Getting involved in research

I can confidently say that getting involved with research was the best decision I made as a Pitt student. It not only shaped my entire undergraduate career, but also prepared me for my future goals.

I remember the day I found out about the directed research opportunities at Pitt. I was walking back to campus from my freshman year biology course and noticed a poster session going on in the William Pitt Union. I spontaneously decided to check it out, since I happened to have time before my next class. I circled around the room and looked at the multiple posters advertising different labs here at Pitt. I stopped at a few that stuck out to me to hear the presenters’ spiels. There was one lab that sounded especially interesting: The Kids’ Thinking (KiT) Lab. The lab manager presented her poster discussing some of the current projects going on in the lab, which focused on learning & development in preschool aged children. This branch of psychology appealed to me because I knew that I wanted a career working with young children. Therefore, it seemed like this lab would be a great opportunity to gain relevant research experience. So, I decided to apply for a research assistant position at the KiT lab for that summer. I got the job and started working in the Kids’ Thinking Lab in May 2018 (almost 3 years ago now)!

For students who also want to get involved in research during their time at Pitt, I would advise starting by doing exactly what I did! Attend poster sessions! Which looked like this pre-COVID:

Attending these, whether virtual or in person, is really the best way to find out what is out there. I would recommend glancing at the different titles, reading some abstracts, and when one stands out to you, check out the whole presentation. Try to find a few that interest you and make sure to note what lab the presenter is a part of. Once you get a feel for what kind of research is relevant to your own interests, you can start the application process. To get more information on a particular lab, I suggest reading through their website/facebook page, and you can also check out the PI’s google scholar page.

I know that applying early on in your undergraduate career can be intimidating and nerve racking. I remember being worried that I wouldn’t be able to get a position like this so early on in my college career. However, I now know that principal investigators do not expect RA applicants to have prior research experience. The goal of directed research is to get students involved in experiential learning, not turn them away! It’s never ‘too early’ to apply, so go for it!

Another concern of mine was whether I’d be able to handle another obligation. I was originally only planning to work as a research assistant during the summer because I was worried it would be too much of a time commitment on top of my other job and school. However, I decided to continue directed research during the schoolyear, working for 2 credits instead of 3, which made it more manageable (6 hours a week vs. 8 hours a week). I am also lucky and grateful to have fantastic superiors who are very flexible and understanding. For example, during a busy exam week I can request to work less hours, as long as I make them up the following week. I have worked as a research assistant for 6 (out of 8) of my semesters at Pitt, and my academics have never suffered because of this role. I would encourage students to still get involved even if they are worried about time management. This is a valid concern; however, I’d argue that the few extra hours of work each week was definitely well worth it. Most of the time my lab shifts didn’t even feel like work, since it was always such a supportive, positive, and fun environment!

I am so glad that I was not scared away after that first summer, and instead continued to work in the KiT lab for the rest of my time at Pitt. Being a RA has opened the door to so many amazing opportunities for me. For example, I was able to start working independently with a graduate student on my own project and am in the process of finishing my Bachelor of Philosophy honors thesis to describe the results. In support of my independent research I was awarded the Undergraduate Honors College Research Fellowship (Fall 2019) and the Chancellor’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship Award (Spring 2021) for my project examining the role of children’s responsiveness to parental math elicitations on children’s math performance. I had the opportunity to present my work in person at the 2019 Biennial Meeting of the Cognitive Development Society in Louisville, KY, and received a University of Pittsburgh Travel Award for this presentation. More recently, I presented a poster flash-talk presentation to the virtual 2020 Home Mathematics Environment conference, and this spring, I will present this project at the Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting. I have been able to accomplish so much more than I thought was possible as an undergraduate student. All of my research experiences at Pitt have inspired me to pursue a graduate degree in developmental psychology, and I believe that my involvement with research has prepared me well for this path!

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