Why Undergraduate Psychology Research Matters
Any undergraduate psychology program will teach students basic research principles. But not every program puts that knowledge to the test. In fact, many psychology students don’t get the chance to participate in research projects until they go to graduate school — if they go to graduate school.
But according to Dana Hirn Mueller PhD, an experienced legal psychology researcher and professor at Concordia University, St. Paul, waiting that long to give students hands-on research experience is a missed opportunity.
“One major misconception that many students have is that you should really only do research if you're interested in pursuing graduate education,” she said in an interview with CareersInPsychology.org. “But when students actually conduct research, they are almost forced, in a sense, to learn more about the topic. That can really help to translate into a particular profession, even if you're not interested in graduate work.”
So if you’re weighing your psychology program degree options but can’t seem to make a decision, here’s why you may want to rank programs that offer research opportunities higher on your list.
CareersInPsychology.org had the pleasure of learning more about topics in the field from Dr. Dana Hirn Mueller, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Concordia University, St. Paul. As an experimental and legal psychologist, a great deal of her scholarship has focused on ways to integrate psychological research with legal practice. Additionally, her central research interests concentrate on improving psychology curriculum at the undergraduate level, promoting undergrad research, and teaching.
Conducting Your Own Research Hones Hard and Soft Skills Alike
As Professor Hirn Mueller stated, students can learn a lot about specific facets of psychology by conducting their own research. However, learning about a specific topic in a hands-on way is only one benefit. During your research, you can also add a broad variety of hard and soft skills to your personal, professional, and academic toolkit.
Soft Skills Taught By Undergrad Research Projects
“Something that's important to note about research is that the skills that are required to do good research are not necessarily always directly related to psychology,” Professor Hirn Mueller notes. “Students learn things like good communication, good organizational skills, and other skills like that.”
Encouragingly, these soft skills are often the most important things to hiring managers across all industries. According to a 2021 survey conducted by the NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers):
- 5% of employers prioritize problem-solving skills.
- 6% want new hires with well-developed analytical skills.
- 3% prioritize team-oriented candidates.
- 3% of employers said they were looking for people with stellar communication skills.
A research project is the perfect opportunity to develop these skills in a real-world yet academic context. You could be collaborating with faculty members, psychology professionals, other students, and participants. And at each step, you’ll be collecting clean, relevant data and analyzing it in a meaningful, creative way.
Hard Skills Promoted During Research Projects
The NACE survey also found that 64.9% of employers are looking for job candidates with specific hard skills. While the specific skills employers want change with the industry, conducting research as an undergrad psychology student can teach you a few highly transferable ones.
No matter the project, your journey through psychological research can give you experience with:
- Research ethics
- Data collection
- Clinical reasoning
Quantitative and qualitative research
- Experiment design
- Higher-order thinking and analysis
In a typical bachelor’s-level psychology program, these principles may be discussed, but not necessarily used. But when students actually use them, it could push them closer to their professional and academic goals.
Ways to Participate In Research As An Undergrad Psychology Student
Undergraduate psychology students can research any number of topics: gender roles, child development, cultural attitudes about food, the effects of social media, or even more advanced clinical subjects. But that begs the question, what roles can an undergraduate student fill on a research team?
The roles are as diverse as the topics themselves:
- Research designer. In some cases, students can actually craft their own research projects under the guidance of a graduate student or professor.
- Many psychology researchers let students participate in studies and surveys. Some colleges may even allow this to count towards graduation requirements.
- Research assistant. When college faculty are working on long-term projects, they may enlist undergrad students to help carry out day-to-day tasks like collecting and recording data.
- Literature researcher. A big part of psychology research is fitting it into existing research. Undergrad students may help the lead researcher find, review, and contextualize decades worth of relevant academic literature.
In Concordia University, St. Paul’s m Professor Hirn Mueller says that no matter the role students play, the emphasis is always on fostering student engagement and creating mentor relationships.
“We try to stress to our students that we are willing to foster working relationships with them,” she says. “We encourage them to pursue their research passions and we work one-on-one with students specifically to help them carry out a research project or to work with us on an existing project that matches their particular interest.”
Research Projects Broaden Students’ Horizons for Grad School and Beyond
All of this discussion about the skills learned during undergrad psychology research is great and all, but how does it actually help students? Particularly, how does it help students whose goals aren’t clearly defined yet? Wouldn’t committing to a long-term research project lock a student into a specific path before they’re ready?
Professor Hirn Mueller has an encouraging and straightforward message for students with those specific and relatively common anxieties:
“Conducting undergraduate research can be particularly beneficial for students not only who are interested in pursuing graduate education, but interested in joining the workforce or going into industry immediately after graduation.”
Here’s how participating in research projects can help both segments of the student population.
Grad Schools Value a Record of Research
If graduate school is a possibility for you, doing research as an undergrad can, as Professor Hirn Mueller says, show admission boards that you, “have a basic working knowledge of research,” a trait that could give you an edge when applying to competitive programs.
In a recent article, the American Psychological Association shed some light on what psychology graduate school admission boards look for. The article lists some obvious criteria like undergrad GPA and GRE scores, but it also highlights how students with research experience stand out in a sea of applicants.
“Graduate programs know that if a student can run a basic statistical test, or write policies and procedures within a research setting, they don't have to be retrained,” Professor Hirn Mueller explains. Additionally, students who have participated in research projects can often provide personal, detailed letters of recommendation from faculty members they’ve worked with.
So in that sense, you’re not just a good candidate for a spot in any given graduate program. You’re a great investment — a student whose research can create more dialogue within the psychology community and bolster an institution’s reputation as a pillar of the field.
Employers Value Hands-on Experience
Students who want to enter the workforce right after earning a bachelor’s degree can get as much out of a research project as their more academically-focused peers.
“Another thing to note about research is that the skills required to do good research are not necessarily always directly related to psychology as a field,” Professor Hirn Mueller says, referencing the long list of hard and soft skills a budding researcher learns. “Those skills can certainly translate into absolutely any profession.”
Think about psychology-adjacent jobs open to people with bachelor’s degrees: victim’s advocates in the criminal justice system, social workers, counselors, marketing researchers, etc. Any of these careers require endless amounts of passion and compassion. But when those traits are blended with an understanding of how the data that fuels those fields is collected, analyzed, and distributed, the result is an educated, forward-thinking professional.
“Who doesn't want a student who knows how to communicate well, is well organized, can stay on task, or knows how to follow policies and procedures and even write them?” Professor Hirn Mueller says. So like their grad school counterparts, psychology students who enter the workforce with hands-on research experience can leverage their knowledge to explore virtually endless career opportunities.
So no matter where a student ends their academic career, participating in psychological research at the undergraduate level isn’t likely to be a waste of time. From learning nuanced research principles to building professional relationships and learning how to collaborate, almost anyone can find personal and professional fulfillment in the halls of a research-minded psychology department.