Becoming a Research Assistant

Becoming a Research Assistant in a Psychology Professor’s Lab at UCR
(advice from Dr Curt Burgess)

Getting research experience is important for you to determine if you like doing research and might want to pursue it as a career in academia or in industry. It is also important because it is a way to find out which areas of psychology you like (or not). It is much more “hands on” than just taking a class.

Your research experience can be documented on your transcript as Psy 096, Research for lower-division Students (freshmen and sophomores) or Psy 197, Research for Undergraduates, which can be taken by juniors and seniors. In addition to these courses counting for credit they provide a vehicle for you to take one less class and fill your time more with research. Also consider participating in the UCR Honors Program.

More info on Psy 096 and Psy 197…Psy 096 is offered on an S/NC basis only for 1-2 units. Psy 197 can be taken for a letter grade or S/NC for 1-4 units. The letter grade option in Psy 197 is reserved for students who are interested in doing a paper related to the research. The general formula on how many units you can enroll for in these two courses depends on the number of actual hours you are involved in the research. Your can enroll for between 1 and 4 units. The University of California expectation is that a student participates in research for 3 hours a week for each unit of research. Thus, 4 units entails a 12 hours a week commitment. Typically, one of these hours is a weekly lab meeting. These details may vary somewhat depending on how a faculty member runs things, but this will give you an idea of what to expect.

Psych 12, Research Methods is certainly a beginning to getting involved in research and it will give you some idea about whether you enjoy it. However, even if you didn’t like Psych 12 (perish the thought…), you may well like being involved in a lab doing research that is focused in an area of interest to you.

RA experience is very important for applying to grad school (at UCR, it is extremely unlikely we would consider someone without any research experience). It also looks very good when applying for jobs. It can also be fun and a way to network with other students who have high-trajectory aspirations. Getting involved in research takes your undergraduate experience to the next level because you will be getting involved with a professor who is well known in their field and you will begin to know an area from the inside.

Here’s my advice:

  • Consider what topics of research are most interesting to you. Our department has faculty who specialize in developmental, social/personality, cognitive, systems-neuroscience and health psychology. Look through your intro psych textbook and consider what areas you found interesting and what areas you’ld rather not bother with.

  • Look at the Psychology Department’s web pages and click on the Faculty Researchers link. This will give you a list of all the faculty and their areas of specialization. Click on the professor’s individual links to get an idea about what they research and also explore their lab home pages and get a better idea of their work. Also talk with other undergrads who are already involved in research with professors and see what/who they recommend. You may also want to talk with the graduate students that you may know or have had as a TA and get their advice. But make sure you look over the web pages!

  • Once you’ve determined a short list of faculty whose research you might be interested in, you can find out their office hours by checking the advising web page.  Go visit faculty during office hours and talk with them about their need for another RA, what RAs do in their lab, and what their requirements are. Once you’ve done a little shopping, you can make some decisions. Do not be bashful about visiting faculty during their office hours – this is why they have office hours!

  • Most faculty have a RA application form on their web page. It’s useful to complete this before visiting with faculty.

  • Go do some research!