Conducting research as an undergraduate

If you think you might be interested in pursuing psychology or neuroscience research, or are simply curious to learn what it involves, then seeking out research experiences as an undergraduate is a great first step. The process for finding positions will vary depending on your undergraduate institution. As an undergrad, I attended a research university with multiple active labs (including the wonderful one I worked in for three years), so the advice I can offer is generally from that perspective. Hopefully, however, there are nuggets of useful information here even if you find yourself in a different situation.

Considerations prior to deciding to seek out research assistant (RA) positions

Before you seek out RA positions, you should think about whether you actually want to work in a lab. My undergraduate research experience was extremely inspiring and formative, so it’s tempting for me to recommend that everyone simply does what I did. But remember, the ~10 hours you spend in a lab each week are 10 hours during which you won’t be able to do other things, including hanging out with friends, studying for your courses, or participating in any other extracurricular activities. I write this not to discourage you from joining a lab, but simply to prompt you to think about it before you dive in. As an exercise, take whatever system you use to plan your week (google calendar, planner, etc.), fill in ~10 hours with lab work (or whatever the lab you are applying to states is the expectation), and see what it looks like.

When you join a lab, people are going to invest time into training you, and they will be frustrated if you shirk the commitment. It is completely reasonable if, after 6 months or so, you realize that research isn’t for you and decide to pursue other interests. But if you find a lab position, you should be prepared to treat it seriously for the length of time you agreed to (often 1 - 2 semesters).

Of course, it’s pretty hard to know whether you want to commit several hours per week to something nebulous like “research” when you don’t yet know what it involves. Fortunately, if you are an undergrad, you likely have access to professors who can tell you more about what it means to do research. Asking about what doing research “looks like” is a perfect use of professors’ or TAs’ office hours. If you are intrigued enough to apply for RA positions, you can also ask as many questions as you want before you accept an invitation to join a lab. Many professors might also be open to you sitting in on their lab meetings for a semester or two before you fully join the lab as a researcher. Sitting in on lab meetings may not give you a great sense of what “doing research” really means on a practical level, but it should help you gain some insight into whether you’re excited about the questions the lab is seeking answers to.

Finding a research position

It will often be easiest to find positions by starting with those within your university. First, think about what you are interested in. Why do you want to pursue psychology research? Are there ideas that have been mentioned in your classes that you think are exciting?

Then, look at the psychology and neuroscience department websites and try to identify labs that seem to be working on questions you are interested in. If you know any professors or grad student TAs through your courses, you can also go to their office hours and ask them to help you think about the labs that most align with your interests.

Once you have identified lab(s) you are interested in working in, check out their websites and see if they have a standard process for reviewing research assistant applications. Some labs may have a formal application. Other labs may not. In either case, it is a good idea to write tailored emails to the labs or professors to whom you are applying. Your email can be brief. You should introduce yourself (your name, your school, your major, your year), and then write a few sentences (2 - 4) about why you are interested in joining the lab. Try to make sure that your stated interests align with what the lab actually does. There are two reasons for this — first, researchers want to work with people who think what they do is exciting and interesting, and who won’t quickly be disappointed when they realize what the lab actually does. And second, writing a few sentences about why you are interested in a specific lab’s work indicates that you have done your homework and thought about it carefully. There is no need to read every paper on a lab’s website (and this would probably be impossible), but it is a good idea to read the abstracts (the short blurb at the beginning) of one or two. To identify papers that are representative of the lab’s work, you should look for recent papers where the professor in charge of the lab is the first or last (“senior”) author. If there are many papers that seem like they are on the same topic, skim through at least one of them.

In your email, you can also include a brief mention of any relevant skills — for the types of psychology labs that I have worked in, relevant skills may include computer programming, knowledge of statistics, and working with children or adolescents. That said, do not worry if you don’t think you have any relevant skills.

You generally do not need to have prior research experience or any particular skills to join a lab as an undergraduate.

