Looking for a research job?

An undergraduate education will prepare you for several careers. And, for many of you, graduate school is the intended step forward from the bachelor’s degree. If that is your intention, as it is mine, possibly the most essential part of your graduate school application is being able to share your research experience. For scientific fields like psychology that continually adapt to new information, a demonstration of your ability to conceptualize, theorize, test and analyze critical information is crucial. But sometimes, the most difficult part of this axiom is finding the research position. Having entirely redirected my career path halfway through my undergraduate study, I was forced to find a research job that not only fit my new interest but was also readily available in order to make up for two years of “lost” time.

There are three steps I’ve found to be most efficient when attempting to find a research job as an undergraduate student.

  • Step 1: Use your network. It is larger than you know given the faculty and staff at your college or high school. Contact them and ask for advice or suggestions for opportunities.
  • Step 2: To work in research, you need to do your research. Run a thorough search of researchers in your field or area of interest. Use APA’s databases to help you find out where this research is being done and by whom. Be persistent and follow up with your contacts. I will address this further later on.
  • Step 3: Do not be discouraged by research jobs or internships that are unpaid. It is quite unlikely that a stipend will be available for most undergraduate research positions, so once again, do your research to find scholarships that can aid in supporting your research dream.

I would like to use my own examples to delve further into these three steps. My current research position is as an assistant to a graduate student of the University of Pennsylvania, where I collect behavioral and olfactory data from a primate species called Aotus azarae (owl monkey) at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Bastrop, Texas. This information is relevant for many reasons, beginning with the fact that I personally know nobody in the field of primatology or who lives in Texas. Yet, here I am, among a neotropic primate colony in central Texas. When beginning my search, most times I wondered, “Where do I start?” This is where your network is most valuable. Email your advisers or professors inquiring about possible opportunities they may have or know about. Search the career websites at your university or high school. If you receive daily electronic mailing list emails about potential jobs or internships, do not ignore them. While my immediate network does not extend as far as Texas, the information from my adviser of psychology led me to a website called “Primate Info Net.” This leads me to Step 2.

The website, run by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been a huge help to me, including when researching graduate programs in primate and psychological sciences. Of course, the work does not stop there. The website merely provided me with a list of possible opportunities and laboratories. I needed to look far more into the individuals I would later contact. Researching the laboratory and the interests of the researcher is a very wise move, especially if this is your first experience with research. It will make your transition far smoother if you know a little of what to expect.

Contacting faculty or staff can be daunting, but it does not have to be. The method of contact I’ve found to be most efficient is phone calling. Not only do you get to speak with the individual directly, you will also have a response almost immediately. Be prepared to say your name, express your interest in the individual’s particular research, inquire about possible student assistant positions and answer any questions they might have about your past experience or future research interests. If they do not answer your phone call, leave a message and a call-back number and inform them you will follow up via email. If calling is too intimidating, you may email the individual with the same information. Show interest in the individual’s research, and, once again, make note that you will follow up in a week. It is also good to add that you are willing and eager to meet with the individual in person if they find that to be more convenient. I was not able to interview with my supervisor in person, so instead, we arranged for a Skype conversation during which she outlined my tasks in further detail and asked me questions about my resume to help her make an informed decision. Do not be discouraged if you do not receive a reply from every researcher you contact. Almost exclusively, it is not personal. Now that you have begun your conversation, be sure to reply to emails in a timely and respectful manner. Follow through with commitments you make and be proud that you have come this far.

My other piece of advice: Cast your net wide. Do not limit yourself to a particular region or field. Experiencing new states or even countries could do unbelievable good for you, and while having an idea of what you would like to do is commendable, a large benefit in researching as an undergraduate is being able to discover and understand what suits you well and what does not. As always, be sure to follow up on the search persistently. This shows your dedication and passion to work.

Lastly, Step 3, and possibly most relevant to a lot of college and high school students who require necessary additional funds, use the same researching techniques to find and apply to scholarships as there are plenty that are too often unknown. Check your school’s career center or your college’s scholarship office. Search for alumni funds and scholarships during career events. Use Google — it is a well-developed tool that has so much to offer our generation. It is challenging to cover the costs of our own tuition, let alone the costs of an unpaid internship. That is why every dollar counts. Apply to the small scholarships that require two-page essays, because that $500 could pay for a round-trip flight to your new research destination.

With great help from my network, Google and scholarships, I am able to work with a species that I may spend my entire life studying. My lessons learned: Do the research, gain the research experience and do not quit if the outcomes do not seem promising at first.

Re-posted with permission from APA’s Psychology Student Network 

About the Author

Mary Fernandes, college student, attends the University of Maryland at College Park where she studies animal science and psychology in the Honors College. Mary currently holds research assistant positions at two laboratories where she conducts neurophysiological assessments of human subjects at the Clinical and Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory and collects hormonal and behavioral data from a primate colony at the Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research. She also works as a laboratory animal veterinary technician assistant for the Central Animal Resource Facility at the University of Maryland. This past summer she was part of a team responsible for birthing educational calves, piglets and hatching chicks at the Maryland State Fair.