You’ve heard these phrases over and over again: “New research shows that…” or “Scientists have discovered…” For instance, if you follow SPSP’s Facebook or Twitter accounts (and you definitely should!), you can read about the latest research in personality and social psychology. But you might be wondering, what exactly does research entail? How can I become involved in research as an undergraduate? This article provides an overview of what to expect as an undergraduate conducting research, strategies for getting involved, and how to translate your research experience into graduate school and/or career success.
What to expect as an undergraduate researcher
If you take the definition of research literally, research is “a systematic investigation …designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.” What does that mean for you as an undergraduate? Finding answers to any question you have! Research activities could involve (but are not limited to) conducting literature reviews (i.e., searching PsycINFO to see what has been published on a particular topic), reading journal articles, coding data (e.g., watching video-recorded interactions between participants), or even running participants through a study. Your role in the research process is, however, dependent on the needs and requirements of the individual lab. For example, one lab may be in the process of collecting data, so they may need your help to schedule and run participants, whereas another lab may be getting the materials and protocol together to start a new study, so they may need your help with literature searches and testing out procedures. Be ready for any task and always be willing to help.
Strategies for getting involved in research
Now that you know what to expect, how do you find a lab to join? Start with your academic advisor. He or she might be a faculty member in the psychology department and may know about research that is currently taking place. Another excellent source of information is the website for the psychology department or other similar departments. Most departmental websites list the names and emails of the faculty and might contain links to each lab’s website. If lab websites are available, visit a few and see what kind of research is taking place; browse through some of the labs’ descriptions and recent publications. Once you’ve done some background research on the lab and the faculty member, send a brief email introducing yourself and let them know that you’d like to get involved in their lab. Here is an example:
Dear Dr. Block,
My name is Nick Brown, and I’m an undergraduate psychology major. I read some of your recent publications on accuracy in personality judgments, and I’d like to get involved in your research if possible. Are you currently accepting students to work in your lab?
Thank you in advance for your time,
Translating research experience into career success
Whether you plan on applying to graduate school or to a job after graduation, the skills and knowledge gained through research are invaluable. Are you planning on going to graduate school? You can approach your faculty research advisor to see if he or she will write you a letter of recommendation. Depending on how the lab is run, their graduate students may write the letter, but the faculty advisor will sign off on it. If you are applying for a job, the faculty advisor could serve as a reference. If you are very interested in the research, see if your faculty advisor will work with you to submit a poster to be presented at an upcoming Annual SPSP Convention. Did you learn how to use R, SPSS, or some other statistical software? That’s another line to add to your CV/resume. Your involvement in the lab could even lead to an honors or senior thesis. In sum, take a look at what you’ve done as a research assistant—chances are it will complement the job you are applying for or the graduate program that you’d like to attend.