Obtain a research assistant position
Students seeking research positions are often unaware of the
skills which they have to offer or the ways in which they might
expect to be valued and compensated. The following suggestions are
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Before you get started, it is important to credential yourself
by obtaining skills and knowledge that your potential employer will
value in an employee. You can do this in several ways. These
Where will you look for positions?
- Take extensive course work in experimental
design. Do not avoid these courses. Take extra classes if you
can. If possible, take and do well in some graduate level courses.
- Take extensive course work in statistics. Do not avoid
these courses, either. Take additional courses in this area if you
can. If possible, take and do well in graduate level courses.
- Develop excellent computer skills. Be conversant with
SPSS, SAS, and other social science statistical packages. Additional
expertise with database software affords you the opportunity to
exercise your data management skills. Computer programming
experience suggests to your potential employer that you have
problem-solving abilities, and a capacity to work independently and
- Develop knowledge in the areas which interest you. If
your interests are biological, then take a lot of biology coursework.
If your interests are in health care reform, then take a lot of
- Take additional course work in your department's specialty
area. Most departments have something they pride themselves on
doing exceptionally well. Here at CMU it is cognitive psychology;
take as many research oriented courses in this area as possible. You
are in the pre-eminent cognitive psychology department in the
country. You have an opportunity to work with some of the most
gifted cognitive researchers in the world. Do not worry if cognitive
is "not your area"; working with exceptionally bright, talented
people will enable you to develop skills that you can transfer to any
- Seek out and get to know the administrative people who
manage the undergraduate research programs at your institution.
Talk to them about the kinds of opportunities that are available to
- Serve as a research assistant. There are opportunities
available at many universities to serve as a research assistant to a
professor for money, credit or as a volunteer.
- Carnegie Mellon students should obtain a SURG (Small Undergraduate Research Grant) to
pursue your own research project. Students elsewhere might ask faculty if they have any funding for undergraduate research.
- Do a senior thesis. If your QPA is too low, or if you
had a problematic semester or freshman year, explore the possibility
about getting an exception made for you to pursue a research project
as an honors thesis student.
- Consider putting exceptional people on your thesis
committee. If there is someone on the graduate faculty at another
college or university whose work you admire, you may want to consider
having a committee member in absentia. You can write to this person
and ask him/her to be on your committee. Tell this person that s/he
can serve as an advisor in absentia via phone or email, and that it
will only entail reading and critiquing your proposal and your final
write-up. Then do a crackerjack job on your project. When you apply to
work with this person in the future; s/he will already be familiar
with your work.
Showcasing your research experience
- Remember your favorite class(es)? The ones
that you loved and in which you did really well? Talk to the
professor. They may need a research assistant or they may have
colleagues elsewhere working on similar research who need research
- While you are remembering your favorite class(es), go back
to your readings and notes and find the most interesting
articles. Are the authors of those articles alive and well and
living in a region of the country in which you would consider living
or summering? Look up the authors in the American Psychiatric
Association (APA) or the American Psychological Association (APA)
Directory. It will provide fairly current addresses. Write to these
authors, find out if they would like a summer research assistant, or
a research assistant for a term, or a research assistant with a B.A.
You can do this even if they are famous; famous people have
- Tap your informal network. Do you know people who know
people who know people...who know people who know your potential
employer? Talk with them. Learn as much as you can about your
potential employer in advance. These potential employers and friends
of potential employers may include:
- Anyone who ever taught a class in which you were enrolled
- Any administrator with whom you have had contacts
- Anyone who you met on a placement or internship
- Anyone who nominated you for an award
Let's say that you have followed these recommendations and after
several aborted efforts, you found a research position. How do you
go about sharing your research experience with others and why?
First, remember all of those generous people who mentored and
guided you? Now, you can do the same for others who are less
experienced and/or less aware of the opportunities that are
available. This can be a truly gratifying experience for you. Once you
gain experience, you will be able to critique yourself by asking, "If there
were a next time, what would I do differently?" Mentoring allows you
to bask in the glory of someone else's success.
Second, you actually may have meaningful research findings which
should be shared with others in the field. Talk with the person for
whom you worked to see if they feel that you played a significant
enough role to present their research at a National or Regional
Conference. Alternatively, with the support and guidance of your
boss/mentor present your research at an Undergraduate Research
Finally, if you are a student here at CMU, publish your research
in the internal undergraduate research journal. If you are not a
student at CMU, see if your department has such a journal; if they do
not, investigate the possibility of starting one! You can be certain
that you will meet many interesting faculty, administrators and
colleagues in the process.
Psychology departments, Psi Chi Chapters and Psychology Clubs may republish these articles
This material is copyrighted. However, Psychology Departments, Psi Chi Chapters, Psychology Clubs and University and College Career Centers may republish any of the columns from www.drlynnfriedman.com/psychologylife.html free-of-charge as long as each column is reprinted in its entirety and without alteration. Also, along with any column, copyright and and the following byline must be attached: Dr. Lynn Friedman is a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst and executive coach in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She is on the associate faculty in the Organizational Development/Human Resource Management Program at Johns Hopkins University. Web site: www.drlynnfriedman.com. She can be reached at: (301) 656-9650.
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