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Eye on Psi Chi: Fall 2006

Eye on Psi Chi

Winter 2006| Volume 11 | Number 1


Undergraduate Research: Getting Involved and Getting Into Graduate School
(A Student's Perspective)

Scott F. Grover
Point Loma Nazarene University (CA)

Undergraduate research can make the difference between admission or rejection to graduate school. In fact, many graduate schools are starting to require research experience. Recent research on admissions to APA accredited doctoral programs has shown that research experience and commitment to research were the most important factors in the admissions decision (Munoz-Dunbar & Stanton, 1999). Also, nearly 75% of PhD programs in psychology require experimental methods and research design courses (Mayne, Norcross, & Sayette, 1994). Nearly all of the programs require conceptual statistical knowledge and expect students to know how to be able to apply such knowledge. So where can one gain such experience and technical knowledge?

Research provides a good opportunity to gain experience and develop important skills. Research regarding admissions to PhD programs in experimental, clinical, counseling, and school psychology found that field placements and internship experiences are not as important as GPA, GRE scores, letters of recommendation, and research experience (Landrum, Jeglum, & Cashin, 1994; Purdy, Reinehr, & Swartz, 1989). The message is clear that a scholarly research project can set apart a serious candidate for graduate school. Research experience can give an applicant an advantage and the skills needed to not only get into graduate school but to succeed in graduate school. Graduate schools are starting to make it clear that it is not enough to have textbook knowledge of research methods and design; they require hands-on practical research experience. In fact, when applying to several graduate schools I found that some of them actually require applicants to have had some form of research experience for their application to be considered.

I was motivated to do research primarily because I was told it looked good to graduate schools. I was surprised to find that I not only enjoyed the work but was also reaping the rewards of my hard work for months to come. My involvement in research began by becoming educated on the research being conducted by one of my professors and simply expressing interest to that professor. Psychology professors often need bright motivated students to help conduct research projects. Ask around to find out if a professor is looking for a research assistant; you can usually receive academic credit for assisting with research. Research projects are an opportunity to learn valuable statistical skills that are highly desirable in the workplace. Many organizations in the community often will hire students to conduct research or statistical analyses.

Gain Experience in the Field

It is important for students to know what they intend to study when applying for graduate school. Graduate schools will ask applicants to explain in their statement of purpose what kind of work they are interested in. Some students find they enjoy designing and conducting a research project, while others prefer working with people in a clinical capacity. Research experience can be helpful in determining whether to pursue research or clinical work in graduate school. This can be very important because most graduate schools tend to be oriented towards either research or clinical work. Research provides a good opportunity to figure out what research interests one has and in what field. Also, most applications ask which professors you might want to work with; knowing your own research interests is crucial to matching yourself to a faculty member.

Student research has several advantages that are worth mentioning. Student research is more accessible and typically consists of smaller, quicker projects. These projects can help build a strong vita with numerous conference presentations and publications. However, student research has several shortcomings which include a general lack of funding and lack of technical experience on the researcher's part such as research design or statistical errors.

Get a Mentor

Faculty-led research may make up for many of the shortcomings of student research. There is a marked difference in the quality of research when the research is done collaboratively with a professor that has experience, funding, and contacts. A research project's scope will generally increase in terms of resources, length, and overall quality when undertaken with a professor in a student's department. For example, the research that I was involved in was financed by a grant from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU).

Recent research has shown the merits of getting involved in a professor's research project. A study done looking at the student/ professor mentor relationship (Koch, 2002) reported, "students who were mentored were subsequently 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).

Present or Publish Research

Research gives the student an opportunity to show graduate schools a student's specific research interests and scholarly potential through presentations and publications. Research with a professor often can lead to a conference presentation or a journal publication. A very good way to increase one's chances of admission to graduate school is publishing an article or empirical paper. There are many undergraduate journals that will publish student research, are relatively easy to find, and are worth pursuing. It may be too ambitious as an undergraduate to try to publish in an APA journal. It does take time to prepare a manuscript for publication, but it would be great practice for eventually writing a dissertation or other scholarly work. Graduate schools look highly upon research experience and publication/conference presentations because they are believed to be reliable predictors of future success in graduate school. Graduate schools look for these things: a student who has a high level of motivation, interest in the field, and scholarly potential. Research experience and publication or conference presentations are used often as subjective measures of choosing a candidate for graduate school and are given a good deal of weight along with objective measures such as GPA and GRE scores. A published study asked graduate institutions about their procedures for selecting applicants and they responded by placing heavy emphases on research experience (Landrum et. al., 2004).

Be Proactive

Research is an opportunity to be visible in a student's department. Being active in their department is one thing that students can easily do to increase their chances of graduate school admission. Research experience and being active in the department can have financial advantages as well. As a result of my research experience and activity in the psychology department at Point Loma Nazarene University, I received a large scholarship from the psychology department. Graduate schools also look for students at the top of the department as evidenced by departmental scholarships and conference presentations (Keith-Spiegel & Wiederman, 2000).

