The Value of Research Experience

Paul J. Schroeder
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Nearly all modern undergraduate psychology programs require that students have some research experience prior to graduation. Typically, this experience takes place in the classroom collecting data for a project, running statistical software, or dissecting in a physiological course. Many departments also offer opportunities for students to get involved with actual research. In some cases, this may involve working directly with an individual faculty member entering data or searching for literature. Alternatively, it may entail working with a research team designing new studies, collecting or analyzing data, and communicating the results via publications or (as is more often the case) conference presentations. The payoff for involvement in research may be equally variable and is typically contingent on the student’s motivation and reasons for participation.

So, how does research experience benefit interested psychology majors? For some, the reward is simply fulfilling a course or departmental requirement for graduation. Others may savor the opportunity to expand their knowledge on a particular topic or to get a taste of the scientific process of psychological research. Students may choose to work in one area or sample multiple research foci. For those planning to apply for graduate studies, a strong background in lab work provides an excellent preview of things to come, par none. Here are a few other benefits for getting involved:

1. Friendships

Research can be time-consuming, challenging work; yet, not all aspects of research must be inherently dull or boring. Working with other research assistants, graduate students, and faculty advisors on laboratory assignments and projects can be quite rewarding. In fact, there is often a strong camaraderie that materializes from working closely with others over the course of a year or a semester, particularly if all parties involved share the same general enthusiasm for the topic. And, of course, there is the collective sense of accomplishment that follows the completion of any investigation. Traveling and presenting the findings at conferences or symposia reinforces the bonds that originate within a lab. Thus, it is not uncommon for long-lasting professional and personal friendships to evolve from research assistantships.

2. Teaching and Learning

Assisting faculty or graduate students on a research project can be edifying in a variety of ways. First, hands-on research experience gives students the opportunity to apply concepts garnered in the classroom. Students involved in lab research often report feeling more confident about their knowledge or abilities with relevant tasks, such as performing a search of the literature, devising research questions, designing experiments, and communicating study outcomes. Second, working with faculty advisors or graduate students on projects often inspires conversations about research in general. Perhaps a graduate student or a senior research assistant can present a different perspective on challenging themes from a research methods class. Finally, faculty advisors and graduate students are outstanding sources of information about careers in the field. If a student is considering pursuing an advanced degree, what better source of information, tips, or strategies is there than one who has been through the process (i.e. the faculty advisor) or is presently going through the process (i.e. the graduate student)? The multiple levels of learning that occur in a lab can be extremely valuable to curious research assistants.

3. “The Unwritten Rules of Academia”

APS past president Henry L. Roediger, III once remarked in this very column that “Academia is a misunderstood field by those outside… and often from within the academy, too” (Roediger, 2003). As with other professions, the customs and codes of conduct within the higher education systems might seem puzzling to those who do not share the privilege of membership. In contrast to other learning environments, lecture halls and classrooms typically serve as forums for scholarship as well as discussion and debate. Consequently, when a professor poses a question to the class and their response is silence, that silence may signal something entirely different to the instructor than it does the students. While the students may be preoccupied taking notes, the instructor may suspect his audience is disinterested or unprepared for the day’s lesson.

Laboratories function as exemplary settings in which to observe and learn more about the interactions that occur between or among faculty and graduate students. Consider this: laboratory members, particularly graduate students and faculty, are useful references for deciphering the exotic vocabulary and syntax spoken by inhabitants of institutions of higher education. Familiarity and fluency with these linguistic forms can prove to be especially advantageous for undergraduate students who are seriously contemplating pursuing advanced studies.

4. Clinical Experience

Students interested in pursuing graduate education in the clinical domain may feel skeptical about the utility of gaining undergraduate research experience; however, many—if not all—graduate programs in this area support a “research-practitioner” model of graduate education, which emphasizes both an applied and research-based curriculum. This is true of both Ph.D. and Psy.D. programs. Working in laboratories may afford students the opportunity to administer diagnostic measures to research participants. Experience with administering assessment measures contributes to stronger abilities in identifying relevant psychopathologies. Moreover, sharing in studies involving special populations (e.g. children, older adults, the mentally ill) can also be profitable for aspiring graduate students who plan to work with those groups as clinicians. Positive early research experiences yield greater confidence in performing graduate-level research-related tasks. Thus, laboratory experience is highly beneficial even to students interested in non-experimental graduate education.

5. Contributions to the Scientific Community

Working as a research assistant in a lab benefits the greater scientific community. No matter the size of an assigned duty, becoming a member of any investigation directly contributes to a better understanding of behavior. Students can take pride in knowing that they are a part of something exponentially greater than themselves and, as a result, are often able to consider problems in a larger, global context. The ability to perceive a world beyond oneself is consistent with the goals of the academy and crucial to becoming a responsible citizen.

In sum, assisting in laboratory research is an outstanding chance for students to not only sample things to come in graduate school, but also to make new friends, gain new perspectives, develop new skills and contribute to a greater understanding of human behavior. It is indeed rare in life that one has the opportunity to reap so many long-term rewards in exchange for a comparatively small time commitment.


References and Suggested Reading

American Psychological Association (2007). Getting in: a step-by-step plan for gaining admission to graduate school in psychology, second edition. Washington, DC.: APA.

Graham, S.E. (1998). Developing student outcomes for the psychology major: an assessment as learning framework. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 7(6), 165-170.

Michels, K.T. & Edwards, K.M. (2005). When graduate and undergraduate students collaborate-everyone wins! The Observer, 18(9). Retrieved on October 18 2008 from http://psychologicalscience.org/observer/getArticle.cfm?id=1844

Perlman, B. & McCann, L.I. (1999). The structure of the psychology undergraduate curriculum. Teaching of Psychology, 26(3), 171-176.

Roediger, H.L. (2003). Focus on academia: The Compleat Academic. The Observer, 16(7). Retrieved on October 18 2008 from http://psychologicalscience.org/observer/getArticle.cfm?id=1314


Author Note

Paul J. Schroeder, MA is a doctoral candidate in the experimental psychology program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His research interests include memory, language comprehension, and cognitive aging. He would like to thank his undergraduate and graduate research mentors for their inspiration and guidance and also Jeremy A. Houska for his helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper.