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Getting Research Experience

A wide variety of research studies are conducted by the Psychology Department’s faculty, research fellows, graduate students, and undergraduates. This research ranges from simple tests of perception to state of the art brain imaging studies.  We encourage our majors to gain research experience by working with faculty in our department, both for pedagogical training and also as a way for a student to gain valuable research experience which will be extremely valuable to those considering graduate school.

In terms of pedagogical training, all students learn valuable critical thinking skills by working in a lab.  Research assistants are encouraged to apply theoretical knowledge from courses to actual empirical research being done in the lab. Most labs also have regular lab meetings where members (faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, and post-docs if relevant) read and discuss cutting edge research and synthesize across domains and methods.  Finally, in most labs students gain experience actually running subjects in experiments, which builds organizational and interpersonal skills.

In terms of research experience … very few students without research experience are accepted into graduate school in Psychology, so this is critical if you are considering applying to grad school.  In addition to the pedagogical benefits described above, working in a lab will allow you to get to know a member of our faculty much better than merely taking a class with her/him, which means the faculty member will be able to write a much stronger letter of recommendation for you when you’re applying to graduate school.  Also, although research is exciting, it also requires a lot of meticulous planning and attention to detail.  Working in a lab will allow you to see whether or not a career in research is for you.

There are two ways to gain research experience, one is by working as a research assistant (RA) in a lab (either for credit or for pay), and the other is through our Honors program.  The Honors program is a two year program, and interested students apply in the spring of their sophomore year.  But we encourage people to get involved in research early, so freshmen and sophomores are welcome in labs as RAs, as are juniors and seniors who can’t or don’t want to do the Honors program.

Most professors are looking for a year-long commitment from an RA, as training RAs takes a lot of time. But sometimes one-semester arrangements can be made.  Also, most RAs receive course credit (via signing up for PSY 3840, Directed Study) for their lab work.  Some paid positions are available, but working in a lab for credit is the norm.

The first step is to find a lab you’re interested in working in.  Lab needs fluctuate very frequently, so we don’t maintain a list of labs currently looking for RAs.  However, almost all the faculty in both A&S Psychology and Peabody Psychology have active labs with undergraduate RAs working in them.  You can access a list of faculty and a brief description of their interests from our faculty contacts page .  If you click on the faculty member’s name, you will see more detailed information about current projects in their labs.  Find several faculty members whose work seems interesting to you, and email them to see if they have current lab openings, and if so to set up an interview.  Although this sometimes seems intimidating to students, don’t let it be.  Note that in addition to “regular” faculty (those with primary appointments in Psychology either in A&S or Peabody), we also have affiliated faculty in other departments, and those faculty can supervise directed study students as well.

Once you find a lab, you need to sign up for Directed Study (PSY 3840), unless you are doing a paid position.  You cannot receive course credit if you are also being paid by the lab.  You can’t sign up for PSY 3840 via YES, you have to obtain a Learning Contract from the office (301 Wilson, ask to speak to Gale Newton).  You and your faculty sponsor fill out the contract together, and you both sign it and you return it to Gale.  She will then enroll you in PSY 3840.  Note that you can sign up for PSY 3840 for 1, 2 or 3 credit hours.  Be sure to discuss this explicitly with the faculty member whose lab you’ll be working in.  Most students take directed study for 3 credit hours, which equates to approximately 10 hours per week of lab work, including lab meetings.  Again, be sure to discuss expectations with the faculty member so that you’re clear on what you need to be doing in terms of lab work.

Finally, all 3840 students must complete two things in addition to their lab work: 1) online training in responsible conduct of research (RCR), and 2) a reflection paper at the end of the semester.  The RCR training must be completed within the first month of classes or students will be forced to withdraw from the 3840 course.  Students enrolled in directed study will receive an email from the Education Coordinator (Gale Newton) with details on completing the training.  The reflection paper is a 4-5 page paper asking students to report on the project they worked on over the course of the semester.  Again, enrolled students will receive guidelines from the Education Coordinator.  A copy of the paper is due both to the supervisor and the department on the last day of classes for the semester.

If you are searching specifically for a paid position, most labs advertise their availability on the “Hire-a-Dore” student employment website.