When I was earning my bachelor’s degree in psychology, classmates, professors, family members and guidance counselors would tell me that I needed a graduate degree if I wanted to get a job using my degree. At first, I believed them and planned for graduate school at some point in the future. But, before going to graduate school, I worked for four years in academic research. Below, I’ll describe some different research careers that someone with a bachelor’s degree in psychology could pursue and, most importantly given the difficulty some college graduates encounter finding jobs, what you need to do to prepare for each career.
The research assistant is the entry level research job for someone with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. This is where I started my career in academic research. These jobs can also be called a program assistant, research support specialist or research technician. Research assistants do the daily work that moves research projects forward. They interview people, go to participants’ homes to give surveys or collect behavioral observations in the laboratory or public places. Once they get the data, research assistants enter and store the data. Research assistants prepare Institutional Review Board (IRB) applications and conduct literature searches to inform the next step of the research.
To prepare for this job, look for opportunities to work on research projects at your school, particularly those that offer the chance to recruit people, interview participants and prepare IRB applications. Most schools provide course credit for these experiences and even require them so maximize this opportunity. Even if the work does not provide all the experience needed, there may be chances to expand your role once you are established. Anything that helps you cultivate your people skills will also be useful. Second, make sure you understand research methods. A research assistant has to be able to follow directions well and research methods courses teach the importance of consistent data collection and following study protocols precisely. While these skills can be transferred to other jobs, knowing how these skills work in research studies is what will prepare you for the research assistant jobs.
Another option for psychology majors is the data analyst, data manager or research analyst career. Sometimes these jobs are called research assistants but involve work with data. These jobs involve managing data including making sure it is collected and entered correctly. Data analysts run statistical analyses to answer hypotheses and prepare reports. This work requires working with stakeholders from the principle investigator of the study to community partners and determining how to make the data and analyses meet their needs.
To prepare for this job, an interest in computer science or statistics would be very helpful. Taking more statistics, computer science, health informatics or database management classes would give you the additional skills and knowledge for these jobs. Make sure to get experience with statistical software such as the Statistics Program for the Social Sciences (SPSS) or the Statistical Analysis Software (SAS). Typically, you will need some amount of experience so look for internships at your school or in industry where you can actually practice the skills learned in the classroom. Working as a research assistant after graduation is another option for gaining experience but look for jobs with opportunities to eventually analyze data.
Research coordinators oversee the operations of a study, supervising research assistants and data analysts, ensuring timelines are met and deliverables such as reports and presentations are completed. They also make sure study procedures meet federal and state regulatory guidelines. Some may work at IRBs, managing and triaging applications. These positions are also called research managers or project managers.
If you are interested in becoming a research coordinator, seek out opportunities to lead a research project while in college. A senior thesis is a good example. You will also need several years of experience as a research assistant or data analyst and try to seek out opportunities to lead projects where you have to supervise others or direct their work. Good management skills are a must for these positions.
Finding research jobs
Most of these research positions can be found at universities, community colleges and large non-profits so make sure to check their job listings including in nonpsychology departments and network with people you know at an institution. Government agencies are often looking for research analysts or data managers and be sure to check federal, state and local (county, city) governments. Private industry usually employs research assistants and data analysts. You may initially have to do contract or part-time work before finding a permanent, full-time position. Regardless of which path or industry you choose, good preparation while in school is crucial.
Abel, J.R., Deitz, R., & Su, Y. (2014). Are recent college graduates finding good jobs? Current Issues in Economics and Finance, 20(1), 1-8.
O*Net OnLine (n.d.). Retrieved Nov. 19, 2016 from http://www.onetonline.org/.