Undergrad Research Assistants

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I say this phrase so much that students sent this photo to me (it hangs on my office wall). 

I wouldn’t be surprised if my students have a running tally of the number of times per semester I say “Research is awesome!” This is certainly a common phrase to come out of my mouth, but mostly because it is true!

Most academics who feel strongly about research work in research-focused institutions, where they are busy doing research and training graduate students how to do research. However, since I work at a teaching-focused small liberal arts school (teaching is my true academic love), I have no graduate students in my research lab. Instead, every semester I work with a handful of talented undergraduate students (most of whom are or plan to be psychology majors).

At Earlham, Undergrad Research Assistants (RAs) complete a common application to work in one of the four active research labs in the Psychology Department at Earlham. They explain why they are interested, what their career goals are, and answer specific questions about interests and experiences.

Importantly, we assume that our undergrads have zero research experience! Instead, having undergrad RAs is really an extension of my teaching. We spend the semester working through literature, designing studies, finding/creating materials, and collecting/analyzing data. I also try to bring them to conferences to present research with me.

In all the years I’ve worked with undergrad RAs, I’ve been impressed with their willingness and ability to dive into big and complex research topics with me. While we may go more slowly as a group than I would alone, they have amazing insights that lead us to creative and unique studies. I love watching their understanding of research grow and sometimes even blossom into something close to passion for research. I cheer for them when their experiences help them get into graduate schools, as their undergrad research experiences mirror many of the experiences they will have in graduate school. Honestly, my undergrad RAs are a major reason I say “research is awesome.”

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