If you are serious about psychology as a major, then you should consider getting involved in research. We recommend that students get involved with a research lab as early as their sophomore year, but no later than the fall of their junior year, especially if they have aspirations for (a) doing an Honors Thesis in their senior year and (b) going to graduate school in psychology or a related discipline. This document describes the process by which undergraduate students can get involved in research in the Department of Psychology at Tulane University.
Undergraduate Research Assistants
Why do Research?
In science, research is the formal methodology for discovering answers to questions. Research is therefore the process of generating new knowledge. All the sciences depend upon research to discover new information. While, different disciplines have different formal methodologies for conducting research, all the sciences and social sciences share the common principles for what constitutes the process of discovering and verifying the integrity of new information. Research in Psychology is the means by which anything new about human behavior is understood. Applied fields (e.g., health care, the practice of law, engineering, teaching and education, human services and social work, and business) all in turn, use the products of research to inform their work.
Why do a Research Assistantship?
Because most faculty members do not want to sponsor an Honors Thesis with someone they do not know, it is imperative that you plan ahead and get to know the faculty working within the area of psychology that most interests you. You should start by applying to become a Research Assistant in one of the faculty research labs. Research assistants can earn academic credit toward the major by enrolling in Psyc 4900, or 4930 (Psychology Research or Advanced Psychology Research) with a faculty member. Some faculty may require students to volunteer first before committing to include undergraduates as Research Assistants in their labs. Summer volunteer or employment opportunities may be available.
What if you do not want to do an honors thesis, but are still planning to go to graduate school? Or even business, law, or medical school? Then you will need undergraduate research experience for several reasons. First, most if not all graduate programs in psychology are designed to train research scientists. Therefore, getting involved in research as an undergraduate sort of "gets your feet wet" so that you gain an understanding of what is expected of you in graduate school. Also, you learn some basic research skills such as data collection, entry, and analysis and how to conduct literature searches that you will use in graduate school. Finally, one of the requirements in the selection process for graduate school is the submission of 3 or more letters of recommendation. Ideally, you want at least one of these letters to be from faculty members with whom you have conducted research. Again, you are encouraged to get involved early, because it takes time (e.g., more than one semester) for each faculty member to get to know your skills and potential as a graduate student. Faculty members are much more comfortable writing recommendation letters for students they know very well. As such, the strongest letters of recommendation often reflect one year or more of work in a research lab.
How to Become a Research Assistant
In order to apply to become a research assistant in a faculty member's lab you will need to review their specific requirements (including prerequisite coursework, minimum GPA, time commitments). You may need to complete a brief application and interview for the position. The available positions in a lab may fill quickly, so you should plan in advance for the semester that you wish start.
Choosing the Lab
Each full time faculty member in the Psychology department conducts a research program and has a laboratory. The areas of study vary widely. Start by reviewing the faculty web pages and the listing below that describes faculty research areas of interest. If you are interested in working with a particular faculty member, find out the specific requirements for applying to that faculty member’s lab. Below the faculty have been grouped in different ways according to their areas of research interest:
Cognitive/Behavioral Neuroscience (Human)
The Honors Thesis
If you have a strong grade point average (GPA) of approximately 3.5 in psychology courses and at least a 3.4 overall, you plan to pursue graduate study, and you have been working in a research lab, you may consider completing an Honors Thesis in Psychology. The Department of Psychology requires that all Honors Theses be based on an empirical research study.
Searching for an Honors Thesis Director
In most cases, students who are interested in doing an honors thesis have been working in faculty member’s lab for at least a year and ask that faculty member to supervise their honors thesis. The Psychology Department faculty pages contains information about the research interests of the faculty members in the department. Although many students start with an area and identify an appropriate faculty member, it is equally common for a student to reverse these steps (to start with a faculty member and discover an area from that person). The important thing to remember is that you cannot receive final acceptance into the program until you are paired with an Honors Thesis Director, so this is not a step on which you can afford to procrastinate.
Any member of the faculty within the Psychology Department is a possible candidate for a Thesis Director. Two important considerations in searching for a Director are to find someone who is willing to supervise you, and to find someone with whom you think you'll work well. Some students emphasize the latter, and start by choosing a faculty member.
- Is there a faculty member whose work really fascinates you?
- Have you done research you've really enjoyed in someone's lab?
- Did you take a course from someone who really interested you?
- Is there a faculty member with whom you really get along well?
Any of the above may be acceptable reasons for choosing a Director. Most faculty members will only sponsor an Honors Thesis student who has already done research in their lab, so getting involved in research is strongly encouraged. If you become involved in research early (no later than by the fall of your junior year), then you may have the option to explore other research areas if the first one doesn't work out.
Once you've identified a faculty member as a prospective director, you need to initiate contact with him or her. This should be done as soon as possible, but no later than the deadline for turning in the Honor Thesis Intent Form. Painful as this may seem, there's no way around it, so don't put this off! Stop by during office hours or make an appointment. Although using email to make appointments is fine, a face-to-face discussion is preferred for discussing the possibility of supervising your thesis. Most faculty members are reluctant to supervise a thesis if they have not met the student in person.
Here are some things to keep in mind during your meeting:
- Many faculty members are delighted to work with top (honors) undergraduates.
- You want to convince a faculty member that there is something to gain from working with you. Plan what you will say. Be confident and tell this person why you would like to work with him or her.
- A faculty member may decline your request if he or she is already spread over too many projects, will be on leave, or thinks your area of interest is too far from his or her own. Do not take this personally. It happens. Try someone else.
Developing Your Research Question
Your thesis advisor is there to teach and to advise you. He or she has years of experience in conducting research. The process of developing a thesis topic is one of collaboration. Don't worry about getting an idea on your own. Talk to your thesis advisor. He or she will get you pointed in the right direction with a program of readings. Whether you come in with a fairly clear idea of what you want to study, or you only know the broad area, your faculty advisor will want to discuss the ideas and work with you to refine them. The final topic will probably be one in which both of you had some input. It will also be something in which each of you has an interest.
Other Technical Requirements of the Honors Thesis
You must register to do an honors thesis by mid-September of your senior year. The Honors Program Office is located in the Hebert Building where you must pick up the guidelines and schedule well in advance of your registration for an honors thesis. For additional information review the Honors Program web page. You may also wish to see the titles of some Recent Honors Theses in the Department of Psychology. The Department of Psychology requires the Honors Thesis to be based on empirical research.
The minimum requirement for completing an Honors Thesis in Psychology include:
- An overall GPA of 3.40 upon graduation
- A Psychology Major GPA of 3.50
- The successful completion of an empirical Honors Thesis in Psychology
Ethics Approval Deadlines
Students must secure prior approval for Honors Theses from the appropriate ethics committees by the end of the first semester of their senior year (as a prerequisite to Psychology 500 registration). Approval of empirical studies with human subjects must be obtained from both the University Institutional Review Board. Detailed information on the approval process and links to application forms appear at the Ethics Review Page on the Department's Web site. Approval of empirical studies with vertebrate animal subjects must be obtained from Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, whose forms also are linked to the Ethics Review Page. Review and approval in both cases normally require at least one month, but can take two months or even longer. Please be sure to discuss the timeline for securing ethics approval with your thesis advisor.
Research proposals, submitted in late January to the Honors Program Office as the "first chapter," must include an introduction and complete methodology. Before submission to the Honors Program office, the proposal must be approved by a committee comprised of the Thesis Director, another Psychology faculty member, who will serve as the second reader and a third reader, a faculty member who is outside of the Psychology Department.