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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2007
Undergraduate Research Experience: Preparation for the Job Market
Merry J. Sleigh, PhD, and Darren R. Ritzer, PhD
Winthrop University (SC)

Undergraduate students who plan to attend graduate school are usually encouraged to gain research experience. Research experience is excellent preparation for graduate school training, because most programs consider research experience when making admission decisions and will include a research component (see Grover, 2006). Perhaps a fact that has been underemphasized in many psychology departments is that research experience also can be excellent preparation for today's job market.
Gaining Skills
Although certain jobs require a unique skill set, many skills are valued across job situations. For example, Landrum and Harrold (2003) surveyed employers across the United States. They found that the top 10 most desired skills fell into four categories:
  • interpersonal (i.e., listening skills, ability to work in groups, getting along with others, focus on customer or client, interpersonal relationship skills)
  • learning (i.e., desire and ability to learn; willingness to learn new important skills)
  • adaptability (i.e., adaptability to changing situations), and
  • problem solving (i.e., ability to suggest solutions to problems, problem solving skills).
In an earlier study, social, personal, and communication skills were reported as most important by employers (Appleby, 2000). In our own series of open-ended questioning of employers of social science majors, interpersonal, communication, and learning skills were rated as the most desirable traits in new hires (Sleigh & Ritzer, 2004). Thus, there appears to be some common characteristics that are attractive to employers, and each of them can be enhanced through research experience.
Interpersonal Skills
Research is rarely done in isolation. Undergraduates work with faculty or graduate student mentors and may work as part of a larger research team. Feedback from those outside the research team is also a typical part of the process. Researchers may seek input from colleagues, review boards, sponsors, selection committees, grant agencies, or journal editors. These interactions with others offer varied training ground for improving interpersonal skills.
The value of collaboration is bringing different perspectives and fresh ideas to the table. Students can make an effort to listen carefully, respond appropriately, and appreciate contributions. On the other hand, the difficulty of collaboration is these differing perspectives and ideas. Research teams must develop the skills to negotiate conflicting opinions while maintaining group harmony and mutual respect. The group must evaluate ideas, determine the best vision, and select a plan of action. Through this process, individual team members have the chance to learn flexibility and compromise.
When differences are resolved, each team member has the advantage of working alongside coworkers with individualized skill sets and goals. This situation develops undergraduates' ability to identify and utilize strengths in themselves, and to pinpoint weaknesses for improvement. This self-awareness eventually can extend to the ability to target stronger and weaker areas in teammates in order to assign tasks for maximum efficiency for the team.
Researchers must also communicate outside of their research team. Whether it be to an IRB or a professional conference, this communication typically requires thoughtful deliberation, adherence to guidelines, clear wording, and timeliness. The specific venue may require unique communication skills as well. The researchers must understand the audience, tailor the message to that audience, and convey the message in a meaningful way. These skills are valuable whether one works directly with an employer, is part of a team of coworkers, or is responsible for serving clients.
Trainability and Willingness to Learn
Every job requires some training, even if the applicant arrives with experience in that area. Employees need to acclimate to the business and learn the particulars of that company. Thus, employers want to know that their future hires are receptive to training and motivated to continue improving.
Undergraduates who participate in research demonstrate a willingness to learn, because they are undertaking a challenging and new experience. Each research project has unique elements, so the more diversified the research experience, the more the researcher has to learn. Research assistants might want to seek opportunities to take on additional responsibilities on their research team or work with a variety of supervisors to emphasize their adaptability and trainability.
Working under the mentorship of a faculty member or graduate student can be similar to a supervisor-employee model in the workplace. Research assistants must carefully listen to and follow instructions. These behaviors demonstrate a respect for authority, which can be critical in a hierarchical organization. Mentors also appreciate undergraduates who can follow instruction while simultaneously thinking independently and contributing to the situation.
Mistakes are inevitable when mastering a new skill, and undergraduates can learn from them. First, being able to recognize and admit mistakes is a sign of maturity and trustworthiness. Second, undergraduates who can accept constructive criticism will be better prepared for evaluation and performance reviews on the jobsite. Last, mistakes may be typical but the ability to offer practical solutions is less common. People who can correct their own shortcomings are an invaluable asset to any team.
The entire research process requires adaptability for success. Rarely does research go exactly as planned. Unforeseen problems, time constraints, and contextual limitations create a fluid environment. Researchers who maintain flexibility are often forced into new patterns of thinking. These unplanned patterns can lead to innovative and unprecedented solutions.
A second area in research that requires adaptability is data interpretation. A researcher begins the study with hypotheses; however, the data may not support those predictions. A good researcher will respond with flexibility of thought, actively working to reconcile existing knowledge with current findings and future expectations. This willingness to respond quickly to unexpected scenarios and entertain unexpected ideas is beneficial in the workplace as well when employees are asked to adapt to policy, coworker, or goal changes.
Problem Identification and Solution Finding
Companies are looking to improve in order to provide better service, increase profit, or expand in new directions. In order to make improvements, employees need to target areas where change is needed. Research helps develop this skill. By its very nature, research is the process of identifying a problem, posing a question, and designing methodology to address the question. These skills translate nicely to the job market. Not only do researchers have experience targeting areas of change, they can go beyond just naming a problem; they work toward providing a solution. Many managers work with employees who can find problems and voice their frustration; however, it is less typical to find an employee who can discuss a problem in conjunction with plans for how to address the problem.
