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L to R; Back row:  Scott Cassidy, Patricia Grabarek, Shin-I Shih, Lily Cushenbery, Christian Thoroughgood; Front row:  Amie Skattebo, Katina Sawyer, Rachel Hoult, Joshua Fairchild


TIP-TOPics: How to Run an Undergraduate Research Lab
 

Lily Cushenbery
The Pennsylvania State University

Running an undergraduate research lab is similar to running a small organization. As I-O psychologists, we happen to know some things about running organizations, and we have found it useful to apply these skills to build a research lab with effective and motivated members. In this column, I review some guidelines for how to run a lab to benefit both researchers and undergraduate students, including suggestions for structure, recruitment, selection, and socialization of undergraduate research assistants. The advice comes from my personal experience running Penn State’s Leadership and Innovation Lab with one professor, six graduate students, 15 undergraduate research assistants, and a steady stream of research projects.

Overview

Structure
As researchers of leadership, we believe that it is important to give our students the opportunity to hold leadership positions in the lab. We select three students to be undergraduate lab coordinators, and these students are asked to help schedule lab studies, interview lab applicants, assist with training, and plan social events for the students. In addition, each undergraduate coordinator usually serves as the leader for a research project. This hierarchy creates personal responsibility for the students’ work and provides an opportunity to build leadership skills. It also creates a chain of command for when problems occur and allows students more autonomy over their projects. However, we ask all lab students to be actively involved in developing research project ideas and to continuously seek feedback to improve both our projects and the way we organize them. Our undergraduate students have good insight into how their participant peers think, and their suggestions have greatly improved the fidelity of our experiment tasks.

Research Assistant Recruitment
Our best recruitment tools are the Psychology Department’s Graduate School Information Night and our lab Web site.* Graduate School Information Night takes place each semester and is open to all psychology undergraduates. I discuss topics such as letters of recommendation, transcripts, GREs, personal statements, recruitment weekends, and choosing graduate programs. During this presentation, I stress the importance of working in a research lab in order to get a good understanding of research and to be competitive for grad school. After the students are sufficiently frightened, my last slide shows a picture of our smiling lab students with the question “Looking for an exciting research lab to join?” I tell the students that they can download my grad school night PowerPoint presentation from our lab Web site. On the Web site, the PowerPoint is strategically located underneath the lab application form.

*Note: If you would like to use any of the Grad School Night materials for your own lab, go to the “for students” section of the Leadership and Innovation Lab Web site, hunter.psu.edu, or e-mail Lily Cushenbery at l.cushenbery@gmail.com.

The Web site has greatly decreased the amount of time we spend answering questions about the lab and has streamlined our application process. Our Web site has descriptions of some of our current projects, the details of the application process, a summary of what is expected of lab students, testimonials from previous students, and photos of our social events. Although the Web site took some initial effort to create, it has doubled our number of applicants and has been a useful source of information for students.

Research Assistant Selection
A team of graduate students and undergraduate lab coordinators review the lab applications, which include questions about students’ GPA, psychology classes completed, plans after graduation, and reason for applying to the lab. We select the best applicants to go on to the interview phase where they are interviewed by one graduate student and one undergraduate lab coordinator. In the first half of the interview, the applicant is asked a series of behavioral interview questions. These questions were based on a competency model that we developed with the help of our undergraduate lab members and grad students, who we consider subject matter experts in understanding what makes an effective lab member. After the behavioral interview questions, the graduate student leaves the applicant alone with the undergraduate lab coordinator so they can get a realistic job preview of the lab experience and ask them any further questions. After all the interviews, the graduate and undergraduate interviewers compare notes and send out acceptance letters before the beginning of the new semester.

Socialization
We feel that research assistant socialization is a vital part of running a lab. When we founded the lab, we decided to start with only a few students so we could work with them individually. According to Professor Sam Hunter, “If we can train a few core students with the norms that we want for the whole group, we can gradually increase the size of the lab and let these students socialize the others. If we had started with a large group immediately, we would have much less influence over the culture of the lab.” Now that we have established the culture of the group, new students are socialized by both graduate students and their fellow “labsters.”

We also encourage our students to get to know each other outside of the academic environment. At a large university like Penn State, students often don’t interact very much with others in their major. We believe that a sense of community and trust between students improves both their working relationships and their commitment to our lab. Lab coordinators are asked to plan one or two events per semester, such as bowling or laser tag, which are optional to attend. Somewhat to our surprise, nearly everyone attends these events and sometimes the students plan additional lab events on their own. In addition, we have a potluck at the end of each semester at our professor’s house. It’s a nice chance for us to get to know them outside of work, and the undergraduates often seem surprised to learn that professors and grad students are relatively normal people. Nicely summarized by Mona Shah, a former lab student who is now a graduate student at Columbia University, “I not only came out with a lot of knowledge about research but also with a great group of friends, colleagues, and mentors who are invaluable to me.”

Weekly Meetings
Frequent meetings are the backbone of our research group, and everyone in the lab meets once a week for about an hour. Meeting times are determined at the beginning of each semester based on everyone’s schedules. We assigned one labster to be the “keeper of fun,” and each week this student plans an icebreaker for the beginning of the meeting. Getting people to talk in the beginning of the meeting makes them more comfortable discussing more complex topics such as project work and helps keep things light. After the icebreaker, we might train students for coding, ask for feedback on research studies in the development stage, and discuss progress on each of our projects. We often ask students who are running experiments to describe anything unusual that happened that week or to give others advice from what they’ve learned. This ensures that all students are exposed to different aspects of the research process and helps train them for future projects.

Lab coordinators should keep in mind that working in the lab is a developmental experience for undergraduates, and they should be getting out of it as much as they are putting in. Accordingly, we try to reserve the second half of every lab meeting for topics that are important for undergraduates. For example, each fall we ask the lab students to turn in two drafts of their CV or resumé and a personal statement. We also ask students to submit a list of five schools or organizations to which they would like to apply. We know that some students procrastinate on applications because they don’t realize how much effort it takes to organize their materials, so we hope this extra push will motivate them to move forward in the application process. Many of them haven’t considered applying for graduate school because they don’t have much information about it, they don’t think they can get in, or they think they don’t have the financial resources to go. These conversations are very meaningful for students and are a small way that we can give back to them.

Performance
Once in a while, research assistants do not perform to our standards. We talk to these students about whether their performance comes from a lack of motivation or a misunderstanding in our expectations. We tell them that they were selected for the lab because they have a lot of potential, and we know that if they work hard they could do really well. We have had several students who radically changed their behavior after these interventions and became some of our most dependable lab members. Unfortunately, not all students are willing to change. If the problem persists, we typically move these students to a low-risk project and do not ask them to return in the following semester.

Conclusion

We are fortunate to have a great group of undergraduates that are very bright, motivated, and essential to our research projects. They should always be treated with respect, and small gestures like sending a positive e-mail and taking interest in their lives can go a long way in sustaining their engagement in our lab. Most importantly, lab coordinators should consider how their daily interactions with their research assistant create a culture that spreads to incoming members. They should continuously focus on improving the organization and understand the importance of the social dynamics that occur. For me personally, it has been incredibly rewarding to build relationships with the undergraduate students who later become our I-O colleagues. Not only are we creating an effective research organization, but we can have a direct impact on our students’ lives.