Getting involved in research as an undergraduate: nuts and bolts

Finding and making the right connections to researchers.

By John C. Norcross, PhD, ABPP

Research experience consistently emerges as a top criterion for admission into graduate school and for employment in competitive positions. But gaining research experience is largely dependent on your own initiative. That can prove intimidating, so in this article I highlight the key steps in the process of obtaining research experience.

The benefits of student research boil down to two dimensions (Landrum & Nelsen, 2002). The first might be labeled “specific skills,” including developing research ideas, conducting literature searches, analyzing data, using statistical procedures, preparing conference presentations and improving writing ability. The second dimension might be named “interpersonal goals.” These entail influencing decisions about employment or graduate school, enhancing teamwork, forming relationships for letters of recommendation and developing leadership. You seek both types of benefits in securing a research experience as an undergrad. 

Choose a path

Here are five common avenues for undergraduates engaging in research. 

  1. Volunteer to work with a faculty member on one of his or her research projects.
  2. Complete a student research program for a notation on your transcript but not academic credit. Students identify potential professors to work with from a faculty directory of research interests, jointly complete a learning contract and then devote a minimum number of hours (say, 75) throughout a semester working directly with the faculty sponsor.
  3. Take independent psychology research for academic credit. This entails individual study and research under the supervision of a faculty member and is ordinarily limited to junior and senior psychology majors.
  4. Work or volunteer for a researcher outside of your university — in a hospital, medical center, research institute, private industry or community-based organization, for example. Especially in large cities, researchers with major grants depend upon students for many elements of study management, data collection and statistical analyses.
  5. Complete an honors thesis in either a departmental or a university-wide honors program. Many schools allow motivated students to complete an honors thesis, an original study that the student conceptualizes, conducts, analyzes and has some hope of presenting at a regional conference or even publishing.

Whichever path you eventually take, the procedures are quite similar. Following is a nuts-and-bolts guide to help you make the most of your research experience.

Determine your interests

An initial step is finding a research area that interests you. A good place to begin is to read through your department brochure or website describing faculty interests and current research. Visit with the director of psychology advising or the director of undergraduate studies in the psychology department (if a large university) or the department chairperson (if a smaller college) to discuss research possibilities. Speak to other students in the major about potential faculty mentors. Look for professors who have a proven track record of scholarly publications.

Once you have a list of faculty interests, you may find someone interesting but not be sure exactly what the research is all about. If publications are not provided on the departmental website, or if reprints are not posted in the department, then you can go to PsycINFO and read what that professor has published over the last five to seven years. This should make it easier to decide which professor you would like to approach to volunteer to do research with. Do not narrow your choices too quickly. Find at least two or three professors whose work initially interests you.

Select professors

Next, find out more about that professor as a person. Do you know people who have taken a class with him or her? Are there other undergraduates working with this professor now? What do they do, and what is it like working under this person? Is the professor easy to get along with? Is the professor helpful to students? 

Some professors maintain large research facilities and employ vast numbers of undergraduates to help them with their data collection and management. If there are 10 undergraduates working in a lab, the attention given to each individual tends to decrease, as well as the value of the research experience. On the other hand, some large laboratories provide unique research opportunities unavailable elsewhere. The key is to talk to students who have worked there to learn about their experiences and determine if former students have had success applying to graduate school.

An optimal research context, then, is one in which a faculty member or research mentor has an established reputation in his or her field, a record of producing publishable research, interests similar to your own, a history of working successfully with undergrads and a propensity to share authorship with students. Be guided by these principles in selecting professors to approach, but do not expect all these qualities to be available to you.

Make contact

Now it’s time to make yourself known to the faculty researcher. Of course, it is natural for you to feel nervous. Again: Read what the professor has written and remember that you are offering your services free of charge. 

Here are 10 quick pointers in asking for a research assistant (RA) position: 

  1. Go during office hours. 
  2. Bring a CV or resume. 
  3. Begin with small talk.
  4. Express interest in his/her research. 
  5. Manifest positive nonverbal behaviors. 
  6. Ask explicitly to serve as an RA. 
  7. Explain why you qualify for the position.
  8. Ask for decision date.
  9. Thank the professor for his/her time.
  10. Have a backup plan.

A good opening line might be, “Hello, Dr. Freud, my name is Chris Smith. I’ve been reading on autism and came across several articles you’ve written. I’m pretty interested and was wondering if I could help with your research projects.”

“Well Mr./Ms. Smith, I’d be very interested in speaking with you about helping with my research.” You have made the contact and off you go.

If the professor does not need help, you have lost nothing and gained experience in asking. Ask if he or she knows of someone with similar interests who is looking for help, or simply approach the next person on your list.

Either way, you are on your way to acquiring the research fever in psychology as an undergrad. Go get ’em.

About the author

John C. Norcross, PhD, ABPPJohn C. Norcross, PhD, ABPP, is distinguished professor of psychology at the University of Scranton and co-author of the “Insider’s Guide to Graduate Programs in Clinical and Counseling Psychology,” from which this article is adapted.