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Undergraduate Research: PSY 3940 Research in Psychology

Students can earn course credit (PSY 3940) for participating in research on a broad range of topics investigated by faculty members in the Psychology Department. Students learn to design studies, collect data, and use computers for data reduction and analysis.

Aim: To provide students with supervised research experience. Students may work on a project which they have designed or may assist in ongoing research. In both cases, students must work under the supervision of a department faculty members.

Prerequisites: PSY 2120; Permission is required from faculty member and project supervisor.

Credit: Each credit hour is 3 hours of work time each week, or 42 total hours. There is a maximum of 12 credit hours of PSY 3940 work.

Grading: Credit / No Credit.

Faculty and Labs: See Faculty Research Areas for descriptions of the Psychology faculty and the research that they conduct.

Recommendations for Maximizing your Experience

By Jennifer Segula & Lindsay Orchowski

PSY 3940, Research in Psychology, integrates undergraduate research assistants into faculty and graduate student research teams. This course is not a requirement of the degree, and is graded by credit/non-credit only. Students are expected to complete three hours of work for each hour of credit.  Arrangements for the course can be made through individual faculty members and research laboratories within the Department of Psychology. This review provides an insider’s view into the benefits and challenges of research collaboration, so that undergraduate students can maximize their experience as a research assistant.

As research assistants, undergraduate students have the opportunity to gain hands-on learning experience in the design and maintenance of psychological research. As Dewar and Sharp (2006) suggest, such collaborative learning environments, where undergraduate students work with graduate students and faculty, offer a valuable alternate learning experience from the classroom.

What’s in it for me? Benefits of PSY 3940

Reason #1: Hand’s on Learning and Skill Development. For many undergraduate students, volunteering in a research laboratory may be the first time they are able to gather a “behind-the-scenes” view of the methodology, man-power, and procedures that produce scientific studies. Although demystifying the nuts-and-bolts of psychological science can be less than glamorous—as it introduces students to the often tedious reality of data collection—engaging in research collaboration also provides a hands-on learning experience rarely found in the standard college classroom. Thus, research collaboration is a unique way in which undergraduate students can develop a range of academic skills.

Reason #2: Developing Career Interests and Credentials for Graduate School. For students considering careers in professional psychology, volunteering as a research assistant can assist in refining vocational interests and building credentials for graduate study. Since learning what you don’t like to do is just as important as knowing what you do like to do, laboratory research can help students to rule out potential career choices. For example, exposure to data collection may help students to distinguish whether they would like to pursue a degree in psychology which emphasizes research, compared to practice.

Since research experiences provide fundamental skills in the methods of psychological science, research assistants who apply to graduate school are often at an advantage compared to applicants less skilled in laboratory research. Not only do research assistants gain a broader awareness of their own professional interests, faculty mentors may also help research assistants in locating potential summer internship opportunities, developing and refining one’s curriculum vitae, and providing letters of recommendation. 

How do I choose a laboratory?

Get the facts. The roles of research assistants can vary considerably. Even undergraduate researchers in the same laboratory may engage in different tasks, so it is important that potential research assistants find out what role they will take, and how they will contribute to the research team. Instead of trusting the advice of fellow undergraduate psychology majors, we suggest that undergraduate students ask faculty and graduate student mentors about the specific time commitment and tasks involved in a research assistantship.

Is it a good match? Individuals who are personally engaged in their work are generally happier and more productive. Thus, undergraduates should consider how the area of research pursued by a given laboratory matches their own interests and career goals. Undergraduates who join laboratories which research unfamiliar topics may also be pleasantly surprised when they develop new and broadened interests. If a laboratory turns out not to be a good-fit, undergraduate students may also be able to join a different laboratory in the future. For some students, working in several different laboratories is an excellent way to discover potential career interests, and narrow interests for future graduate study.

Once students are aware of the types of laboratory tasks that they will be responsible for, students should consider how comfortable they are with the role. For example, individuals who are highly anxious when making phone calls may not be well-matched for recruiting participants for a study. Similarly, individuals with a fear of public speaking may not feel comfortable as the confederate for an experiment. Likewise, data-entry is not likely to be a good-fit for a student who has difficulty paying attention to detail. With this in mind, students are encouraged to find a position that matches not only their career interests, but also the skill set they have or would like to develop.

How is the laboratory structured? The level of supervision and mentoring provided in a laboratory will vary. Some laboratories have a very “hands-on” approach to training and mentoring undergraduate students, whereas other laboratories provide less structure. With this in mind, potential research assistants are encouraged to consider the type of environment they typically perform best in, and how the supervision style of the prospective laboratory will influence their experience.

