for the best research papers submitted for presentation at the regional conventions. The Allyn & Bacon Psychology Awards, the Erlbaum Awards in Cognitive Science, the Guilford Undergraduate Research Awards, the Albert Bandura Graduate Research Award, and the Newman Graduate Research Award are given annually for the best research papers submitted. Also, the APA and APS National Convention awards support the best research papers submitted for presentation at their respective annual conventions.

Psi Chi provides financial support for research through six separate programs. The Undergraduate Research Grants program provides up to $1,500 to defray the direct costs of conducting a research project. The Thelma Hunt Research Grants provide up to $3,000 to complete empirical research on questions of interest to Psi Chi, and Psi Chi supports up to twelve $2,000 research grants submitted by Psi Chi faculty advisors. The Psi Chi Summer Research Grants program and the NSF/REU program provide opportunities for Psi Chi members to conduct research during the summer with high-powered research scientists, and the Psi Chi/SuperLab Research Grants provide a means for Psi Chi students to obtain a powerful software based research tool. Finally, Psi Chi's Undergraduate Psy-chology Research Conference Grants program provides funds to establish local psychology research conferences.

Why Devote All of These Resources to Undergraduate Research?
Psi Chi's programs provide very strong support for involving undergraduate students in research. The question is why? In 1994, Keith-Spiegel, Tabachnick, & Spiegel reported that the primary selection criteria for admission to a quality PhD program are grade point average, scores on the General Record Exam (GRE), and letters of recommendation. The authors argued that these criteria are critical in gaining admission to graduate school, but do not often discriminate among the top students. As a consequence, second tier criteria are used to make decisions about admittance. Results of their survey suggest that the most important second tier criterion is conducting research.

Undergraduate students have conducted research in my lab for more than 25 years. This activity has resulted in a number of students who have gone on to graduate schools, professional schools, or careers in which students use their laboratory skills. Currently, between 6 and 10 students participate annually in my aquatic animal research laboratory. These students learn to develop a research question, secure approval from the institutional animal care and use committee, construct apparatus, develop the procedure, collect and analyze data, and write and present a manuscript. Work in my lab has resulted in more than 70 professional presentations at regional and national meetings and more than 30 professional publications. Over 60 students have served as coauthors on these presentations or publications. Of the students working in my lab, 68 went on to graduate school and 43 of these have either completed or are completing their doctoral degrees. Eight of these students are or will be lawyers, medical doctors, dentists, or veterinarians. Eighteen students studied in the area of biopsychology; five students committed to the areas of developmental, cognitive, educational, or human computer interactions; seven students were in social psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, or sociology; and five students continued to study in clinical or counseling psychology. Of the students who authored or coauthored presentations or publications, 66% entered graduate school.

These data support the contention that involvement in research is critical to undergraduate education in psychology, and they document that the nature of the research is not critical. Virtually all of these students worked with aquatic animals, yet they were able to enter graduate programs in a variety of programs. To determine more specifically just what undergraduates get from their research experiences, I took the approach of others (eg., Giordano, 2002) and sent a survey to 12 of my former students who had worked extensively in my lab and who had gone on to be quite successful. I made an effort to choose students from earlier and later years of my career and students who represented different areas of psychology. Nine of the 12 students responded to my request for information.

Results of Former Student Survey

The name, dates attending Southwestern University, current position, affiliation, and area of interest for each student respondent are listed in Table 1.

The Questionnaire
To reduce the content, I only included new responses or responses that add significantly to the topic. For example, a number of students indicated that the research experience allowed them to more fully understand concepts from animal learning and animal behavior. Here, I list only one statement to that effect. In addition, to conserve space, I have often combined their individual responses.

What did you learn from your research experience and what impact did the experience have on you?
"The processes of designing the experiment, designing and building the apparatus, and collecting the data were important, memorable, and it was fun! That the data were not significant had little to do with the value of the experience."

"The ability to get hands on experience in the lab allowed me to more fully understand and appreciate the material that I had been learning through courses such as Animal Learning and Animal Behavior. My work in the lab and the way in which that work solidified my understanding really allowed me to feel confident as a beginning teacher of a course in animal cognition and made the experience more enjoyable."