Again, I’m only writing from my perspective, but when I review undergraduate RA applications, I am most interested in whether students seem like they are motivated to learn more about the specific topics our lab works on and whether they have shown evidence of being able to learn things quickly. If students say they have specific skills, this can sometimes be a bonus, but for me at least (and in many labs), it’s not a priority. I joined a developmental cognitive neuroscience lab as a sophomore in undergrad and I had no prior lab experience, no knowledge of computer programming, a very limited understanding of statistics, and no experience working with children. However, I had a little bit of knowledge of psychology and neuroscience through the courses I had taken and I was able to articulate why I was excited about the questions the specific lab was pursuing. Most people know that undergrads (and grad students!) are joining labs to learn not just to apply skills they have already developed.

Sometimes, a professor or researcher in a lab that you applied to will reach out and offer to meet with or interview you for a position. This is another opportunity for you to demonstrate you are interested in what the lab does. It’s also a great opportunity to find out more about what it means to do research. Ask a lot of questions! Ask about the time commitment, expectations, what you’ll actually be doing, etc. Sometimes, undergraduates will ask about authorship opportunities. It’s understandable to be curious about this, but I would recommend against asking about it. It can make it seem like you are interested in joining the lab as a resume-building experience (which again, is completely understandable), but researchers would probably prefer that you pretend you are interested in the lab due to “pure” intellectual curiosity. (Others may have different thoughts on this. I write more about undergraduate authorship below.)

Finding funding

Unfortunately, many labs primarily offer unpaid positions for undergraduates. This obviously limits who has access to these experiences, and it’s a huge problem that has lasting, negative consequences on the field of psychology as a whole. Don’t be afraid to have frank conversations with potential labs about funding opportunities, especially if lack of funding will be a barrier for you accepting a research assistant position. Sometimes, labs may have systems in place to offer payment through:

You should never feel pressure to disclose personal information you don’t feel comfortable sharing, but sometimes, aspects of your identity (race/ethnicity, first-gen status, etc.) can make you eligible for certain funding opportunities. Sharing these parts of your identity (especially non-visible ones, like being a first-generation student) with your mentors can help them identify opportunities for you, and so I would encourage you to be as upfront as you feel comfortable with.

In general, the worst thing that will happen if you ask about funding is that someone will tell you that unfortunately, they don’t have funding for undergraduate research assistants. But it doesn’t hurt to ask!

Making the most of a research position

Figure out what your own goals are.

People join labs for lots of different reasons. You might want to learn specific skills, like experimental design and programming. You might want to delve deeply into a particular content area. You might just be wondering whether research is “for you.” It’s helpful to think through your goals and continually discuss them with your supervisor so that you can work together to try to ensure you are having a meaningful experience.

Be a team player and contribute where you can.

When you first join a lab, your biggest contributions will likely be to ‘grunt’ work, which may include processing data, recruiting participants, making stimuli for experiments, etc. You should go into your lab experience expecting this type of tedious work, but you should also make sure that are getting something out of the experience by asking questions to understand bigger picture questions. Has a grad student asked you to photoshop 100 images for their study? Ask them to sit down with you to explain what the images will be used for and what psychological hypothesis they are testing! Has a professor asked you to watch hours of video footage and transcribe participant responses? Ask them how they intend to analyze these transcriptions! Etc. Hopefully, the people supervising you will take charge of your intellectual development without being prompted, but don’t be afraid to advocate for your own intellectual growth.

That said, you should also prove that you are committed and hard-working by doing a good job with these tedious tasks. The fastest way to burn bridges is to be unreliable. If you schedule a meeting, show up for it (on time). If you say you will finish a task by a certain date, then make sure you do so. People want to work with people they can count on. Of course, sometimes life happens, and you will need to drop the ball. But in general, you should treat your lab work the same way you would treat a job or a class you care about.

Find at least one trusted mentor whom you can ask all your questions.

Academia has a lot of weird rituals and jargon, and it’s easy even for graduate students to forget that they did not know a lot of this stuff a few years ago. It is helpful to identify a person (or ideally, multiple people) whom you can ask all your questions. For example: What does it mean if someone is an ‘assistant’ professor? What is a postdoc? How do conferences work? What does it mean to ‘run a regression’? How do I know when a project is ready to be turned into a paper? Etc.

