My Number One Response to Your E-mails
Get Research Experience
Posted December 9, 2010
In my response to 90% of your e-mails about applying to grad school, I include this piece of advice: get research experience. No matter what type of program you are applying to, showing that you have experience in psychology research will only enhance your application and, for some programs, it will be necessary.
In my opinion, research experience is the most important factor in whether or not you will be accepted to graduate school in psychology. Usually, it's more important than your GPA, your GRE scores, and your letters of recommendation. (The one exception that I've seen is if you have perfect or near perfect GRE scores. Then, your GRE scores can become the most important piece of your application.) Take for example, one student I mentored about 4 years ago. This students´ GRE scores were below average for the clinical PhD programs she was applying to, but she still got in because she pumped up her application with tons of great research experience.
What do I mean by research experience?
Research experience refers to any work in which you have gained hands-on expertise in the steps of the scientific method. To quickly refresh your memory, the scientific method involves coming up with a research question, doing a literature review, formulating a hypothesis, turning your research question into something you can measure, collecting data, analyzing data, drawing conclusions from your results, and writing a report of the whole process.
Research experience can take a variety of forms. In some of your undergraduate psychology classes, you may have been required to complete a research project (not just a literature review, but a project that involved collecting data). This type of work counts as research experience, but additional exposure to research outside of class looks even better on a grad school application. Outside of class, you can 1) volunteer (or earn course credits) as a research assistant in a faculty member's laboratory or 2) if your university offers a thesis program, opt to write an undergraduate thesis.
The most impressive research experience involves conducting your own study. How can you do this? The most direct route is, again, to opt to write an undergraduate thesis. The less direct route, but, in some cases, the best one is to become involved with a group of psychology researchers and, then, propose your own idea for a study that is related to their work. Ask for guidance in actually conducting that study. In this scenario, you will gain the most genuine experience in what it is like to be a graduate student and part of a psychology laboratory team.
If you write a thesis or conduct your own study, presenting the findings at undergraduate research conferences or professional conferences looks great on an application. The ultimate way to show you have research experience though is to write an APA-style paper about your study and its findings and submit this paper to a journal for publication.
How should I go about getting research experience outside of class?
The first thing you can do is look into whether your college or university offers undergraduates the option to write a thesis under the direction of a graduate student or faculty member. If it does, there will be information available about forming a relationship with a research mentor and how to start your project.
Another route is to approach your psychology professors and teaching assistants. Check out your college or university's psychology department website. These sites usually list faculty members and provide a brief description of what their research is about. E-mail them and say you would like to get experience in psychology research. Also, find out if your department offers course credit for working a certain number of hours per week in a lab. Your academic advisor will likely be the best person to ask about this possibility.
Why is research experience so important?
Psychology is a science. One goal in graduate school is to gain more specialized knowledge, but, a much more important goal is to create new knowledge - that is to say, do research! Having research experience shows an admissions committee that you know what you're getting into. It assures them that you've had first-hand experience with the scientific method and that you want to continue with it. If you are applying to a PhD program and you have a good deal of research experience, it also demonstrates to faculty members that you have an idea of how research is conducted in an academic setting. This is extremely important because it means that you could be a valuable member of his or her research team from the get-go. Finally, research experience is important because it gives you the chance to interact with current graduate students and faculty members. Think of them as valuable resources from who you can learn a lot about graduate school and admissions.
Bottom line: If you are planning to apply to grad school in psychology, get research experience now.
Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D. is a graduate school admission consultant in Psychology and related fields. Visit her website: www.gradadmissionsconsulting.com to learn more about improving your graduate school application. Follow Laura on Twitter for links to current grad school admissions news.