Research experience is one of the most important factors for graduate school applicants. The research skills you learn as an undergraduate will guide and direct you throughout your career. Research experience shouldn’t be limited to a few lines on your CV, but should be more broadly defined in order to establish personal research interests, gain the intoxicating passion behind the research, and make a significant contribution to the field of psychology. This experience can best be gained through a mentored learning environment. A successful mentorship not only provides personal gain to the mentee, but also facilitates the professional work of the mentor, contributes to an area of psychological science, and creates a strong and enduring professional bond between the two parties.
To gain the most out of mentor relationships, start early. No matter how busy you are, you must make time to gain research experience through mentored learning if you want to pursue graduate education in psychology. Ideally, students should pursue a mentor immediately after they choose psychology as their career choice. Starting early makes it possible to explore the many available options. It allows you to get to know a professor and allows them to get to know you. It also allows leeway to try new avenues and directions. Ideally, a student should work with at least two to three professors with somewhat different interests during the undergraduate years. By exploring several different research areas, the student will gain exposure to a breadth of areas in psychological science while at the same time ironing out their own areas of interest.
Once you find an appropriate mentor, make the most of the short amount of time you will have to learn from him or her. Working alongside a professor enables you to catch a glimpse of the passion many researchers have. This passion is contagious, and it is essential for those who plan on pursuing research careers.
Working with an established mentor also enables you to learn what it takes to be a successful researcher. Although undergraduate work sometimes seems demanding, academic research is on a completely different level. This is not to say undergraduates are not capable of contributing to psychological research. However, we must first familiarize ourselves with what it takes to produce first-rate research. The level of time and dedication necessary to complete a research project can be experienced first-hand through the mentorship. The mentorship also provides a sense of what research is, how it is carried out, and how it is presented. Having an idea of what it takes to carry out quality research and a passion to accomplish it will increase a student’s chances of becoming a successful researcher.
Several things will increase your chances of optimizing the mentor relationship. In short, go the extra mile. Do your absolute best on the assignments given to you, and go above and beyond the call of duty. Ask for additional tasks and background reading. This will not only aid your mentor, but will also help you to understand the research topic and scientific process better. It will also demonstrate your willingness to help and your interest and commitment to psychological research. By taking on extra assignments, you will show your mentor you are worthy of responsibility. In turn, your mentor will likely respond by giving you more challenging tasks and allowing you to contribute to the final product of the research (e.g., poster presentation, authorship in journal manuscript).
These suggestions will foster a strong professional relationship between you and your mentor. The letter of recommendation written on your behalf will reflect the time, work, and dedication you have put into this relationship. If approached in this manner, the mentorship is beneficial to both parties. You gain priceless research experience while your mentor receives valuable assistance in their research endeavors.