Betty S. Lai, MS, MST, Adam Margol, and Ryan R. Landoll, MS
University of Miami (FL)
As a psychology student, you may be curious about the research process. Participating in research may help you develop your career interests and prospects for graduate school (Perlman & McCann, 2005). However, the process of choosing a research lab can be difficult and mysterious. This step-by-step guide is designed to help you "do research" on how to make the most of a research experience. This guide focuses on defining your interests in research, choosing the "right" laboratory, and building your research experiences to become a more competitive graduate school applicant.
Defining You Interests
The first step in building your research experience is to define your individual interests. This will be an ongoing process. A study of undergraduate research experiences found that involvement in research can help clarify or refine career interests (Seymour, Hunter, Laursen, & Deantoni, 2004). However, these effects were predominately found for students who had pre-existing goals. Thus, it may help to have a general idea of the research that interests you.
In order to identify general areas of interest, you should ask yourself about the type of research you are interested in conducting. Are you interested in working on research that is more basic in nature, or that has practical applications? What types of populations would you want to work with (e.g., animals, children, adolescents, college students, older adults, clinical populations with diagnoses of psychological disorders)? To what extent would you want to be involved or interact with participants directly? You should also consider whether you would be interested in research that focuses on different psychological domains of functioning (i.e., cognition, behavior, health, social).
After narrowing your interests, you need to identify researchers conducting research in those types of labs. Look for research labs at your school, nonprofit institutions, or hospitals. As you are looking for labs, consider what type of position you might like to have in the future. Are you interested in working in a university setting, a hospital, or a business setting? Mentors with jobs in those settings will be able to serve as guides as you pursue your career goals.
Interviewing With a Laboratory
Once you have identified several labs that match your general interests, it is time to contact them about possible research positions. This may mean contacting a professor directly, or designated project coordinators, or graduate students who oversee undergraduate research assistants in some laboratories. Academic advisors or your course instructors may have ideas about how to get in contact with an individual research lab. Regardless, always remember this first contact is also a first impression with someone who will have at least some say in whether or not you will be hired. Be sure to use a professional e-mail address and professional language. Always remember that your initial inquiry could be forwarded to other researchers, faculty members, or graduate students.
When interviewing with a research lab, it is important to communicate your interest and skills effectively (Sleigh & Ritzer, 2007). However, it is equally important to be sure this is a lab where you will be able to gain skills and experiences that are valuable for your plans after graduation. Undergraduate experiences in research can offer opportunities for understanding how to conduct scientific work and develop a scientific mindset, as well as opportunities for you to gain confidence in a research setting (Seymour et al., 2004). A list of questions that may guide your decision-making process as you interview various labs can be found in Table 1.
While this list of questions is certainly not exhaustive, it should be helpful in clarifying your expectations of a lab. Beginning researchers often start by conducting basic tasks such as data entry. This type of work is incredibly important to the business of research and will help inform how you conduct research later in your career. It will provide you with an appreciation for the attention to detail required of a scientist, and will also leave you with insight on best practices for data entry, collection, and management. These skills will be invaluable not only for marketing yourself for future positions, but also if your career aspirations involve the design and implementation of your own research. In addition, performing these tasks well can distinguish you within a lab and demonstrate that you are able to take on more responsibility. They are also excellent tasks that allow you to ease in and "get your feet wet" with the research process.
Second, understand what will be expected of you in a lab. Ask potential labs about the amount of time they are willing to invest in their undergraduate students. How much face-to-face time will you have with mentors (e.g., professors and graduate students)? How concerned is the lab with the professional development of its undergraduate students? Labs that provide opportunities for career advancement and professional development in the form of individual research experience, conference presentations, and panel discussions on post-graduate study and professional development are incredibly beneficial, regardless of whether or not these experiences are overseen by a faculty member, graduate student, or other post-graduate member of the research team.
Further, it is important to understand the mentorship models available within the lab. Read about the researchers or professors and find out about the directions their work is taking. How happy are the other researchers in the lab? How well-known is the researcher? A less well-known researcher may have more time to work with you directly. However, a well-known researcher who has graduate students and research assistants committed to mentorship may provide access to both high-quality training and research.
As you are choosing a research laboratory, keep in mind that very few labs will be able to offer all of the above to the extent you may desire. For your first research experience, it may be helpful to focus on a few key areas (e.g., learning about how to conduct research, skills training) rather than worrying about conference presentations, paid positions, and honors theses.
Starting Your Research Experience
Once you have chosen a lab, prepare yourself to start your research experience. Congratulations! This is the beginning of your research career. Keep in mind a few points as you start. First, take advantage of any opportunity to get to know your mentor so he or she will have an accurate sense of who you are and your potential; studies have shown that spending time interacting with a mentor can be beneficial not only personally, but can improve academic performance as well (Koch, 2002). Second, you must understand that you are entering a professional setting. If the time spent working in a lab is taken seriously, it can lead to letters of reference that truly reflect your ability and character. Having a positive relationship with your mentor will not only make him or her more willing and able to write a letter of recommendation, but your mentor could potentially have personal connections with other professionals within your area of interest willing to place you. Additionally, your mentor has the breadth of knowledge that can help guide you regardless of whether you plan to pursue a similar path. Mentors have spent years within the field of psychology and should be able to answer many of the psychology-related questions that you may have.
