The Invaluable Research Experience: A How-To for Undergraduates

By Amy Bolin

Many undergraduates view the world of academic research as a foreign realm for those with Ph.D.s and years of experience. This is a common misconception that may prevent many students from gaining experience as a research assistant. Psychology research occurs every day, most likely at your own university, and providing support to research does not require extensive degrees, or prior experience. Professors and graduate students at most universities conduct studies, and there are likely research opportunities for undergraduate students on your campus. Assistantships are excellent learning experiences, coupling hands-on research methodology with academic experience that goes above and beyond the classroom.

As many undergraduate psychology majors learn over the course of their education, research experience is a very valuable component to any graduate school application as well as to your curriculum vitae (CV). It provides a wealth of knowledge about the research process that undergraduate research methods classes might not even begin to cover. It also opens a window of academic networking opportunities, is an outstanding supplement to what you learn in the classroom, and often earns you course credit. Throughout your college experience, research assistantships will continue to prove themselves beneficial. However, the process of finding a research assistant position is not-so-common knowledge.

Begin by learning what research is currently being conducted. If your psychology department’s website does not have an all-encompassing webpage listing professors or graduate students with current research projects, you can generally find that information on their respective individual websites, usually linked from the psychology department’s page on your university’s website. On these personal webpages, the researcher’s interests and current projects are usually listed.

If your university’s website does not list any information about professors or graduate students with current research projects, check with the administrator, director, or advisor of your university’s psychology department. Often, these individuals are a phenomenal resource in finding out anything you would like to know about the department. In addition to administrative assistance, your school’s psychology club or Psi Chi meetings will sometimes provide information about in-university research assistantships, if they are available.

Some schools have psychology department “meet and greet” opportunities each semester, much like a job fair, so check with your university.  These are usually held at the beginning of each semester for interested psychology students to meet professors and graduate students. This kind of fair presents students with the opportunity to get to know researchers face-to-face, discuss mutual interests, and ask questions about becoming a research assistant. If your school does not offer this kind of icebreaker, you can voice your interest to the psychology club leadership or resident Psi Chi chapter. If you attend a research institution, that is, a university that actively conducts research on a regular basis, research assistantships are relatively common. It may be as easy as approaching a professor or a TA after class to see if they have any openings for a research assistant.

When you identify a researcher whose interests coincide with yours, the next step is to contact him or her about possible opportunities to work as a research assistant. You may choose to attend a researcher’s office hours armed with information about his or her current research ventures and ask him or her about research opportunities. In addition to an in-person meeting, e-mail is often a preferred mode of communication with researchers, which presents the opportunity for a concise and eloquent introduction. Be sure to include your name, year in school, your interest in becoming a research assistant in their lab, and what about their research interests you. A short introductory e-mail will suffice, but be sure it is well-written and checked for grammar and spelling errors. Gaining research experience requires that you take the initiative; an assistantship will rarely fall into your lap. If there is not an available position, do not be discouraged. Researchers may refer you to other professors or graduate students with current projects who are seeking research assistants, so do not be afraid to contact more than one researcher for opportunities.

If your own university does not have any research opportunities, you can always search nearby universities for other opportunities.  When contacting a researcher at another institution, be sure your introductory email includes your institution of study and why you are interested in research opportunities outside your university. This can also be a great way to continue your educational experience at a local university while you reside at home during summer breaks. It also provides a student with valuable experience outside their institution. Do not be afraid to venture outside your own university; it provides very beneficial exposure to a different research environment.

If you are seeking a more intensive research experience, consider looking into scholar exchange programs, such as the Fulbright Scholar Program and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Both of these require an application process and provide students with long-term immersion in the research environment, such as summer-long internships overseas or months-long exchange programs during the school year. The Institute for International Education is another excellent resource for research exchange programs, and be sure to check with your own institution as well. Some universities have programs specializing in research exchange with students from other nearby institutions. The wide variety of exchange opportunities is only touched on here, but researching these possibilities on your own or with your advisor may yield a phenomenal exchange experience.

Exactly what a research assistant does varies. Research assistants typically work under a graduate student or established professor, helping them to administer experiments, enter data, manage files and spreadsheets, and assist with miscellaneous laboratory tasks. These are commonly simple but sometimes time-consuming duties that researchers may not easily fit into their schedules, such as data entry or making copies of forms. This is precisely why undergraduate research assistants are given these tasks. With these tasks comes the worthwhile experience of working side by side with highly educated academics, the knowledge gained from reading many articles pertinent to the current experiments, and the exposure to commonly used research software not often taught in undergraduate curricula.

Research assistantships broaden not only your educational experience but your potential references as well. Letters of recommendation are required for graduate school applications and professional employment, and obtaining such a recommendation from an academic professional outside the classroom is a great addition to any application. Seeking out research opportunities outside your own institution shows a motivation to expand your knowledge and experience. Your enthusiasm for research and psychology in general will be clearly conveyed through an application with a good grade point average, impressive letters of recommendation, and voluntary research experience.

While academic success is always imperative, success outside the classroom is equally notable. Your hands-on experience in the research process is invaluable; it will expand your knowledge of psychology as a whole and will teach you research methods beyond that of a classroom environment. With this will come the advantages of working with academic professionals, knowledge of new software, experience administering experiments, and a networking opportunity that any career-minded psychology student would eagerly embrace.

Additional Readings:

Dunn, D. S., Beins, B. B., McCarthy, M. A., & Hill, G. W., III (2010). Best practices for teaching beginnings and endings in the psychology major: Research, cases, and recommendations. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Laursen, S., Hunter, A. B., Seymour, E., & Thiry, H. (2010). Undergraduate research in the sciences: Engaging students in real science. Indianapolis, IN: Jossey-Bass.

Wisker, G. (2009). The undergraduate research handbook (Palgrave Study Skills). New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Author note

Amy Bolin recently graduated from Roosevelt University with a degree in psychology and women’s and gender studies. She held the position of APS Campus Representative as well as participated in a peer mentorship program to psychology underclassmen. She is currently pursuing doctoral programs in Chicago with a focus in clinical psychology. She can be reached at