Talk to anyone who has completed their clinical training, and they will tell you becoming a psychologist is a process that begins early in your academic career. Laying the groundwork during your undergraduate years can provide a strong foothold into the field as well as into a graduate training program. One of the best ways to get involved as a student is to take advantage of the opportunities provided by your local undergraduate institutions. Universities are active breeding grounds for social science research and frequently employ students for pay or course credit.

One of the best parts about taking a position as an undergraduate research assistant is getting real world experience while developing relationships with faculty and graduate students. Relationships with other scientists are a hugely important part of determining your future trajectory as a psychologist. Even a part-time position helping with data entry can be the difference between being an unknown face in the crowd or a colleague when it comes time to make admissions decisions.

I took on my first position as an undergraduate research assistant as a sophomore in college. I worked two days a week helping with data entry and eventually assisted with some of the background research related to publications on this data. When I graduated I was offered a full-time position as a faculty research assistant and worked my way up to project director. Two years in, I was considering graduate school for clinical psychology and an opportunity presented itself for me to take the lead on a new research project. This would later become the research for my master’s thesis.

Although I eventually decided to part ways with research to pursue more in-depth clinical training, these early experiences in research provided invaluable resources which I utilized throughout my graduate studies and continue to use in my professional work today. Getting involved in research is a great way to test the waters and find what you are interested in. Additionally, as many training programs rely heavily on research and scientific writing, familiarizing yourself with these tools early in your training will serve you well in graduate school. As an applicant to a graduate training program, having previous experience in research is a huge asset. Not only do training programs expect a higher level of research knowledge from their students in courses, but you will eventually be required to conduct research and produce scholarly writings of your own in order to graduate from any clinical psychology program. Getting early training makes all of these skills easier to develop as you advance in your training.

Here are three tips for getting involved and staying involved in research:

Locate a position!

Check out your school newspaper or online job postings provided by your campus. Faculty and graduate student researchers often have funding to hire undergraduate research assistants to assist with their data collection. If you live in an area with access to other universities, be sure to check their listings as well. If there is a specific area of research you are personally interested in, reach out to the appropriate department head or faculty member who focuses on that area and see if they have a need for assistance with their research. You can find specific faculty interests listed in bio links on university websites.

Keep in mind that just because there are not jobs posted does not mean someone isn’t looking for your help. While there may not be a paid position available at the time you’re looking, available funding changes frequently and starting out as an unpaid research assistant is a great way to get your foot in the door. Additionally, many faculty are in a position to offer course credit for participation in research, which can help offset your tuition costs.

Interested in finding a research position after college? No problem! If you no longer live where you went to college, you can check out the school newspaper or contact the psychology department closest to you – or contact the psychology department from your undergraduate program to see if they can connect you with resources closer to where you live now.

Job recruitment websites and apps may also have listings for opportunities as a research assistant, analyst or research associate. Try connecting through apps such as LinkedIn where you can ask for references from people you are already associated with to have the best chance of standing out. Another useful resource for finding research positions is the employment or careers link found on the websites of major government agencies who conduct a lot of research. University websites, NIH (National Institutes of Health), the APA (American Psychological Association) and your local state psychological association site are great places to start your search.

Once you’ve procured a position, don’t be afraid to stand out

One of the biggest mistakes students make early in their careers is being timid and not asking enough questions. Make time to meet with your principal investigator and let them know what interests you about the research. See if they have other tasks you could assist with or future projects in the works. While some research is longitudinal, other projects are more short term and thus the needs of the researcher may change frequently. Make yourself an indispensable asset by staying relevant and letting whoever is in charge know that you’re ready to work!

Keep the bigger picture in mind

Even if your first assignment is just entering a bunch of 0s and 1s into a computer, your next gig could be your dream job. Don’t be discouraged by playing a small part; it’s all important to the researcher and your reliability will stand out. Think of your first role as the entry into a potentially exciting and rewarding career years down the road. Pay attention to your work and give it your best, even if where you start out is not exactly where you want to be. My first position was not exactly what I had hoped it would be, but I only worked on data entry for about six months before I landed an amazing position working directly with research participants. My advisor appreciated my hard work and recommended me for a position on a new project for which the research lab was still procuring funding. I was able to assist in the pilot stages and eventually directed the project prior to entering graduate school.

Still not sure if you want to take the plunge? That’s ok! One of the best things about taking a part-time job as a research assistant is just that — it’s part time. Consider it part of your own research into what type of career you want to have and your participation as your own form of data collection. By testing the waters with some entry level work, you will gain access to the world of social science research and figure out what parts appeal to you.

One myth students have heard about research is that you have to be excellent at math in order to work in the field. While it certainly doesn’t hurt, there is absolutely no pre-requisite and in fact a lot of the work I was personally involved in was aided significantly by my interaction with the participants, not my data entry. Just be aware of your personal strengths and limitations when considering taking on a task.

When I was hunting for my first research position, some of the jobs I initially looked at required research on animals. I decided to look for a position outside of the laboratory setting because I felt most comfortable working with human participants. Keep your own values in mind when you are looking and you will be more likely to find a good personal fit.

Remember, becoming a psychologist is a lifelong journey that begins with figuring out what type of work you’re best suited for. Research is a great starting place to find your footing and begin your adventure.

Erin Severe, PsyD
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