Involving Students in the Research Lab

-guest post by Sara Villanueva

We all work really hard and log 50-60 hour work weeks to make sure we fine-tune our teaching methods and get those fantastic course evaluations at the end of each semester. We also attend meeting after meeting seemingly every day of every week to ensure our service expectations are met both on and off campus – all the while meeting with students about academic advising, registration, graduation, graduate school, and even personal issues. Wait a minute…are we missing something? Oh, that’s right, what about research? In addition to teaching and service, we also have that third elusive component which also counts toward our overall performance and leads, of course, to promotion and tenure. But when in the world do any of us have time to be as productive in the research lab as we’d like to be? Well, I think I’ve found a solution that has certainly helped me to be more productive in my research and just might help many of you.

The answer is students. Involving students as assistants in your research endeavors is by all accounts a “win-win-win” situation. It not only provides you with extra bodies in the lab to help get things done like data collection, analyses, etc, but it also helps you by showing your dean and promotion committee that you are engaging in the type of pedagogy that we sometimes forget, but is valuable both for the students as well as faculty by teaching students about the entire research process. Moreover, engaging students in research clearly benefits them by providing an excellent background in the literature, training them to follow research protocol, and teaching them how to maneuver statistical software programs. These experiences make your students significantly more competitive when the time comes for applying to graduate programs.

Back to the first point on getting things done, I will say that this has been the biggest benefit for me as a researcher. As a mother of 5, whose husband is gone every third day as a firefighter, time is my most valuable asset, and one which I never have enough of. That being said, having a group of extremely competent and motivated students helping me in my lab has lifted a tremendous weight when it comes to completing the research, meeting submission deadlines, and even preparing and presenting at research conferences around the country. For the past year, I have had an excellent research team working with me and our goals are fairly simple: TO GET THE RESEARCH DONE AND DISSEMINATED.  Here is how we accomplished this:
First, let me say that I did not end up with this fantastically productive team by chance or by magic; rather, I planned way ahead, chose very specific students whom I thought would be a good fit, and interviewed many students who were interested in the positions of RA on my team. Some of the key qualities that I looked for in my research assistants when interviewing are drive, tenacity, intelligence, commitment, and organizational ability. (Little hint: Try to get students who have all the qualifications, but are NOT seniors — this way, you can hold on to these gems in your lab for more than just one year!)

Second, once my team was set, I scheduled weekly meetings for the team to assign and review projects. Before the project assignments, however, we set forth very specific goals and deadlines. The goals were things like “complete data collection on the Eating Disorders project by XX date; or complete the HSRB proposal on longitudinal study by XX date, etc.” With several different research projects running in my lab, I had to break the team into pairs and assign them specific duties on their assigned projects. Each week we would meet to determine whether we were on track to meet our goals and what we need to do to make sure that things are getting done correctly and on time. There were times when people had to jump in on another project to help other team members meet deadlines and this ended up being an excellent experience in team work!  Of course, I had a hand in each of the projects and would help my RAs anytime they got stuck or had questions.

Third, part of the motivation students had in addition to meeting goals and learning new things as individual students was the fact that each student got her name on whichever study they were working on when it came time to present. This meant that they got visible credit and were able to “beef up” their CVs to include presentations at both regional and national conferences in the form of posters and talks.  Each of my research team members has either presented at a conference and/or been listed as co-author on a publication. Working together, our lab has produced quality work that has been presented at conferences such as the Southwest Teachers of Psychology Conference, the Southwestern Psychological Association (SWPA) Conference, the St. Edward’s University SOURCE annual research symposium, the Advancement of Computing in Education International Conference, and the American Psychological Association International Conference. Our research has also produced two journal articles in the American Journal of Psychological Research, which features faculty-student research collaboration.

My students are now well-versed in research protocol and I am the proud sponsor of both excellent students and excellent work. This system has worked well for me, but I am always in search of new, innovative ideas. I hope that my experiences and recommendations can be useful to other new faculty struggling to be productive in the research arena in addition to excelling in teaching and service.

[Note: This post was originally contributed as part of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Early Career Committee 2009 blog.]