Feature

Undergraduate psychology students today have more opportunities than ever to collaborate with professors and peers, engage in original research and publish their findings. And that's a win not just for students but for professors, schools and the discipline. Here's why:

1. It boosts grad school admittance.

"Grad programs are looking for people who look like grad students," says Lora Becker, PhD, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Evansville in Illinois. "A student who's thought up a research idea, carried it out, taken it to a conference, argued it in front of other researchers and taken it to publication has done everything a grad student needs to do."

"For any grad program, students will need research experience," adds Diane Bonfiglio, PhD, a professor of psychology at Ashland University in Ohio. "Grad advisors are looking for those skills." Last year, Bonfiglio collaborated with six undergrads on a research project. Four of them applied to graduate school in psychology; all four got in.

2. It reinforces the fact that psychology is a science.

Unfortunately, many undergraduates think of psychologists' work primarily in terms of empathy and social skills. That's why they need a solid grounding in the science of psychology, too. "Doing research acquaints them more clearly with how knowledge is produced in psychology by using science," says Jerry Rudmann, PhD, a professor of psychology at Irvine Valley College in California.

Even students who know they're not going into research can benefit, says Becker. "When you're dealing in a clinical mode, you have to have some evidence base for what you're doing, or you're just flapping in the breeze," she says.

3. It sparks students' learning.

Even the most dedicated students get can get bored with lectures and planned labs. Becker shows her students how research shapes the field. "Taking those students into the lab excites their intellectual capabilities," she says.

Research also gives undergrads a chance to prove themselves. "I've heard from faculty that no one is perceived to have novel ideas until they graduate with a PhD," says Mariya Toneva, 21, a senior at Yale and one of three student editors of the Yale Review of Undergraduate Research in Psychology. "This is the stereotype we're trying to break with our publication." And they're succeeding. This year, the journal received more than 50 submissions from more than 30 schools; they publish eight to 10.

An added bonus, says Bonfiglio: Undergrads who participate in research often feel more involved with and attached to their departments, and tend to stick around.

4. It fosters collaboration and other key developmental skills.

Research is pretty much always a group endeavor — which means students engaged in research must learn to work with others. "There's a lot of team building and communication skills involved," says Becker. "They're not sitting alone in a lab."

A 2010 study in Insight: A Journal of Scholarly Teaching (PDF, 2.67MB), headed by H. Russell Searight, PhD, a psychology professor at Lake Superior State University, identified five other important skills built in the lab. Doing research and presenting at conferences, Searight found, help students develop follow-through, confidence, competence and independence — crucial skills for any young adults. It also teaches them to appreciate the importance of a shared foundation of knowledge — team science.

5. It facilitates mentoring relationships.

"You're working with professors very closely who otherwise you'd only see in classes and big lectures," says Toneva. "It's an intimate sort of setting." Toneva, who has done research since her freshman year, notes that grad students can make great mentors, too. "In the lab, I get all sorts of advice on research and life," she says. "That's probably been the biggest benefit to me, being able to have a community of scientists around me."

The flip side is that undergraduates, too, can learn to mentor. Becker fell in love with science by doing undergraduate psychology research at Wright State University. "Being able to be in the lab for three years, I was able to foster undergrads behind me, which helped me understand how to work with someone in research and train them," she says.

6. It enhances professors' creativity.

While teaching undergrads research skills can be labor intensive, professors benefit, too. Students can take on some of the more mundane tasks that come with any hands-on project. And students bring fresh eyes to long-term projects. "As researchers we spend a lot of time reading the experts, which is important, but we may miss some of the more obvious questions," says Bonfiglio. "Students can make me think about things in a different way. Or they may identify more unconventional directions to move the research forward."

Plus, she adds, undergrads tend to be enthusiastic about being in the lab, which makes the experience more fun for everyone.

Harriet Brown is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.

Check out APA’s Online Psychology Lab

More schools are developing research opportunities for undergraduates. But even students whose schools don’t yet give them a chance to get into the lab can get involved in research, thanks to APA’s Online Psychology Laboratory (OPL). The site, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, offers resources for teachers looking to incorporate research into their classrooms, including links to ongoing studies, data sets, statistical simulations and more, organized by subject. Teachers can use the OPL to give students opportunities to collect and interpret data starting from their first introductory class in psychology.