Research in Psychology

August 27, 2016
Descriptive Phenomenological
Research Psychology is not itself a field or job, but a category of exciting research opportunities within psychology. Virtually every branch of psychology, from clinical to developmental to experimental, conducts research on the topics of interest to it. A social psychologist might attempt to understand the formation of attitudes or social processes. An experimental psychologist might try to fathom the mysteries of the human mind or study the behaviors of non-human animals. A clinical psychologist might investigate the effectiveness of a particular psychotherapy or attempt to understand abnormality. And, developmental psychologists would be interested in studying issues related to the development and parenting of children. These, of course, are just a few examples of the many, many topics which research psychologists study and try to better understand.

Research psychologists are found in several different work settings. The vast majority work in universities and colleges either as teaching faculty or as full-time researches. Typically, research is considered only a portion of their jobs, with the remainder comprised of teaching and university service. Usually some ability to do research is thought to be important for most university teaching positions. Many other research psychologists are employed by state and federal governments, the military, or large corporations and businesses. Psychologists might be involved in polling political attitudes, testing a new drug, engineering and designing buildings or automobiles, surveying the best marketing strategy, or exploring the most efficient means of turning out a particular product.

Because the research topics vary so greatly, it is impossible to discuss them all here. For specifics, you would be better served by talking to faculty members about the areas of interest to you. However, some commonalties among the various types of investigations do emerge, and might provide you with a "flavor" for a research career. Most, if not all, research psychologists use some form of scientific method to test their hypotheses and study their subject matter. In this sense, then, they divide their research time among the following activities: thinking about the studies of interest, designing ways of investigating it, actually doing the studies designed, analyzing the resulting data from the investigation, and finally, interpreting and perhaps publishing the results. There is no one location for these investigations. Depending on the topic, these activities may occur in the laboratory, the therapy room, the community, or any number of places.

How can I prepare myself to be a Research Psychologist?

Doing independent research in psychology typically requires post-graduate study. Graduate schools provide the necessary advanced coursework as well as experience with a recognized researcher. Often, fledgling researchers serve a kind of apprenticeship with one or more faculty members in order to learn the skills necessary for conducting independent research. These efforts usually center upon the student's mater's thesis and/or doctoral dissertation. Advanced coursework in statistics and experimental design as well as the topic area of the investigation is always helpful. (Consult your "Career Guide" for information on how to get into graduate school.)

Persons with a bachelor's degree are often needed to aid in the research process. Specialized training may be necessary, but many times this is provided "on the job" or at the research site. Bachelors-level people may actually conduct the research, collecting the data or helping to analyze the results. Depending on your abilities and skills, opportunities may arise that permit you to be more involved in all aspects of the research enterprise. It is not unusual to find an undergraduate or bachelors-level person as a co-author on a research publication. This typically indicates more than simple data collection tasks.

Whether you plan to go to graduate school or find research work after completing your bachelor's degree, several courses will be helpful to take as an undergraduate. Obviously, any courses that stress or have as their main topic "research methods" would be good. These courses may also be labeled "experimental design" and incorporate large amounts of statistical information. Psychologists rarely do studies in which some statistical analysis is not called for, so consider taking all the statistics you can. And, because statistics is primarily done on the computer these days, courses that teach computer skills will be a nice complement to your statistical knowledge. Once you have pinned down some topical interest, of course, you will want to become knowledgeable about that topic through related course work. These courses often contain not only needed general information about your area of interest, but also methodological designs, investigatory skills, and research problems especially pertinent to the particular area.

But as important as course work is, there is no substitute for actually having the experience of doing research. A few courses build these research experiences into the course content itself. However, these courses are rare and often do not result in investigations of publishable quality, though the experience is helpful. Perhaps the best way of gaining research experience is to aid one or more of the psychology department faculty members in their research. Most, if not all, are currently engaged in empirical research of one sort or another. Often, you can regulate the amount of your involvement, so that you can fit it into your schedule. Faculty differ in their policies for this involvement, but you might consider the 4V96 Independent Study as an avenue for working directly with a professor and gaining course credit at the same time. Paid research jobs also surface periodically as well as teaching assistant opportunities that involve the development of some research skills.

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