The Benefits of ‘Branching Out’
Spending the summer months garnering external lab experience as an intern or research assistant can be a valuable undertaking for undergraduates in pursuit of graduate school admission. Especially for students from smaller colleges and universities, this can be an advantageous way to spend the summer — particularly because smaller schools tend to have limited (if any) graduate programs in psychology. Consequently, research opportunities for students from smaller schools tend to be fewer, making it more difficult for these students to compete with applicants from more active research departments. But regardless of one’s undergraduate institution, all students can explore their individual interests, get involved in new research projects, and obtain exposure to additional mentorship perspectives. Visiting research assistantships can also cultivate networking skills and give students exposure to the diverse lab cultures present at different institutions.
Opening Up New Opportunities
Undergraduates who seek research experience are often limited to exploring questions that fit within the interests and expertise of their institution’s faculty members. Students whose interests do not match those of professors at their schools may find it challenging to investigate topics with which their professors have limited experience. For example, students with social psychological interests might have difficulty identifying common research questions with professors who specialize in developmental psychology. Because of this, limited options are a common undergraduate grievance. External research opportunities can provide students a chance to choose professors who work in the student’s area of interest on topics that are interesting to both parties. Additionally, this opportunity to more fully explore an area of interest can help students to narrow their foci for graduate study, or determine whether particular topics merit further investigation in graduate school.
Another benefit of completing a research internship — especially for students from universities without large research programs — is exposure to an intensive, research-based climate. With few exceptions, the research culture at Research I universities differs vastly from that of smaller liberal arts colleges; larger institutions tend to emphasize publications and research over teaching, and smaller schools tend to prioritize teaching over research. Consequently, bigger universities usually have larger research labs that have graduate students, post-docs, and principal investigators all pursuing multiple lines of research simultaneously. Thus, the rigorous and productive atmosphere of psychology labs at Research I institutions can allow students to gain exposure to multiple projects in a brief amount of time. This kind of climate can be especially useful for students who want to get the best value in terms of research experience from their short summer interludes.
The potential for mentorship is another added benefit of obtaining summer research experience. Most graduate students — and even some principal investigators — are willing to share their experiences about the graduate school admission process. Among other things, these mentors are able to proffer their thoughts on programs of interest, potential advisors, and how to navigate the complicated process of advancing a career in psychology. And while not all internship experiences are the same, many will involve some sort of advisement. For example, students in summer research labs are frequently invited to participate in thought-provoking lab discussions and engage in conversations with faculty members who may eventually write letters of recommendation. In some cases, students might even have the chance to speak with visiting psychologists. Ultimately, these interactions serve to help undergraduates along the path to graduate study by providing them with advice from more than one perspective.
Visiting summer internships also provide students the chance to network with a new community of scholars. Students who immerse themselves in a completely new lab environment have the advantage of getting to know those conducting the research around them (i.e., graduate students, post-docs, professors). In addition, students gaining external research experience have the opportunity to cultivate professional relationships with fellow interns. It is possible — perhaps even likely — that some of the other interns and research assistants will go on to become colleagues in a similar field of psychology. It is possible, too, that a principal investigator will have connections with prospective graduate advisors. This can be especially advantageous if the principal investigator is willing to write letters of recommendation or “put in a good word” for summer interns who have demonstrated competence as researchers. The point is that the world can be small in psychology, and the opportunity to form relationships with advisors and colleagues can play an important role in professional development.
A Different Perspective
One of the most fundamental benefits of working as a lab assistant is that students are immersed in the unique culture of a new lab. While many labs share a common commitment to research, the peer review system, and careful science, there can be vast differences in how individual labs operate — each lab has its own culture. Advisors vary widely in their approach to mentoring their students, students vary in their preference for autonomy, and each lab has its own approach to conducting research. In some labs, graduate students conduct projects largely on their own with minimal oversight from their advisors; in other labs, advisors expect their students to help with ongoing projects so that they become familiar with the research process. Given how varied lab dynamics can be, it is especially beneficial for students to use these research opportunities as a window into the research culture of another lab. This, in turn, can help students identify the types of research atmospheres they prefer, and under which management styles they are most likely to thrive as graduate students.
To a certain extent, what a student gets out of an individual internship depends on the lab as well as a student’s level of motivation. Some psychology labs expect interns to perform mundane tasks (data entry, serving as a confederate, recruiting participants, etc.); others endow their research assistants with graduate-level responsibilities (e.g., supervising studies, revising manuscripts for submission). Regardless of the individual lab’s expectations, however, summer internships will be most beneficial to students who put the most effort into them. Driven students will be offered more responsibilities and will gain more from their experience than students who sit idly by and shy away from the research enterprise. But regardless of individual differences, summer research positions at external universities provide students with many opportunities for growth. Networking, mentorship, exposure to another lab’s culture — these are just some of the benefits of working in an external research lab. The number of ways these experiences can impact a student’s career trajectory is innumerable. Indeed, no article can exhaustively provide all there is to know about the benefits of this kind of lab work. Yet one thing is certain: completing an internship in an external psychology lab is nothing if not a worthwhile way for an aspiring psychologist to spend a summer.
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