An often overlooked advantage of research is getting the opportunity to know a professor on a personal level outside of the classroom. As a result, the professor is often more willing to write a favorable letter of recommendation. Letters of recommendation are given a lot of weight in most graduate school admission processes. Strong letters of recommendation can often make up for other areas of weakness (Keith-Spiegel, 1991).

Network, Network, Network

Collaborative research can allow a student to attend a conference and meet and network with professionals in the field of psychology. Many colleges and universities will have a budget for students to attend conferences and present their research. As a student, take advantage of this opportunity to present research.

Research can facilitate networking and meeting researchers and professors from graduate schools you might be interested in. Conferences can provide an opportunity to link up with graduate school professors that have the same and similar interests as you.

For example, the research that I was involved in allowed me to meet and work with a professor from a graduate institution that I was interested in attending. I made a connection with a professor who shared research interests with me, and he offered to make a favorable comment to the admissions committee on my behalf.

Research experience and networking can prove to be a valuable asset when it comes time to apply for graduate school. The opportunity to talk with professors at conferences and see what their research interests are can be advantageous for determining not only a career path but also to determine the right graduate school program for you. For example, you may meet an expert neurocognitive scientist who is doing brain research with a functional MRI machine at Arizona State University. This would be important to know when choosing where to apply if you're interested in neurobiological research. Another example is when a research project allowed me to meet with professors and researchers from various universities around the country. Through this experience I got an idea of what their graduate programs emphasized and learned of their projects and interests. This information was very helpful when choosing which schools to apply to and was helpful with the application process itself. These conversations can also be helpful when writing your personal statement and mentioning the professors' names and their ongoing research projects. These kinds of details make a difference and show admissions committees that you are serious about graduate study.

These interactions can also be helpful in getting information about the topics of research, which professors are involved in research, who is competing for grants, who has received grants, and who would have money to hire you as a research assistant. Networking can payoff and if I am hired, I would receive a research assistantship and half tuition scholarship. Knowing professors' projects and funding for projects are important things to consider when choosing a graduate school. For example, I have been networking with a professor through my research who is in the process of receiving a million dollar grant and is interested in hiring me as a research assistant; if it works out, I would receive a large stipend. Research experience can equip a student with the technical skills and the experience to not only get into a quality graduate program but to succeed in it. Research experience often can provide many ways for students to distinguish themselves and increase their chances of admission to graduate school.

Research can also broaden students' perspectives and open the door for various professional opportunities. Research experience is by far one of the most worthwhile ventures that undergraduates can undertake to further their professional and personal goals of continuing graduate education.

Four things to do to increase one's chances of graduate school admission:

  1. Get involved in research
  2. Network with professionals in the field
  3. Attend conferences
  4. Present a poster or paper at a conference

Keith-Spiegel, P. (1991). The complete guide to graduate school admission: Psychology and related fields. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Keith-Spiegel, P., & Wiederman, M. W. (2000). The complete guide to graduate school admission: Psychology, counseling, and related professions (2nd. ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Koch, C. (2002, Spring). Getting involved by getting a mentor. Eye on Psi Chi, 6(3), 28, 36.

Landrum, E. R., Jeglum, E. B., & Cashin, J. R. (2004). The decision-making processes of graduate admissions committees in psychology. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 9, 239-248.

Mayne, T. J., Norcross, J. C., & Sayette, M. A. (1994). Admission requirements, acceptance rates, and financial assistance in clinical psychology programs: Diversity across the practice research continuum. American Psychologist, 49, 806-811.

Munoz-Dunbar, R., & Stanton, A. L. (1999). Ethnic diversity in clinical psychology: Recruitment and admission practices among doctoral programs. Teaching of Psychology, 26, 259-263.

Purdy, J. E., Reinehr, R. C., & Swartz, J. D. (1989). Graduate admissions criteria of leading psychology departments. American Psychologist, 44, 960-961.

Scott F. Grover graduated from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego with a degree in therapeutic and community psychology in 2005. Mr. Grover is currently working with at-risk youth as a behavioral specialist with Mental Health Systems Inc. Mr. Grover will also be attending Fuller Theological Seminary to pursue a PhD in clinical psychology in the fall. His goals include gaining experience doing clinical assessment and conducting research on the effectiveness of various therapeutic interventions.

One important part of his undergraduate career began in his junior year when he became involved in research with Dr. Brad Strawn, specifically investigating virtues and values set in a cultural context. This research culminated in the presentation of the project at the Rocky Mountain Psychological Association and at the Association of Moral Education at Harvard University.

One of Mr. Grover's many interests include playing tennis and running. He also has a passion for nature and the outdoors because he used to be a forest ranger. Mr. Grover is active in the psychology department and plays tennis regularly with faculty members at PLNU.

Copyright 2006 (Vol. 11, Iss. 1) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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