"To conduct research one has to critically think about questions that need to be asked, determine how best to answer those questions, figure out how to actually implement the experiment, create the apparatus, set up experimental schedules, analyze and interpret data, and solve problems that arise throughout the experiment. These activities lead to a greater understanding of research methods and ultimately data analysis. In addition, performing data analysis on 'my' data was exciting and gave me the motivation to learn more about such things."

"Working in the lab was the most important factor in determining my career. Having the opportunity to conduct research was a key factor in my acceptance into graduate school. My GPA and GRE scores were only minimally acceptable. Had I not come to grad school with 2 years of research experience, I probably wouldn't have been admitted."

"Laboratory work requires patience and attention to detail. This is a lesson that cannot be learned in the classroom. In class, one learns about the findings from famous experiments. From these discussions, one might never understand that a good deal of time and perseverance went into the studies that culminated in the scientific 'facts.'"

"Throughout graduate school, I have seen several individuals drop out of the program because nothing in their years of stellar academic performance as an undergraduate prepared them for the realities of laboratory research."

"I learned that even mistakes yield important insights in the laboratory as long as these mistakes are well documented and well reported. As an undergraduate, a major error made by myself led to the development of a more reliable apparatus."

"I learned the importance of time management, and I developed a strong sense of responsibility."

"I learned the importance of communication and accountability. As an undergraduate, I was required to work in close proximity with another student and my advisor. This experience prepared me for a graduate school environment in which I was required to share equipment with other researchers and report findings from my experiments to my graduate advisor."

"I was given the opportunity to present data I collected at a professional conference. This was my first presentation to an audience of researchers, and one of these individuals asked challenging questions. This learning experience prepared me for future oral exams, dissertation defenses, conference presentations, teaching, and job talks."

"I remember seeing the value, the sweat and tears behind research, and the meaning. It was a whole process, not an immediate answer. It was fascinating and slightly painful."

"I presented the results of a study on the observing response. I was quite nervous, but the presentation went well and was fun. It was an opportunity to attend a real conference, and it gave me confidence to feel I had a chance to be accepted at a few graduate schools."

"I learned to never underestimate the importance of serendipity."

"This experience taught me the importance of active learning and prepared me for graduate school in terms of developing lifelong skills such as critical thinking, judgment and decision-making, communication skills (written, oral, formal, and informal), teamwork, conscientiousness, and attention to detail. I also learned the importance of looking for, finding, and creating fun wherever I can!"

"It made me appreciate the difficulties of research, as well as the excitement of being involved in something that other people would want to hear about at a conference. I liked the sense of community in the lab setting: being around other interested students and helping my adviser one-on-one. It gave direction to my otherwise scattered interests as an undergraduate and led me to pursue research as a career. I would not be doing what I am doing were it not for that experience."

How did the experience prepare you for graduate school and, if applicable, beyond?
"I learned that research ideas and theories can be gleaned from everyday observations and through everyday conversations with faculty. It was a demystifying and confidence building experience. It also provided something to discuss with graduate admissions faculty about research interests and experiences."

"My very first semester as a graduate student, I was asked to teach the experimental psychology lab which was an upper level course. I realized that despite it being my first teaching experience, I did know something about research, and statistics, and presenting to a class. I was able to teach the lab students how to do those same things."

"Having been given a great deal of responsibility for running studies and for routine lab maintenance, I was much better equipped than most of my colleagues with the skills necessary for conducting both independent research and studies as part of a research team. I stayed through spring break and missed extracurricular activities to run studies; so the discipline needed to survive in graduate school was already part of my repertoire."

"This experience allowed me to jump into my new research much faster, and I wouldn't have been able to work as independently as I was able to and, in fact, needed to do."

"My research experiences allowed me to gain a larger perspective of the field of psychology. As I begin my job search, I consider this more comprehensive view of psychology to be a benefit: both in understanding the work of future colleagues, and being able to provide future students a broader perspective of the field."

