Student Notebook: Finding Your Path in Psychological Science

If readers are anything like me, they likely have felt unsure about the direction of their research and have wondered if they’re capable of pursuing that dream research assistantship, postbaccalaureate position, or graduate program. Having gone through the process myself, I hope to show fellow young psychologists that they are not alone in navigating early-career uncertainties. Here, I share a few examples from my experience that I hope budding researchers can apply to their own journey. 

Diving into research 

When I started college, I remember feeling like an imposter among my peers. Despite my doubts about being cut out for research, I took a chance when I saw a posting from a cognitive psychology lab looking for undergraduate research assistants. I applied, thinking I probably wasn’t cut out for the job, but I hoped it would help me cover college expenses for a few months on the off-chance I got it.  

Applying to that lab was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made, as I was able to hone my skills and prove to myself that I could do research. A job I thought would last a few months turned into a research assistantship that I would keep throughout my 4 years of college, as well as a year-long postbaccalaureate lab manager position. My first lab fostered collaborations and lifelong friendships and granted me a feeling of belonging in research.  

Exploring research opportunities and getting involved in labs can open doors. You’ll receive mentorship from the principal investigator postdoc(s), and graduate students, and you might also build some fruitful connections and collaborations. Maybe you’ll get a recommendation letter from someone in the lab who can speak to your work ethic and character, or maybe you’ll be invited to collaborate on a manuscript. Either way, you’ll gain valuable skills and experiences, such as data collection, analysis, and research presentation.  

Feeding your intellectual curiosity 

By my sophomore year of college, I was determined to pursue a degree in psychology, but there was still something missing. I had always wanted to understand why people do what they do, both as individuals and in groups. My college offered a degree in history, technology, and society, a sociology-adjacent degree with a focus on understanding domestic and global issues related to technology and science. After consulting with my advisors and mapping out my course plan, I decided, why not pursue both passions? 

Two degrees offered me a breadth and depth of knowledge. Psychology allowed me to understand human behavior at the individual level, and sociology taught me human behavior at the societal level. My studies in history and sociology provide context for why certain individuals might think or behave a particular way in experiments; I also gained insight into why researchers have often strayed toward social and cultural bias. In my psychology classes and research, I learned how to conduct quantitative studies with findings that could be generalized to broader populations. In my sociology courses, I learned how to conduct qualitative research and lead rich, detailed interviews. My history classes taught me how to collect and interpret primary and secondary resources, a skill that would ultimately come in handy when later conducting a historical and conceptual review with colleagues (Mashburn et al., 2023). 

If you have multiple passions or want to home in on some skills, pursue them! Consider studies in whatever field will feed your intellectual curiosity and provide you with a more diverse skill set. A case can be made for the overlap of just about any field with psychology. I know people who have also studied neuroscience, computer science, business, philosophy, or math, and their knowledge from these fields allows them to contribute unique methods and perspectives to psychological research.  

Asking around and within  

Like many others, the COVID-19 pandemic presented me with a time of self-reckoning and self-reflection. I knew I loved the idea of doing research, teaching, and making contributions to science that would help others. But what niche would best allow me to pursue these aims? What did I want my “thing” to be, and what skills did I need to pursue it? 

During my transition out of college and into my postbaccalaureate research, I researched different careers, subfields, and graduate programs that seemed interesting to me. I also made sure to note the programs of study that would provide me with skills I would need to succeed in an academic or industry position, like a strong statistics curriculum or opportunities to learn different programming languages. I reached out to find out more about what people in different careers of psychology do, and what skills were most important for their jobs. Talking with alumni, grad students, and faculty helped me to get a better idea of what programs and research areas were the best fit for me. I talked to people from a variety of subfields—industrial/organizational, social, developmental, clinical, counseling, educational, and school psychology. Because of how much I loved my first lab, I came full circle back to cognitive psychology. 

One suggestion for budding researchers: Think about what your goals are and what skills you’ll need to become an expert in your area. Some early-career researchers fail to consider that graduate school won’t be fancy invited talks and prize-winning papers. A lot of it is learning how to design tasks, conduct studies and analyses, and visualize data. You need to think about whether and how you see yourself doing that work. Ask yourself what skills and areas of study will best serve your goals. Utilize student–alumni networks, your professors, and of course the internet. People are receptive to simple messages, such as “I’m really interested in what you do. Would you be available to chat so I could ask you a few questions?” Seasoned researchers want to see young researchers be happy and successful. Nine times out of ten, they will go out of their way to help you! 

Going with your gut 

Once I had settled on what I wanted to pursue, applying to graduate programs felt like I was Goldilocks trying out bowls of porridge, and though the programs seemed right on paper, they didn’t feel “just right” in person. During one interview day, a student admitted to me that they regretted pursuing the program and weren’t getting the support they needed from their PhD advisor. At another program’s social, the graduate students seemed condescending. Many of these labs had some overlap with my research interests, but not completely. Some wanted me to brush up on a skill that I didn’t think was relevant to my goals or had plans to start a study that didn’t pique my interest. I was worried that pursuing a PhD might involve some major compromising on my proverbial porridge. 

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One program gave me a good gut feeling, and it’s the PhD program I ultimately chose. When I interviewed, I was pretty much sold on it: The graduate students were friendly and collaborative, the campus gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling, and my interests were a great fit, meaning I wouldn’t have to compromise on the research I wished to pursue. I inadvertently found myself comparing programs to this one, and no amount of pro/con listing could shake the feeling. I listened to my gut, and it was right. I now get to pursue research that genuinely interests me, and I get to collaborate with a supportive and knowledgeable network that includes my advisor, fellow graduate students, and colleagues at other institutions. 

Listen to your gut, and don’t feel like you need to settle to succeed, whether you’re applying for undergraduate research positions, postbaccalaureate jobs, or graduate schools. Prioritize what’s most important to you, be it work–life balance, opportunities for engagement and collaboration, or a supportive lab environment. Ultimately, your fit and your happiness are more important than whatever appears best on paper. 

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Mashburn, C. A., Barnett, M. K., & Engle, R. W. (2023). Processing speed and executive attention as causes of intelligence. Psychological Review. 

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