In order to be taken seriously, it is important to always come dressed appropriately and maintain a level of respect among members of your lab as well as supervisors. This creates a positive working environment, and also allows you to rely on your fellow members for assistance when trying to pursue a personal research question. It is important to remember that what you put into the lab is what you will get out of it. There is no limit regarding research and if you are motivated and ambitious enough, you can take your participation in many different directions. There are opportunities to develop original research questions, attend conferences where you would present your research in the form of a poster or a presentation, expand on previous research, or even develop your own research altogether. After working in a lab for a semester or a year, do not hesitate to ask your mentor if he or she would be willing to support you in order to share your research with the psychological community. Conferences can provide tremendous learning experiences by developing your public speaking skills, establishing connections amongst professionals within the field, acquiring information from a variety of presentations, further exploring potential career paths, and getting better acquainted with the members of your lab. It is also a valuable addition to curriculum vitae.
If you do have the opportunity to present at or attend a conference, be proactive in searching out opportunities for yourself. For example, there are many different areas of psychology that have conferences annually. Find conferences that match your research; check the deadlines early to set goals for yourself and to write an abstract in time for submission. If your lab does not have the ability to provide funding for you to present or develop your research, there are many grants and travel awards available both nationally and at your specific institution that can cover part or all of your attendance costs. Your mentor, your school's student government or student affairs offices, your psychology department, and the Internet may all be good resources for finding funding.
After spending some time in the lab, you may find that the research is not an exact fit with your interests; it is not the end of the world. Simply view it as an opportunity to help narrow your focus and try to use the experience to understand what questions you would like to ask in graduate school. You will not be limited in graduate school to the type of research you are currently conducting. Most graduate schools are interested in learning about your research experience, and knowing how you can apply the skills you have learned to your own areas of interest. It can sometimes be valuable to get involved in several labs to narrow your personal focus and find out what kind of research you enjoy. However, be wary of joining too many labs, as overextending yourself may limit your ability to contribute excellent work. Also, while it is important to explore your interests, it is also important for you to accumulate research experiences that follow a consistent "theme" or area that you are particularly interested in, and would like to further research in the future. Following these steps can help lead you to a long and fruitful career in psychology.
Questions to Ask About Research Labs
What are their current projects?
- How many projects is the lab currently undertaking? The current projects may differ from those on their web site.
Who would you be working with?
- How often will you interact with your mentor (will your mentor be a graduate student, faculty, or post-graduate coordinator)?
- How many professors are involved in the research?
- How often will you interact with faculty associated with the project?
- How many people are involved in the lab (undergraduates, post-graduates, graduate students, post-doctoral students, and faculty)? Larger labs give you a chance to interact with several people with your interests. Smaller labs may have more opportunities for varied types of work as well as individualized attention.
What would your role be?
- What type of work will you be doing now, and into the future?
- In what stage of the research project is the lab currently and how do they see the lab developing in the next few years (collecting or analyzing data)? This may affect how many research assistants a lab needs and over what period. It is also likely to influence what types of opportunities will be available for you, both in the short- and long-term.
- Are the hours flexible or scheduled?
- What type of work will be assigned within the lab other than the scheduled times (writing research articles, giving presentations, etc.)?
- Does the lab have graduate students and what is their role in facilitating the lab and making decisions about research direction?
- Is there an opportunity to have a paid position in the lab? Note that this is rare, particularly for undergraduate assistants, and should not preclude the value of the lab in terms of professional development and research experience.
- Is there an opportunity to work up to a leadership position in the lab (manager, coordinator)?
What research opportunities are available?
- Are they willing to sponsor an honors thesis? If your school offers this opportunity, you will probably need a mentor's sponsorship to take advantage of it.
- Are there any opportunities to present at conferences and/or contribute to publications? This can often be as beneficial as an honors thesis, if not more so.
- Are there opportunities to learn new techniques (e.g., data analysis, data collection procedures, direct work with participants, the institutional review board process, data programming)?
- Are there any standard research or testing procedures that you can learn to perform? This can improve your CV and increase your qualifications for later research positions.
What professional development opportunities are available?
- What types of programs, if any, do graduate students or faculty offer to further the students' knowledge regarding research and graduate school?
- Are undergraduate students provided the opportunity to network, attend psychological conferences, or listen to speakers regarding professional development issues?
Koch, C. (2002, Spring). Getting involved by getting a mentor. Eye on Psi Chi, 6(3), 28-36.
Perlman, B., & McCann, L. I. (2005). Undergraduate research experiences in psychology: A national study of courses and cirricula. Teaching of Psychology, 32 (1), 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, 483-534.
Sleigh, M. J., & Ritzer, D. R. (2007, Spring). Undergraduate research experience: Preparation for the job market. Eye on Psi Chi, 11(3), 27-30.
Betty Lai, MS, MST, is a fourth-year doctoral student in child clinical psychology at the University of Miami (FL). Before graduate school, she taught middle school mathematics and science in New York City with Teach for America. Her work focuses on social networks and their influence on health behaviors.
Adam J. Margol is a senior majoring in psychology at the University of Miami (FL). He has worked in two research labs: one focused on peer relations, depression, and social anxiety; the second focused on a joint attention intervention study, working with children with autism spectrum disorder. After graduation, he plans to attend graduate school.
Ryan R. Landoll, MS, is a third-year graduate student in the doctoral program in child clinical psychology at the University of Miami (FL) with a bachelor's degree from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His interests include the interplay between peer relations, depression, and social anxiety, as well as health risk behaviors and body image among adolescents.
Copyright 2010 (Vol. 14, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology