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Student Research: How to get started

February 21, 2017

Timothy Franke, PsyD, was actively involved in research projects while completing his PsyD in clinical psychology at MiSPP.  In this blog, originally published in September 2015, Dr. Franke talks about his experience as a Research Assistant (RA) and offers encouragement and advice on where to begin.

Timothy Franke, PsyD

Timothy Franke, PsyD

One of the most common reasons for entering a PsyD program over a PhD program is the emphasis that PsyD programs typically place on professional practice over academic research. Although the strengths of PsyD programs center on their ability to produce top-notch practitioners, that does not mean that research cannot be a rewarding and worthwhile part of any student’s professional and clinical growth.

I, myself, got into research during my senior year in college, and have been involved in different studies and projects across four different labs ever since. My experiences have been eye opening and immensely rewarding, and I firmly believe that I’ve become a better student and clinician because of them.  The following steps outline how to go about searching for and securing a research assistant (RA) position, and reflect my own experiences with the process. It is generally not difficult to get involved in research as RA, and the biggest hurdle for most students tends to be not knowing where to start.

Step 1: Assess your situation

Are you interested in research? If not, why? Really ask yourself. If you have never considered it before, you may not be aware of what you are missing. Research can be a wonderfully fun and exciting experience for those who are willing to challenge themselves. Also consider where you are in terms of your studies and personal obligations. Getting involved in research is a serious commitment. That being said, a lot is possible if you can be smart about budgeting your time. This is also a very desirable and useful skill to learn.

Step 2: Develop, then narrow your focus

Think about what you may be interested in. What appeals to you more, working with people, working with animals? Do you gravitate towards the social sciences or the “hard” sciences? Figuring out where you want to focus your search is important simply because there are so many different areas of specialization available. This is actually a wonderful thing because it provides you with a multitude of options.

Step 3: Find your contacts

Once you have an idea of where you want to focus, you can start looking for individuals currently conducting research in those broad areas. The vast majority of PI’s (primary investigators) will be affiliated with an educational institution. My searches were confined to the University of Minnesota (my alma matter), but there are many great universities and colleges in Michigan to pick from (this includes MiSPP). You may be surprised to know that you do not necessarily have to be a student at a particular institution in order to obtain a volunteer research assistant position there! Begin by searching for specific departments at institutions you may be interested in. Most will list the current faculty and their research interests. Most faculty bio’s will also list selected publications that you should read.

Step 4: Make the connection

After you identify a faculty member whose research you are interested in, simply send them an email explaining who you are and what you are looking for. Calling is a viable option but I recommend against it. Emailing allows for a busy person to address a request when they actually have time to do so. PI’s (in my experience) are often very busy people. RA positions at big universities and colleges are often more available during the summer months as most college students go on break leaving open positions. Be sure to explain why you are interested in their research and what aspects of their research interest you the most. If you are willing to work for free (I recommend it) be sure to mention it. Budgets are often tight and funding is hard to come by. Explaining that you are willing to work hard in exchange for experience is a good way to get your foot in the door. PI’s are people too, and those who need work done (many of them) are interested in those who are willing to work and learn.

Step 5: Learn and experience

Ok, you’re in, now what? Once you obtain a RA position, have fun with it! Learn what you can and build off of your experiences. My own RA experiences have led to new opportunities and have opened many doors. There may be opportunities to co-author papers, present posters at conferences, and connect with esteemed professionals. It’s also a great way to add to your CV.  With that in mind, it is important to remember that everyone’s experience in research will be different. You may find that it does not provide you with the same energy that it provides for others, and that is absolutely okay. The important thing is that you allow yourself the chance to find out. You never know what kind of interests you haven’t discovered yet.