"It gave me a model under which I want to guide my own students. I can only hope that their work in my lab will impact even one of my undergraduate students as much as my early lab experiences impacted me."

"I should note some of my most appreciative students, regarding what they gained from working with me, are the ones that didn't pursue graduate school at all. Something about the early sense of responsibility, the hands-on exposure to research, and accountability in the lab setting really does transfer well to students of mine that have gone on in business, law school, and even the military."

Other Comments
"Some of the most positive, memorable experiences I had in college had to do with research. The appreciation I gained for research from the perspective of a student has been bolstered by my experiences with my own students now that I am a faculty member. Not only am I convinced that the work we do with students is perhaps the most meaningful way that we work with them, but it is also the case that my most meaningful experiences as a professor have come from collaborative research endeavors with students. I believe that it is the process of working with students in research contexts, and not the products of such work, that is most important."

"Although I did not go academic, I happen to be in a profession that actively uses my undergraduate and graduate research knowledge in terms of designing and implementing applied research, using statistics, and giving reports to a critical audience."

Conclusions from the Student Survey
These testimonials regarding the importance of conducting research show that such experiences are critical to undergraduate education. They also help us understand why the National Council of Psi Chi was willing to develop so many programs that support and reward such activity. This survey and others like it (Russell, S. H., 2004) lead to two important questions. First, if involving students at the undergraduate level in research is so important, why aren't we doing more of it? Second, why don't administrators provide teaching credit or credit for tenure/promotion for involving undergraduates in our research programs? One answer to the first question may be time. And one solution to the time problem might be to change the curricula to provide teaching credit for involving undergraduates in research.

Teaching Credit for Involving Undergraduates in Research
At predominately teaching institutions, faculty members arrive trained to conduct research, but with heavy teaching loads, advising loads, committee loads, and commitments of family, the prospect of developing a research program is daunting. For beginning faculty members, the task is often overwhelming. When I joined the faculty at Southwestern University in 1978, I taught four courses per semester and supervised two to three students each semester on independent study projects. In addition, I advised students and served on committees. Obviously, I had begun a course of effort that I could not sustain over the long run.

During the early 90's, Southwestern University adopted a three-course teaching load. About the same time, the Department of Psychology conducted its 10-year review. In the final report, a recommendation was made that each psychology faculty member teach a course that involved students in research projects of publishable merit. As a result, I now teach a course entitled Research in Biopsychology. The course enrolls between three and five students who actively participate in all aspects of a research project including research design, construction of apparatus, collection and analysis of data, and manuscript preparation.

Murray (1997) wrote an article for the APA Monitor on Psychology based on an interview with Curt Burgess, Department of Psychology, University of California at Riverside. Burgess argued that "guiding a student through a research project may be the best form of teaching." (p.50) Burgess proposed that research become a part of all students' coursework. Burgess himself requires students in his research methods courses to carry out a research project from start to finish. I propose taking this idea one step further. Teach students the basics of research and various content areas through coursework and then offer a course in which students use their skills to conduct research that fits within the faculty member's area of expertise and program of research.

In essence, I am arguing that the perceived dichotomy between teaching and research is false. When one supervises an undergraduate, or a graduate student, on a research project, one is teaching. And when one teaches, one draws heavily upon research to support conclusions. Research and teaching are inseparable.

The purpose and mission statements of Psi Chi, the National Honor Society in Psychology, lead to two important activities: supporting and recognizing scholarship and advancing the science of psychology. Ruth Cousins and the National Council focused on the first activity and ensured the Society's financial stability. Kay Wilson and the National Council developed strong programs to advance the science of psychology, primarily through programs that provide opportunities and recognition for undergraduate research. Student responses to the questionnaire show that learning to conduct research offers several major advantages. Students acquire a better understanding of the scientific method particularly as it relates to the methods of science commonly used in psychology. Students learn to design better experiments and to determine the controls necessary to establish cause and effect relationships. In addition, students become better consumers of information and they learn to think critically and creatively. By conducting research and by presenting and publishing their work, students become more competitive in a tight graduate school market and they are able to contribute to such programs earlier. The experience also allows a faculty member or a research supervisor to know the student well. This result has obvious benefits when it is time to write letters of recommendation.