I’ve joined a laboratory. How can I thrive?

Expect Delayed Gratification. Because many large-scale research projects take years to move from conceptualization to development, data collection to data analysis, and finally from manuscript preparation to publication, it is common for undergraduate research assistants to feel as if they never reap the benefits of witnessing the end result of a research project they contribute to. From the perspective of one research assistant at Ohio University, one way to cope with such delayed gratification is to gather more information about how your role in the research laboratory contributes to the “grand-scheme” of the project. Although a role may seem small, with respect to the larger goal of the research, undergraduate contributions to research projects are essential to allowing research programs to get “off the ground”.

Time management. Different laboratory tasks will require varying time commitments. For some undergraduate students, the time commitment may be stable, whereas for others undergraduate students, the times during which they facilitating a study may vary week to week. When time-commitments vary from week to week, skills in time management and organization will help students to balance laboratory research collaboration with existing academic, athletic, and social responsibilities. Students assisting with data collection and survey administration may have down-time between experiments that can be utilized to complete homework assignments and readings.

Although working on larger projects—such as facilitating a peer-based intervention or assisting on a poster/paper presentation—may be more fast-paced than assisting with data collection or data-entry, taking a larger role in a laboratory can also be time consuming. Training to facilitate an intervention, or to serve as a confederate for an experiment may require undergraduate students to engage in “laboratory-work” outside of the laboratory. To manage these “hidden” time commitments proactively, students are advised to talk with their research mentor prior to commencing their research experience; so that they are aware of where the training will take place and how long it will take.

Keeping cool, calm, collected—and motivated. Although students may be excited to contribute to a research team, many of the behind-the-scenes tasks (that are vital to making a research project run smoothly) can be tedious. Many undergraduate researchers, for example, assist with data entry—which is monotonous, yet requires a great deal of accuracy/attention to detail. Undergraduate research assistants may also feel overwhelmed by the experience. Since students often contribute to a specific portion of a multifaceted project, they feel “in the dark” about how their contribution plays a role in the “grand scheme of things.”

References: Dewar, B., & Sharp, C. (2006). Using evidence: How action learning can support individual and organizational learning through action research. Educational Action Research, 14, 219-237

Common Skills Developed as a Result of Engaging in Research Collaboration

Life Skills
  1. Time management skills
  2. Independent work ethic
  3. Attention to detail
  4. Patience
  5. Problem-solving and critical thinking  
  6. Organization
Academic Skills
  1. Scientific writing skills
  2. Computer proficiency
  3. Public speaking skills
  4. Appreciation for the relationship between research and practice
  5. Statistical analysis skills
  6. Awareness of research methodologies
  7. Development of skills in design and maintenance of data sets
  8. Fostering of personal research interests
  9. Increased expertise in a specific subject area

Common Roles for Undergraduate Students in Research Laboratories

  1. Data entry, processing, and collection
  2. Survey administration
  3. Serving as ‘confederates’ in experiments
  4. Helping to pilot study procedures prior to commencement of the study
  5. Compile a literature review
  6. Qualitative data entry
  7. Assisting with the development of conference presentations
  8. Developing an honor thesis
  9. Organizing project materials

Tips for Undergraduate Students: How to Maximize your Laboratory Experience

Stay organized. Take notes when meeting with graduate student and faculty supervisors.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions! Laboratory work is very detail oriented! Your supervisors will appreciate your attention to detail.

Carry contact information. If your work is not directly supervised, be sure to keep contact information for your graduate student supervisor or faculty mentor close by so that you can ask questions as they arise.

Stay on-top of your schedule. It may be possible to schedule laboratory work during breaks between classes. Discuss potential conflicts with research commitments in advance with your supervisor. It may be possible to reschedule your laboratory work.

Get to know the team. A benefit to engaging in laboratory work is developing relationships with graduate student researchers, faculty mentors, and other undergraduate psychology majors. Inquire if it is possible to schedule your laboratory at times when other members of the research team will be present.

Get more information! Ask for extra readings to develop knowledge of the research topic. Inquire how the project developed in order to gain a broader awareness of how you are contributing to psychological science.

Utilize graduate students as resources. Having recently navigated the process of graduate school application, they can help you to develop career interests.

Step up! As you enhance your knowledge of the research process, inquire about how you can learn new skills, and contribute to presentations or publications.

Shop around. The research you engage in will help you to see if graduate school is right for you, and develop areas for future study. Thus, prior to joining a research laboratory, research available opportunities in order to locate a laboratory whose research topic matches your interests.

Document your work! To build your curriculum vitae, collect details on the projects you are working on and record them as soon as possible.

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