Nothing looks better on your résumé than listing your work with top-gun psychologists, right? Not if they won't give you the time of day — let alone useful work.
Teaming with the field's biggest names can be a great opportunity, but it's even more important to be part of worthwhile research, says Mitchell Prinstein, PhD, director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and author of "The Portable Mentor" (Springer, 2003).
Top researchers' time is in short supply and high demand, so you need to make the case that sharing their knowledge with you will be mutually beneficial, he notes.
"Ask them, 'Is there a way I can earn some authorship on an ongoing project?'" Prinstein advises, suggesting you emphasize the "earning" aspect. Let them know you expect to contribute your fair share.
Next, propose a project that will interest both you and your mentor. Prepare by learning about your potential mentor's research history — download his or her latest papers and conference presentations and talk with other students about ongoing projects. You may want to offer your own tweaks to a research question your mentor has worked on. For example, if your mentor studies depression in new mothers, propose an experiment investigating some aspect of new mothers' lives that hasn't been thoroughly looked at.
Once you have a mentor's attention, stay in his or her good graces by volunteering for time-consuming labor, such as data entry or running participants in a study. You may also want to volunteer to review manuscripts. "That gets you educational experience and also frees up their time," Prinstein says.
But also be clear about what you hope to gain from the mentoring experience, says Jeffrey E. Barnett, PsyD, a psychology professor at Loyola College in Baltimore. "Certainly everyone has to do their share of menial activity, but if that's all it is, it's not really mentoring."
Barnett suggests you discuss expectations before entering in a research relationship and throughout a project through regularly scheduled meetings.
If you hit a snag along the way, reach out for help — otherwise your mentor may assume you're getting along just fine, Prinstein says.
"Students vary quite considerably in how much personal attention they need," he says.
And if you are able to do all this with a top flight psychologist? All the better. Barnett makes a point of introducing his students to influential psychologists at conferences, and often they're surprised by how accessible those big names are, he says.
"Students can be intimidated and overwhelmed, thinking 'They're too busy; they're too famous; they wouldn't have time for me,'" Barnett says. "But if you don't ask, they can't say yes."