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Getting started in research

Finding mentors | Interviewing and working | Diversifying skills portfolio


Yes, coursework is important, and demonstrating that you know your stuff with excellent grades (A- or better) in your psychology courses is a requirement for graduate work. However, there are lots of people who do well in psychology courses; psychology is the most popular major in the College of Liberal Arts, so good psychology grades aren’t enough to separate you from the pack.

The way to build a good graduate application is to build a portfolio of research experiences. This is one of the best ways to put your university experience to work for you. You can learn the research trade, which will make you attractive as a postbaccalaureate research assistant…or if done well, a graduate student. I say a “portfolio” because you’ll want to develop an array of skills, preferably with a diversity of content areas. In this way, you’ll not only figure out what you want to study in your graduate work but also how you want to study it.


Start looking midway through the semester before you want to start lab work. The beauty of the Internet age is that information on your potential research mentors is available on your psychology department’s website.  Use that information to figure out who’s doing what in your department and develop a list of possible mentors. Here’s our department’s faculty, for instance. I also recommend typing each of three faculty members’ names into PubMed (with full first name, a space, then first and middle initials together; I would be Benning SD in a PubMed search) or Google Scholar (Stephen D. Benning would locate me fine there). Look up some of their papers to see what content areas they’ve published on recently, what methods they use, and what seems most interesting to you.

Next, draft an email to your top choice for a mentor. You’ll want to show you’re familiar with her or his work, but you’ll also want to get an idea about the kinds of experiences undergraduates can expect to have in that mentor’s lab.  You’ll be committing a good amount of time to your lab work, so you want to make sure the experience the mentor offers will meet your training goals.

Hello Dr. X:

I’m a [freshman/sophomore/junior/senior] who’s looking to get some experience with research in psychology. My GPA is A.BC, and I’ve taken the following classes that would be relevant to your research: [list two or three relevant courses; they needn’t be only in psychology]. I’ve read your papers [about a specific topic/using a certain methodology], and I was wondering if you had any projects currently that would give me experience in that area.

I would be happy to commit [at least 10]  hours of time to working in the lab next semester, and I will be glad to forward you any other information you might need to assess my suitability for working in your lab. [Attach any documents the mentor requests on her or his website for lab applicants.]


Firstname Lastname

Give your mentor at least a week to respond. If he or she doesn’t feel free to send a gentle reminder regarding the day you sent your email, hoping you might hear about working in the lab. If you don’t receive a response in the next three days, email your next possible mentor. I advise emailing prospective mentors in series rather than all at once in parallel so that mentors don’t feel like they’d have to fight over you. You don’t want to engender bad blood among potential mentors before you start working!


It’s likely that your prospective mentor will want to interview you before you start working in the lab. The idea here is just to get to know you, to demonstrate that there’s a fit between your interpersonal style and your mentor’s. Be appropriately respectful, but use this as an opportunity to assess whether this is someone with whom you’d be comfortable working. Keep in mind that some mentors may use this interview to select among a number of applicants for lab work.

Once you get the position, there are a few things you’ll want to demonstrate:

  1. Punctuality and dependability
  2. Careful and knowledgeable adherence to protocol
  3. Creative and thoughtful problem solving

1. is simple: Always show up when you say you’ll show up, always stay for the length of time you’re scheduled to stay, and always find replacement coverage among lab workers when you can’t do either of the first two things. 2. takes a bit more doing: Study the protocols you’re given, practice them until they’re second nature, and be sure you’ve got supervision in your practices to ensure you’re doing things properly. 3. is where you’ll stand out in letters of recommendation. When the unexpected comes up, deal with it thoughtfully. If it’s a problem that really needs the attention of the PI, don’t be afraid to contact her or him.

However, this should be for stuff that really matters (e.g., you can’t get data to collect, even after trying 5 different alternatives; someone threatening suicide); for less data- or life-threatening problems, use your creativity and ingenuity. Make sure you thoughtfully apply the training you’ve received to solve unexpected problems. Also make sure that you respect a participant’s rights to informed consent throughout the experiment. Finally, don’t shy away from speaking up in lab meeting, especially if you see a solution to a problem that’s being presented. Why do I mention these possibilities? They’re all things I’ve used to write specific points in letters of recommendations for my students.


Once you’ve done well in one lab, it’s time to do well in another lab. To the extent possible, continue working in your existing lab. That will give you a deep experience, and you may be able to work on multiple projects within the lab. However, no one lab can teach you all you need to know about psychology or give you all the skills you need for a research-focused program. Nor will you necessarily know what you want to do for graduate work without exploring multiple kinds of research programs. Here are skills I look for in applicants to work with me, in rough order of importance.

  1. Collecting, reducing, and analyzing psychophysiological data, especially at least one of the measures I use in my lab
  2. Computer programming, particularly that which is involved in experimental design
  3. Experience with psychopathy or basic emotional processing
  4. Writing up results of studies that you’ve conducted
  5. Professional presentation experience (e.g., presenting at regional – and ideally inter/national – conferences)

Notice that all things considered, I prize skills over content. It’s easier for me to teach you content than to teach you skills from the ground up. If you have no experience with psychopathy or emotion, I’ll want to know why you’re even interested in my lab, but I suspect if you apply to work with me, you’ll have some kind of experience with it, even if it’s just readings you’ve done.

If you’re not planning to leave your current lab, make sure to consult your current mentor about other labs. Emphasize that you’re just looking to diversify your skill set and explore all of your interests to ensure you’re most competitive for grad school admissions (and able to articulate your interests best!).  He or she will be in a good position to help see what skills you might want to acquire, what content areas you might profit from exploring, and whose labs could be a good fit for your training goals.

Sometimes a summer internship in another institution can be particularly valuable. When I was in college, I pursued a summer position at a college near where my parents lived. Because Rice didn’t have a clinical program, I wanted to get experience with clinical research. Kristi Erdal‘s neuropsychological work seemed to fit the bill, as I’d never done anything with neuropsych before. I cold-emailed her, asking if there was a position available. Fortunately, she was able to contact a professor in biochemistry with whom I’d worked for a reference, and I filled in a major hole in my experiences while I was home from school!

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