Undergrad Research Assistants


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.”

Why Psychology?

A somewhat frequent conversation with some of my academic friends is what we would do if we hadn’t gotten our degrees in our respective fields. This isn’t the “I’m having a day at work and I wish I had a different job” sort of thing, it’s really an analysis of what other career path we might have taken.

My friends provide various other paths they would take – everything from architect to dentist to being independently wealthy (not sure how that one works, but…). My standard response has shifted over the years, but at this point the only other thing that I think could hold my interest long enough is meteorology. But even then, I really can’t imagine doing anything other than researching and teaching about human behavior.

At the annual SPSP conference this past year, there was a bulletin board where we were supposed to write why we studied social/personality psychology. My answer (below) is why I just have to keep doing psychology.


Summer Research

Finally having the time to create a lab website means that it is summer. Summer in the life of an academic changes the pace of work, allowing me to choose when I will work on various things, rather than trying to fit them in between planning for classes, meetings, or any of the other myriad tasks that are scheduled/pop-up during the semester.

This summer I’ll be working on research – running studies on mturk and submitting to the annual SPSP conference, and working on updating courses for the upcoming school year.