Once upon a time … my research journey

I met my mentor, Dr. Jamie Hanson, a little over a year ago.

Having just stepped foot on Pitt’s campus and moving into my South O apartment, I was excited and ready to get involved with research. After all, one of the main reasons I transferred here was to contribute to projects about poverty and economic inequality. Growing up, I spent a number of years doing direct service in my community and had become all too familiar with the consequences of economic disparities. After turning my call to service to the political process, I continued to be nagged by questions about poverty and its effects on people’s health and well-being. Research offered the possibility of answering these questions, kickstarting my research journey.

Searching for research opportunities at a large university like Pitt is overwhelming simply because there are so many. I found Jamie’s lab scrolling through the Department of Psychology’s faculty page. “Socioeconomic status” was listed under his research areas, and after reading a couple of his selected publications, it seemed like the LIFE Lab would be a good fit. Not only does his research align with my own interests, but I also noticed Jamie’s PhD program highlighted the importance of public policy. The combination of our shared research interests and backgrounds in policy made the LIFE Lab an easy sell. One cold email, a resume, and an interview later I was officially a research assistant in the lab, and I suppose you could say the rest is history.

If you’re just starting out or even mildly interested in research, my biggest piece of advice is to start and give it a try. The worst thing that can happen is that you hate it and quit. But in reality, there is little cost and enormous upside to getting involved in research. I recommend starting where I did, on your department website. Look through faculty bios and make a list of all the people you think might be a good fit. Note their email address and why you think you’d fit in with the lab. Then, send the faculty member a well-written email briefly describing your background (year, major, minors), why you’re interested in their work (show you did your homework), and whether they’re currently accepting undergraduate research assistants. Do this for a handful of labs focusing on quality over quantity. If after a few weeks, you have nothing to show for, then you can begin moving down your list and reaching out to them.

Also, don’t be discouraged if you’re having trouble finding the perfect fit. Not everyone finds the right lab on the first try. I was lucky. It’s important to recognize even tangentially related research experiences are valuable, especially in the early stages when you’re still honing your interest. Working on projects is the only way to determine what you want to research and, perhaps more importantly, how you want to do it. Doing something is better than doing nothing because the experience and skills you gain can be leveraged later on when the right opportunity presents itself.

Joining the LIFE Lab was one of the first things I did after arriving here. Certainly, it was the first research-related step I took. Since then, I’ve helped with a number of projects in the lab ranging from piloting survey measures to analyzing white matter tracts in the brain, but it wasn’t until last spring that I started to work on independent projects. Over the summer I coauthored a paper with Jamie, and now I’m working on a related project dealing with child poverty, decision-making, and mental health outcomes. Although I don’t see myself pursuing a career in psychological research, working in the LIFE Lab has given me the opportunity to build skills that are translatable to other domains, including economics. General knowledge about the research process, statistical programming, and working with large datasets will serve me well in economics graduate school programs. Moreover, I’ve been able to do important work on an issue that really matters to me. What more can you ask for?

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