Through their involvement in research, students are transformed from passive to active learners who are empowered to continue their education at the graduate level. Given the positive impact that conducting research has on the student and on the faculty advisor, it is proposed that administrators find ways to reward or compensate faculty members who engage in such activity. One way to do this is by providing course credit for faculty members willing to invest the time necessary to ensure a positive experience for the student. The payoff to the student and to the faculty member is immeasurable.

Giordano, P. J. (2002). Research is the best way to travel. Eye on Psi Chi, 6(4), 3, 7.

Keith-Spiegel, P., Tabachnick, B. G., & Spiegel, G. B. (1994). When demand exceeds supply: Second-order criteria used by graduate school selection committees. Teaching of Psychology, 21, 79-81.

Murray, B. (1997). Educators call for adding more research to classes. APA Monitor on Psychology, 28(8), 50.

Russell, S. H. (2004). Evaluation of NSF support for undergraduate research opportunities: 2003 NSF-Program participant survey, Draft Executive Summary. Published by SRI International project Number P11554 under NSF Contract REC-9912172.

Table 1
Student respondent's name, dates attending Southwestern University, current position, affiliation, and area of interest.
Scott A. Bailey, (1984-1988)
Associate Professor
Dept of Psychology
Texas Lutheran University
MS, Emporia State University
PhD, Kansas State University
Behavioral Neuroscience

Michael Disch, (1995-1999)
Fifth-year graduate student
Department of Psychology
University of California at Berkeley
Behavioral Neuroscience, Vision

Adam R. Ferguson, (1994-1998)
Post Doctoral Fellow
Department of Psychology
Texas A & M University
Behavioral Neuroscience

Sharon Lundgren, (1985-1989)
Lundgren Trial Consulting, Inc.
Owner, Houston, Texas
PhD, Texas A & M University
Applied Social Psychology
Jury Consultant

Julia M. McElreath, (1987-1991)
Personnel Research Psychologist
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Washington, DC
PhD, Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan
I/O Psychology Selection

Jennifer L. Peel, (1982-1986)
Workplace Learning & Performance Manager
Catalog Products Division Harcourt Assessment, Inc.
PhD, Texas Christian University
Cognitive Psychology

Sarah Peterson, (1998-2002)
Second-year graduate student
Department of Psychology
Rice University
Computer-Human Interaction

Russell Ravert, (1979-1983)
MA, North Texas University
Doctoral Candidate
Department of Counseling& Educational Psychology
Indiana University
Health Psychology

Karen L. Roper, (1985-1989)
Assistant Professor
Department of Psychology
Wake Forest University
PhD, University of Kentucky
Animal Cognition

Dr. Jesse E. Purdy received his BS, MS, and PhD degrees from Colorado State University. He graduated with an emphasis in experimental psychology with specialization in animal learning and animal behavior. He currently holds the John H. Duncan Chair in the Department of Psychology at Southwestern University where he has been since 1978.

Dr. Purdy has an active research program that involves undergraduate students extensively. He has published more than 30 articles and made over 40 professional presentations, many of these with undergraduate coauthors. The focus of his work is on basic animal learning processes in aquatic animals. His work has been highlighted on the Discovery Channel's World of Wonder and he is often asked to speak to groups about his work with cuttlefish, Weddell seals, and whales. He is currently involved in projects examining predator/prey interactions between killer whales and salmon and social and vocal interactions of Weddell seals under the ice in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.

Dr. Purdy has been active in several professional organizations including the Southwestern Comparative Psychology Association, the Southwestern Psychological Association, and Psi Chi. He served on the board of directors for SCPA and he served as president-elect and president of SWPA. Dr. Purdy served as the Southwestern Regional Vice-President on the Psi Chi National Council from 1994-1997. He was President-Elect of Psi Chi National Council during the 1999-2000 academic year, and served as its National President, and Past-President.

Copyright 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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