Find Your Calling with Undergrad Research

During my freshman year at the University of Connecticut, I secured and began a research assistantship with Dr. Emily Myers, a professor in the speech, language, and hearing sciences (SLHS) and psychology departments. Little did I know just how much this experience would impact my future.

This past summer, I completed my own independent research project funded by a grant through the Connecticut Institute for the Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Now, I’m a junior, double majoring in SLHS and psychology.

Seek Out Undergrad Research Experiences

Undergraduates have many extracurricular activities to choose from to gain experience: shadowing SLPs, volunteering at clinics, participating in outreach clubs, and so much more. If you’re looking for ways to narrow down your passions within the field, I highly recommend considering undergraduate research opportunities. My research lab experience opened my eyes to a whole new side of the SLHS profession, developing a diverse set of technical and soft skills that’ll benefit me as a future clinician and researcher.

Aside from the extra line on a graduate school resume, there are a number of reasons why getting involved in research can be a beneficial experience:

  • SLPs are expected to engage in evidence-based practice, which is based on . . . you guessed it . . . research! As a future clinician, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the most current methods and techniques. Becoming involved in research will help you understand the process that goes into making informed clinical decisions.
  • Experience a different side of the profession. People who want to become SLPs probably have at least a basic idea of what the clinical side of the profession looks like. The research side of the profession may be a little less obvious, though. Participating in research may help you decide which clinical population you’re most interested in—it may even help solidify your decision to pursue a career in research!

So, you’ve decided you want to get involved in undergraduate research—now what?

Find a Research Topic

There are many different ways to narrow down a research topic. But first, identify your research interests. Before you start reaching out to professors, narrow your interests down to a few topics that you find interesting. This is an especially important step because not every department has a faculty member who researches any given topic.

Choose a Research Mentor

Then, choose an appropriate research mentor:

  • Reach out to a professor whom you’ve actually had in class. This tip is especially relevant if the professor taught a class that is closely related to their research interests. If you’ve had a professor that you would like to do research under, that’s a good place to start. You can start by asking to set up a meeting with that professor to talk about their research and to explore a potential mentor–mentee relationship.
  • Cold-call (or email!) professors. If you find a professor at your university who researches what you’re interested in, but you’ve never had them in class, don’t fret! This is fairly common, and it definitely isn’t a dealbreaker. Make sure not to use a generic email template; write an email specific to their research. A custom-written, targeted email lets them know you’ve taken the time to look into their research and really are interested in joining the lab.
  • Read the professor’s research. Before you meet with or email your potential research advisor, read at least a few abstracts from studies they’ve published. You don’t want to walk into your meeting without having done your background research, and you want them to know you’re serious in learning more about what they research. A few easy ways to do this include searching on their name in Google Scholar, scrolling through the professor’s lab website, or searching their name on a scholarly journal platform such as ASHAWire.

Land a Research Assistantship

Great—you’ve thought about which lab you want to join, but what does working in a lab actually look like? Your role can look differently, depending on the type of lab you’re in:

  • Running participants through experiments. In some labs, you’ll be able to directly run participants through experiments. This can include collecting informed consent and administering questionnaires, behavioral tasks, eye-tracking tasks, standardized language tests, and any other data-collection methods that the lab uses. This aspect of research can help you develop strong interpersonal communication skills with people!
  • Data scoring and entry. After the lab’s researchers conduct the experiments, they may task you with scoring certain standardized tests and entering the data into a spreadsheet for later analysis. Although this might seem like a small task, it’s an incredibly important one that is essential for data analysis!
  • Data analysis. The lab personnel may also ask you to help them with data analysis, especially if you have experience with coding. My lab analyzes data using the R programming language, and even at this early stage of my career, I have already written data analysis script for one of our lab’s experiments!
  • Literature review. Reading peer-reviewed publications is an important part of preparing grant proposals or writing a manuscript. Your principal investigator or lab graduate students may ask for your help looking for relevant studies to read; they also may ask you to give them a brief summary of each article.

Make the Lab Experience Yours

Your experience with undergraduate research can be whatever you want it to be, especially if you find a mentor who aligns with your goals. If, in the process, you happen to get bitten by the “research bug” and want to get even more involved, you can do that. Many principal investigators are willing to mentor undergraduate students and help them run their own experiment as part of a senior thesis. And many universities offer undergraduate research funding that can help you accomplish these goals. 

Getting involved with research is a great way to round out your undergraduate education. You can learn more about a particular subject in-depth, gain research skills such as data analysis, and also hone more general (“soft”) skills such as interpersonal communication. I hope you decide to make the leap to get involved with research at your own university and take advantage of all they have to offer!

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