In the process of designing research or solving a problem, undergraduates employ the same skill set. The researcher must evaluate options by weighing costs and benefits and assessing limitations of each. Then, the researcher has to make a decision that is feasible and achievable. The final step is implementation of the idea. Moving from conceptualization to actualization illustrates a wide range of competencies.
Selling Yourself. Research provides the skills, but it is still the task of the job applicant to make sure these skills are communicated. Employers who are not personally familiar with the research process may not intuitively make the link between the research task and the accompanying skills. Table 1 lists steps in the research process and offers skills, culled from a variety of career development resources, that are often utilized to accomplish each step. The applicant might start by making a list of knowledge, skills, and abilities that are relevant for the job being pursued. The applicant should consider personal strengths, weaknesses, and experiences, and then translate those characteristics into the context of the specific job. This translation will require job applicants to state skills in a way that makes sense to the employer, even if the wording is not identical to that used in the research context.
On a resume, students should carefully select "action verbs" (for a list, see that convey traits that will be meaningful to the employer. For example, a job applicant for a human resources position might refer to data analysis as "managing large databases and identifying trends," whereas an applicant for a behavioral counselor position may choose to emphasize, "maintained confidentiality of person-identifiable information." A student who is seeking a marketing or sales job may want to talk about a conference presentation in terms of "connecting with an audience" and "creating material to reflect the knowledge base of the clients." A student who is seeking a teaching position may want to talk about that same conference experience in terms of "preparing multimedia presentation materials" or "explaining information at an appropriate level for the audience."
Similarly, students who are in the process of interviewing for jobs may want to anticipate the type of questions that may be asked in the interview and consider how research experience can be used to answer those questions. (See for example questions.) Applicants should practice summarizing research experience in succinct ways that highlight relevant skills and match the job requirements.
If the employer is unfamiliar with research terminology, then more descriptive phrases may be necessary which highlight how the research task has prepared the applicant for the desired position. For example, instead of telling an employer, "I created and tested hypotheses," an applicant might say, "I made two competing predictions based on existing information and designed a study to determine which prediction was most accurate." Instead of saying, "I ran subjects," an applicant might say, "In a group setting, I explained the procedures and then distributed surveys to 30 young adults." "I wrote an APA-style manuscript," could become, "I wrote a detailed report following the specific guidelines for my field."
Taking Advantage. Perlman and McCann (2005) recently reported that 79% of psychology departments have research experience opportunities for their majors. As a student, it is wise to take advantage of these opportunities. Psychology majors who enter the job market rate classes such as Research Methods and Statistics as less important than do psychology majors who enter graduate school; however, when asked to evaluate the skills learned in those classes, both groups reported the skills equally valuable in helping them in their current position (Johanson & Fried, 2002).
One way to take full advantage of research training is to get involved as early as possible. Students who develop research skills as underclassmen have time to enhance those skills and expand their projects. At many schools, research assistants may begin by joining a faculty member's ongoing research program and eventually take sole responsibility for a portion of the study or conduct independent research under the supervision of their mentor. Presenting and publishing research takes time, so the earlier an undergraduate begins a project, the more time is available to take these next steps.
Another advantage of early research experience is that the experience itself may help clarify future plans. For some students, the experience of research gives rise to a passion for it. For other students, research experience clarifies their lack of interest in pursuing a career based on research (Seymour, Hunter, Laursen, & Deantoni, 2004). Regardless of whether a student chooses to enter the job market or apply to graduate school, research experience helps provide a competitive edge.
Appleby, D. (2000, Spring). Job skills valued by employers who interview psychology majors. Eye on Psi Chi, 4(3), 17.
Grover, S. F. (2006, Fall). Undergraduate research: Getting involved and getting into graduate school. Eye on Psi Chi, 11(1), 19-20.
Johanson, J. C., & Fried, C. B. (2002). Job training versus graduate school preparation: Are separate educational tracks warranted? Teaching of Psychology, 29, 241-243.
Landrum, R. E., & Harrold, R. (2003). What employers want from psychology graduates. Teaching of Psychology, 30, 131-133.
Perlman, B., & McCann, L. I. (2005). Undergraduate research experiences in psychology: A national study of courses and curricula. Teaching of Psychology, 32, 5-14.
Seymour, E., Hunter, A., Laursen, S. L., & Deantoni, T. (2004). Establishing the benefits of research experiences for undergraduates in sciences: First findings from a three-year study. Science Education, 88, 493-534.
Sleigh, M. J., & Ritzer, D. R. (2004, September). Beyond the classroom: Developing students' professional social skills. American Psychological Society Observer, 17(9), 39-40, 51-53.

Merry Sleigh, PhD, earned her BA in psychology and English from James Madison University (VA). In 1996, she received her PhD in developmental psychology from Virginia Tech, with a specialization in prenatal and infant development. She first served as faculty advisor to Psi Chi at George Mason University (VA), where she received the Regional Faculty Advisor Award in 2003. Dr. Sleigh currently teaches at Winthrop University. She serves as the Psi Chi faculty advisor and as a reviewer for the Psi Chi Journal of Undergraduate Research.

Darren Ritzer, PhD
, earned his BA in psychology from Lafayette College (PA) and his PhD in industrial/organizational psychology from Virginia Tech. He served as a research psychologist in the United States Army studying stress levels in deployed soldiers. In 1997, Dr. Ritzer was awarded the Army Medical Department Outstanding Junior Officer of the Year. He ended his service in 2003 at the rank of major. Dr. Ritzer currently teaches at Winthrop University. He serves as the faculty advisor to the Psychology Club.

Copyright 2007 (Volume 11, Issue 3) 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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