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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2018
 

Undergraduate Research:
A Valuable Experience for Expanding Your Mind and Your Resume

Hazel J. Shah, Ryan Savage, Richard Ortiz, and Betty S. Lai, PhD
Georgia State University's School of Public Health
https://doi.org/10.24839/2164-9812.Eye22.2.10
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What opportunities will prepare you for your future? Many people think about finding summer internships, but what about the rest of the year? Undergraduate research opportunities are a great way to gain experience and to benefit from the expertise of professors or researchers. Here, we not only explain why undergraduate research is worthwhile, but we will help guide you to finding a situation that is perfect for you.

Why Do Undergraduate Research?
Why should you take advantage of undergraduate research opportunities? The most obvious answer is experience. The opportunities offered by these positions help prepare you for your future career and/or graduate school by allowing you to establish professional networks, make valuable connections that can facilitate letters of recommendation, and actively participate in a professional advanced research setting. In fact, conducting undergraduate research correlates significantly with increased research skills in graduate school (Gilmore, Vieyra, Timmerman, Feldon, & Maher, 2015). These opportunities will all benefit you in your future endeavors, whatever those may be.

One additional underrated benefit of participating in research is the chance to “test the waters” to determine if you want to pursue research. This applies not only to research in general, but also to specific areas of study you may be considering. For example, if you are a psychology major and are considering a potential career in public health, you could apply for a research position in the public health field to see if any particular topic piques your interest. These experiences will help you decide whether you want to work in that specific field long term.

Similarly, research provides excellent opportunities to expand your interests. You can delve deeper into a field in which you have prior experience, or conversely, try out a new field with which you have little to no experience. Undergraduate research not only allows you to gain a meaningful understanding of what it is like to work in the field, but it also provides you with the ability to participate first-hand in cutting edge research.

Choosing a Professor/Lab
Deciding what interests you want to pursue with an undergraduate research position is not as daunting as it may appear. In making this decision, you should ask yourself these questions:
  • What classes have you enjoyed throughout your academic career?
  • Have you written, researched, or presented a specific paper or project that really interested you?
  • Are there any particular types of articles you have found engaging?
  • Have you enjoyed doing research in the past? If so, what type of research have you found to be intriguing?
  • Do you have any personal interests that would be applicable to an area of academic research?
  • Is there a professor who you found particularly engaging, or who you have developed a good rapport with?
  • Has your university recently been awarded any grants that would boost your resumé? Search for recent awards given to your university, either through your university website or through large granting agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (https://projectreporter.nih.gov/) and the National Science Foundation (https://www.nsf.gov/ awardsearch/).
Answering these questions will shed some light on what area(s) of research you should consider pursuing a position in.

Once you have a good idea of the type or field of research you are interested in, you will need to search for a specific lab you want to work with, whether it be through your university, nonprofit organizations, or even hospitals (Lai, Margol, & Landoll 2010). Additionally, you want to become familiar with the types of research you would be doing, and determine if you think these positions would be a good fit for you and your interests. To do this, you should:
  • Search faculty pages at your university, a nonprofit, or other research institution to see which faculty members/researchers are conducting research in your field of interest.
  • When you have identified faculty members/researchers of interest, read through their recent publications to see if the work they are currently doing is something that interests you.
  • Consider what your role would be or how you would contribute if you were to work in a particular research position.
  • Search through lab websites to get more detail into the professor or researcher’s current focus.
  • Read articles and other publications produced by members of the lab.

Applying for a Position
After you have decided on a specific professor or researcher with whom you want to work, you need to know if there are certain requirements for applying. Check the professor/researcher’s web page to see if those requirements are listed. This is a critical step that showcases whether you have “done your homework” on the lab. For most research positions, you will need to provide a CV or resumé. It is very important that you proofread these documents before submitting because you want to show that you are meticulous and thoughtful. Once you have the appropriate documents prepared, you should e-mail (or submit as the lab specifies) them to the professor or lab assistant. Herein lies both the easiest aspect of applying for a research position, as well as the most common way to (dis)qualify yourself for consideration: making a professional query.

Above all else, keep in mind that your professional query will likely serve as your first impression with someone who is involved in your hiring process to some degree (Lai et al., 2010). We provide sample text for a professional query that could be sent to a professor or researcher.



Making Research Count

Unfortunately, most labs cannot begin paying you if you have no prior experience; undergraduate researchers often start as volunteers. This should not deter you though because the experience you will gain has many benefits in and of itself, as discussed above. Also, many universities offer research opportunities for course credit. Such options are excellent ways to boost your GPA, and contribute to a possible research minor or other supplement to your degree.

As you become more involved and established in a research lab, qualifying for and obtaining Undergraduate Research awards/funding from your university or other organization can become an option. For instance, some researchers may obtain supplemental funding to assist undergraduate participation in research. An example of this would be the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduate Supplement Awards.

Ultimately, becoming involved in undergraduate research will prepare you for your career or graduate school. The experience will help you master skills and build relationships that would otherwise be hard to come by. Because you have already taken the first step toward your future by pursuing an undergraduate degree, why not make the most of your time and resources? Distinguish yourself from your peers by getting involved in undergraduate research!

References
Gilmore, J., Vieyra, M., Timmerman, B., Feldon, D., & Maher, M. (2015). The relationship between undergraduate research participation and subsequent research performance of early career STEM graduate students. Journal of Higher Education, 86, 834–863. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00221546.2015.11777386
Lai, B. S., Margol, A., & Landoll, R. R. (2010, Summer). Doing your research: How to make the most out of research experiences. Eye on Psi Chi, 14(4), 24–27. Retrieved from https://www.psichi.org/?144EyeSum10cLai

Hazel J. Shah received her BS in biochemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology in May 2016. She is currently pursuing an MPH with a biostatistics concentration from Georgia State University’s School of Public Health and is a graduate research assistant for Dr. Betty Lai.

Richard Ortiz is an undergraduate senior in the College of Arts and Sciences at Georgia State University. He is pursuing a degree in political science with a pre-law concentration along with an Advanced Honors distinction. His emphasis and interests include intellectual property and social justice. Richard is an undergraduate research assistant for Dr. Lai.

Ryan Savage is a third-year undergraduate student at Georgia State University. He is currently working toward a BS in public policy with a concentration in public management and governance. Ryan is an undergraduate research assistant for Dr. Lai.

Betty S. Lai, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the School of Public Health at Georgia State University. She received her PhD in clinical psychology, with a specialization in children and families, from the University of Miami, and she completed her clinical internship in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences of the Stanford University School of Medicine.

 

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Copyright 2018 (Vol. 22, Iss. 2) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


 
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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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