This person probably is not the professor who runs the lab, not because they will be bothered by these questions, but because they likely do not have as much time as others to answer them. But don’t be shy to ask other undergraduates, the lab manager, grad students, and postdocs these types of things. One secret is that most of us suffer from imposter syndrome, and so it feels really great to be asked questions that we actually know the answers to.

Don’t worry too much about tangible products (e.g., publications).

I have heard professors say that they think it is impressive when Ph.D. applicants have published research on their CVs. Unfortunately, getting published as an undergraduate will be largely out of your control, so I would advise that you try not to worry about it too much. Every lab has different norms for how much and in what capacity you need to contribute to a project to be considered an author. For example, in some labs, running many participants through a behavioral task may qualify you for co-authorship on a poster or paper, whereas other labs will require that you contribute more “intellectually” to a project to gain authorship. Beyond differing norms across labs, even within a lab, projects have different timelines and outcomes. Many experiments you work on might never get published, simply because they don’t “work out” or the data collected do not shed new light on a scientific problem. Other experiments might get published months or years after you have left the lab. Again, this will be largely out of your control, which may be frustrating, but it’s just a part of the scientific process.

Of course, it is reasonable to want something to “show” for the hard work you put into projects in a lab. One suggestion is to look into opportunities to present your work that are aimed at undergraduate researchers. Many universities will have a semester or summer conference specifically for undergraduates to present their lab work. If you see opportunities like this advertised and are interested in them, definitely talk to your lab mentor(s) about whether presenting in these forums is a possibility. If the project you are working on is far enough along, they will probably be happy to support you. In these forums, you can often be “first author” on a project you are helping with, even if the “real” project leader is a graduate student or more advanced researcher. Though undergraduate conferences might be less impressive than national conferences, presenting in one suggests that you understand a research project well enough for your lab to feel comfortable with you presenting it to other people - no small feat.

My other take is that one of the most valuable “things” you should come out of your research experience with is knowledge that you will have a strong letter of recommendation when you apply to jobs or to graduate school. If you work in a lab for a year and do a good job (e.g., are reliable, do what is asked of you, show you are engaged intellectually with the work, etc.), it is reasonable to expect that someone from the lab (ideally a professor, though it can be co-written with your more direct supervisor) will provide you with a strong letter. This letter can contextualize all of your work, and probably provides future supervisors with much more information about your capabilities than they can glean from scrutinizing your publication record.

One lab or multiple labs?

I worked in the same lab for three academic years and three summers during undergrad. I loved the ideas the lab focused on, the breadth of projects I got to be involved in, and the relationships I formed with other lab members. By remaining there for three years (including the three full-time summers), I also got to delve much more deeply into projects than I would have otherwise.

That said, you might not love the first lab you join, or you may want to gain different skills or experiences by working in different labs. If you realize you are more interested in other topics, then it likely makes sense to try to join a lab that focuses more on the questions you think you care about. If you’ve given it your best shot but find that you aren’t getting adequate mentorship (e.g., no one is meeting with you regularly or seems to care about your intellectual development), then that might be another good reason to try to find a new position (but remember, mentorship relationships are two-way streets, so be honest with yourself about whether you are putting effort in as well). If you love the lab you are in but think it would look more impressive to have more things listed on your resume, then it likely does not make sense to try to join a new lab. One sustained commitment is likely just as impressive (or more impressive) than multiple shorter ones.

Leaving gracefully

You may realize that research in general — or a specific lab — isn’t a good fit for you. Or you may discover that coursework is taking up more time than you initially thought, or another opportunity arose that is more exciting. Just have an honest conversation with your mentors explaining that you would like to stop working in the lab. Don’t just ghost!! Generally, it’s easier to do this toward the end of a semester / year / whatever commitment you have signed on for. If you are attempting to leave with little warning prior to meeting that commitment, then there might be some bad feelings (especially if the lab is counting on you to do some work). But if you initially signed on for a semester and realize the lab isn’t for you, then don’t be afraid to tell your mentors you will not be continuing on. Be gracious and thank them, and then go live your life!