Unique Summer Research Opportunities

By Stefan Krueger

Truman State University

Though the academic year is just beginning, many undergraduate students are already beginning to look for opportunities to get research experience over the summer.  However, there are a lot of research opportunities available that you may not have considered. There is a great need for research assistance at many institutions, so don’t be afraid to begin the search.

For those looking for a new experience to broaden their knowledge, assisting with research at another university is a fantastic idea and one that I explored this summer. I attend Truman State University, a great, albeit small, liberal arts school in Missouri. Since my hometown is in Illinois, I was unable to continue my research assistant position at Truman over the summer unless I stayed in Missouri. So, I decided to start searching for research opportunities at other universities closer to home.

There are many viable options to consider when looking for research opportunities at universities outside your own. One of these options is to apply for a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) summer research internship sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF). REU summer research internships provide fantastic new experiences such as access to new technology and new views on research design that might not be available at your own institution. In addition, these programs will often offer room and board with pay for the time that you spend there. However, as with any great opportunity, it takes a bit of hard work to obtain an REU internship. Most institutions providing an REU internship will require a resume, letters of recommendation from two professors (or those with knowledge of your academic history), and a personal statement that varies based on the institution. REU programs usually have deadlines between January and March of the year that the actual program runs, so be prepared to have your resume and letters of recommendation ready beforehand. And finally, there are very few positions in REU programs, so be prepared for possible rejections. Applying to as many programs as possible will greatly improve your chances of getting a position. The REU website has most of the programs listed and is a great place to start looking for programs that provide research opportunities areas you are interested in (found here:  http://www.nsf.gov/crssprgm/reu/list_result.cfm?unitid=5054). If you can’t find an REU program that applies to your area of interest, or if you didn’t get the one you wanted, there are still great opportunities out there for you to explore.

The second option, one I chose, is finding a volunteer research assistant position at another university. Being a research assistant at the University of Chicago has been a fun and enlightening experience. Through exploring the thought process and design paradigms of the professor and the graduate students I’m working with, I’ve learned a lot about the topic of memory and how it is affected by aging. Moreover, I’ve gained a new perspective on how psychology research can be carried out, and I have come away with great ideas for future research of my own. Another positive aspect of this experience is the opportunity to see what the life of a PhD student is like. This experience has helped me get a better idea of what to expect when I transition on to this next step following undergraduate school. Being immersed in an entirely new environment has given me the best opportunity to see what I can expect in the years to come as a researcher and student myself.

It may seem daunting to try to get involved in another institution’s academic environment, but it’s generally a painless process. The route I took was rather simple. Luckily I live within an hour of Chicago, so that opened up many possibilities for finding current research projects at many well-known universities in the area. Don’t limit your search to just the big universities; even the smaller schools in your area are carrying out important and valid research that may pique your interest. Once you find a university in your area of choice, visit its website and locate the psychology department’s page. At the very least, most universities will provide a list of professors in the department, what they are interested in, and how to contact them. Sometimes universities will have separate pages for the various areas of study within the psychology department (e.g., cognitive, social, developmental, neuroscience, etc.) that will help narrow down which professors you want to contact about which opportunities. Another possible shortcut might be the university’s research page that shows information about ongoing projects and which professors are involved. Knowing how to efficiently navigate through a university website is a great skill to have for this task.

After surveying all the different university web pages and finding the professors that share similar interests with you, now is the time to contact them, usually through email. The email should be brief, especially if it’s being sent while school is in session. It is entirely possible to make yourself look professional and convey your interest without inconveniencing the professor’s schedule with a lengthy email. Some key information to include is: who you are, which institution you are currently attending, your major and year in school, why you are interested in seeking outside research opportunities, any research experience already attained, and why you are interested in this professor’s research. That should give the professor a good idea of who you are and why they should consider you when choosing assistants. It is always wise to attach a resume and/or curriculum vitae (CV) to the email to give a bit more background about yourself. Also, offer your willingness to present a letter of recommendation if needed. Finally, don’t forget to thank them for taking time out of their busy schedule to read your request. Again, keep the email brief, around 150 to 300 words. Once you’ve submitted one email you can reuse the format for other emails; just make sure to edit it accordingly to the person you’re addressing. Be patient; do not send follow up emails unless the professor replies to you. Politeness is as important as your academic aptitude.

Professors will likely contact you regardless of whether or not they have room for a new research assistant. If you get positive replies from more than one professor, choose the one that you would prefer to work with, and politely tell the others that you’ve found another opportunity. Don’t forget to thank them for taking the time to considering your request!

There are many research options available to explore, and I hope you now have a better idea as to how they can be acquired. The process is not as scary as it may seem, but starting ahead of time on information such as resumes and letters of recommendation will alleviate a lot of the stress. Remember, finding a research position is about finding what is most interesting to you and enjoying it! So, don’t get too stressed out, just have fun with the process and get excited to assist in pioneering research.


Author’s Note

Stefan Krueger is a senior psychology major at Truman State University. His research interests lie in cognition, sensation and perception, and neuroscience. He hopes to continue on to a Ph.D. program next year and further research the underlying mechanisms of the mind.  Stefan can be reached via email at: sjk1433@truman.edu.