Serious About Studying Psych? Why You Should Get Involved with Research ASAP.
Posted June 13, 2016
By Carly Haeck
Like most psychology majors, I was given the advice by my college advisor that I should "get involved in research" sooner rather than later if I wanted to pursue a career in the field. It was the beginning of my sophomore year, and I had enjoyed my psychology classes immensely to that point, so I figured I should give this research thing a try.Although I read about the results of many empirical studies in my textbooks, I didn’t know much about what happened behind the scenes in research. When told to “get involved with research”, I pictured myself in a white lab coat attaching electrodes to the heads of freshman volunteers, or maybe as a confederate in a social psychology experiment, dropping my books as I walked down the hallway to see whether an unwitting research participant would pick them up.
Despite my cluelessness, I landed a position as a research assistant in a social psychology lab. While I did run participants through a study, there was unfortunately no need for a confederate. The job turned out to be very unglamorous; I collected saliva samples (yes, SALIVA!) from participants, videotaped them as they gave speeches, and then re-watched the hours and hours of the video footage to look for specific behaviors. Finally, I meticulously entered data into a spreadsheet until I couldn’t see straight.
Yet, in spite of all the tedium, I am still so grateful that I had this first research opportunity. Through this job, and several others, I discovered the many reasons why professors and advisors encourage students to seek out research assistantships:
1. Research experiences will help you better understand your course material
My undergraduate education was great - don’t get me wrong - but I sometimes felt like my psychology classes were a bit lacking in the research methods department. When reading research articles for class, I used to be able to follow along during the introduction and most of the methods sections, but by the results section I was lost. I couldn't quite grasp how researchers could give participants a questionnaire about something, and then somehow turn their answers into numbers to use in complicated statistical analyses. My stints as a research assistant finally connected these dots.
While most undergrad research assistant jobs involve doing tedious tasks, such as entering data into a spreadsheet manually, I found that these duties turned out to be critical to my understanding of measurement. Turning the answers of participant questionnaires into values helped me understand how researchers quantify abstract concepts, create scores from scales, and deal with issues such as missing data.
2. Research experiences will help you A LOT when doing your senior thesis project
Many psychology majors are encouraged to conduct research for a senior thesis project, a daunting and often intimidating undertaking. Not only do you have to come up with an original idea for a study (that also hopefully interests you), but you also have to carry out the experiment, clean and analyze the data, and then write up the results. I often heard my fellow classmates complain about how hard it was to find a thesis advisor in addition to learning how to use statistical software.My advice to students who are thinking about doing a thesis would be to plan ahead and find a research assistant job during your sophomore or junior year. Professors want to help you learn things! Oftentimes if you tell professors that you are interested in helping them out with their study and also in learning how to use SPSS or STATA, they will be more than happy to give you a chance to practice running analyses with their datasets. These experiences can be extremely useful when figuring out what the heck you’re supposed to do with your own data down the road.
When it comes to thinking of an original research idea, students are unfortunately limited in terms of what they can realistically do. If you want your thesis to be about the psychological effects of cage diving with sharks in South Africa, you are probably going to have a pretty hard time collecting that data and finding an advisor who will be able to help you navigate the complexities of that project.
An easier approach to finding a reasonable research question is to first work for a professor who does research with the population that interests you. If you come to a professor you barely know with a specific research idea, they might be less willing to take the time out of their busy schedule to accommodate you. However, if you’ve already been helping out on a study involving a specific population that you’re interested in, you could think of an additional question that could easily be added to that study.
For example, during my junior year I worked with an amazing professor who creates web-based positive psychology interventions. These interventions were intended to reduce depression as well as increase subjective well-being and positive affect. One day, I had the thought, “Could these interventions increase positive body-image as well?” I pitched the idea to my professor, and he encouraged me to find a short body image questionnaire that could be added to the study.
3. Research experiences can open doors to other opportunities
Even if you don’t think you want to get a PhD in psychology, understanding how data works and getting to know professors is always helpful. From the beginning of sophomore year until I graduated, I worked in four different psychology labs. I never once failed to be amazed at how generous and supportive professors can be. Seriously! They want to help you succeed.
I've heard many friends complain about how hard it is to get to know professors well enough to ask them to write grad school recommendations. If you go to a school with giant lecture classes, you probably are going to have to take additional measures to ensure that a professor remembers you. Being a research assistant is one such way that you can form meaningful relationships with professors while also showing them your individual strengths.
Professors are also wise and know how confusing it can be when you don’t know exactly what your interests are. The summer after my sophomore year I worked for a professor who used to take time out of his schedule once a week to sit me down and teach me things that he felt were important for an aspiring psychologist to know. He then introduced me to someone who he thought I’d enjoy working with, my future thesis advisor. Both of these professors have provided me with invaluable mentorship over the years. My thesis advisor even helped me network to get a full-time job after college. And, when I went through a post-college crisis of not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, he continued to provide me with rational and helpful advice.
College students are repeatedly told to get involved on campus in addition to doing internships, getting leadership experience, and figuring out how to run off minimal sleep in order to be competitive for future employers. Basically, college is a constant juggling act. There were many extracurriculars that I would have loved to get involved in that were probably more exciting than entering data into a spreadsheet (i.e., eating club), but I seriously doubt I would have learned nearly as much as I did during my time as an undergraduate if I hadn’t taken the opportunity to get hands-on experience as a researcher. If you are serious about studying psychology, I whole heartedly encourage you to take this opportunity, too.
Carly Haeck is a Couple and Family Therapy master's student at Thomas Jefferson University. She is interested in working with grief and loss, trauma, eating disorders, and intimacy issues. Carly also hopes to integrate positive psychology concepts, such as resilience and post-traumatic growth, into couple and family therapy, and has researched the efficacy of positive interventions in the past.