by Courtney Crisp
For those hoping to transition from a Pepperdine Master’s into a psychology doctorate program, gaining research experience can be one of the most important experiences most people don’t have a clue in how to go about getting. Sarah Knapp knew she needed research to be a competitive applicant for a doctoral program but had no idea where to start. But through persistence, a polished CV, and some serious online sleuthing, she is now a Research Assistant at the Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders Research Lab at UC San Diego. Below is a window into her research experiences.
If you could tell your former, research position-hunting self one thing knowing what you know now, what would it be?
Breathe and ask yourself what you want. I was so focused on getting research experience that I skipped over the most important part—what do I want to learn and what topics speak to me? I am very happy that I have ended up where I am, but could have saved a bit of time by worrying less and trusting myself. Doctoral programs are very competitive and I felt rushed to figure everything out quickly. I have not been let down once since I focused my interest and stopped rushing things.
What made you head down the research-hunting path in the first place?
It really wasn’t something that was on my radar for quite some time! I was finishing up my BA and decided to apply to Alliant’s PsyD program. I received a rejection for not having any research experience and so reluctantly started the searching process. I had no idea that I would end up wanting to pursue a career in research and aiming toward a PhD instead.
How did you find the process of searching for a position?
For me, the process was more difficult than it needed to be. When I found out that I needed this experience for grad school, I panicked! Thankfully, necessity forced me to get out there and figure out how to get into a lab. Those I have worked with/for have been happy to have the help and generous to share their experience with me.
How do you like your position now?
I love my position now! Today I realized that I had been at the lab for hours and hadn’t checked the clock once! I am grateful to have finally found my passion and equally grateful to be in a positive environment with like-minded and professional people who have gone out of their way to help me learn.
What is your favorite thing about research and/or your current position?
I have really enjoyed getting to learn about fMRI’s. We are conducting part our current study from a computer monitor while the participant is in the fMRI so that we can study the brain as they complete a computer task. Neuropsychology was completely foreign to me up until 7 months ago and I love being able to see this side of things. I really enjoy research that uses a combination of things (behavioral tasks, fMRI’s, self-report) to analyze the person/behavior from all sides. It has given me a more multifaceted understanding of people’s behavior (in this case anxiety). It has been really rewarding to begin the data analysis side of things, as well.
How do you think your RA position will be useful to you in a doctorate program and beyond?
I think it will be extremely useful! The lab that I work at now is really somewhere that I could see myself long-term. Best-case scenario, I would be able to attend a doctoral program with a lab that is as similar to my current lab as possible.
I am fortunate to work for a wonderful doctoral student in the UCSD/SDSU Joint doctoral program who is helping me learn everything from participant selection through phone screening to carrying out the study protocol to analyzing the data and presenting research findings. I was fortunate to begin my RA position as she began this particular study for her dissertation and have been able to see the process unfold from the beginning. I think this has given me a really well rounded picture of the whole process and will definitely be of great value when I am able to conduct my own research.
What would you suggest prospective research assistants look for in a potential research lab?
It sounds so obvious, but find a lab most in tune with your personal interest. I was so focused on getting experience immediately, that I felt I was lucky to get in anywhere. The truth is that there are plenty of labs out there that are happy to take on research assistants. I learned this after I moved from a lab that was not such a good fit to a lab that was. There are so many labs and I think it is much better to work in a lab that is in line with your future goals than one that will just get you “experience.” It will be so much more enjoyable too!
What is one do and one don’t for the RA interview?
I actually talked to our Lab Coordinator about this one. She said that a good GPA helps, but most importantly a genuine interest in the research that the lab is currently conducting is most important. They don’t want you to be under stimulated, and an interest in the research can trump experience if you are willing and excited to learn.
A big don’t is over disclosure. Although it may be true and tempting to state that your interest stems from personal or familial experience, that is better to keep as a private motivation; especially if the lab deals with any kind of psychopathology.