Considerations for Undergrads
We are currently looking to hire volunteer research assistants. Please email your CV, a cover-letter and a completed copy of our Volunteer Research Assistant Application Form to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Summer 2022 Volunteer”.
Undergraduate Research Positions:
Undergraduate student researchers are instrumental in our discoveries. They often are the ones recruiting participants, and who collect the high-quality data used to answer questions about memory. They have also contributed to the development of new software, experiments, and analytical tools in the lab. Students who have demonstrated an abundance of commitment and aptitude have led their own research projects.
Getting involved in research as an undergraduate student is a fantastic decision! You meet people with similar interests to you, often forging long-lasting connections and friendships. You learn first-hand that science is a process—requiring large doses of creativity and critical thinking—not a collection of facts to memorize. For example, you will be encouraged to attend weekly lab meetings, where ongoing research projects, relevant research articles, and methods are discussed. You will also receive the type of direct mentorship that isn’t possible in the classroom, and getting to know a professor well can help you obtain the letters of recommendation that are often required down the road. Importantly, you can also acquire the skills involved in the process of science, which will make you more competitive for graduate programs and jobs outside of academia. Accordingly, our undergraduate students have done quite well after leaving the lab, landing positions in highly competitive graduate programs (both research and clinical), medical school, and industry (e.g., Google, Bloomberg).
Types of Undergraduate Positions:
This is the most common way for students to get their first research experience in the lab and in the department. They require a commitment of at least 8h/week for at least one semester, but we prefer that students be involved in the lab for longer to make the most of the opportunity. Individuals outside of the University of Toronto are also welcome to apply, especially during the summer.
Volunteer researchers usually work with a senior lab member (graduate students, postdocs, a lab manager, or senior undergraduate student). Initial responsibilities generally include helping with literature reviews, participant recruitment and testing, experimental stimulus development, and data entry/organization. We also welcome volunteers with computer science/statistics/engineering backgrounds. They usually work on projects that involve coding (e.g., experiment building, data analysis, tool development) rather than data collection. Direct supervisors will provide relevant reading material and meet with volunteers to help them understand the ins and outs of the research question, the background which motivated it, and how the methods are designed to answer the question.
As volunteers demonstrate their commitment and aptitude, they may be given the option to gain more independence and diverse experience. For example, while volunteers usually start by testing healthy young adults on computerized tasks or recording eye movements, as they gain experience they may become involved in the collection of neuroimaging data, or the testing of older adults or children. They also may get involved in data analysis (which involves learning to code in R), experiment building (which usually involves learning Python-based tools, Eyelink, or Inquisit), and experiment design (which involves a deep understanding of psychology theories and research methods).
We receive more applications for these positions than we can accommodate so it is a competitive process.
Here’s what we look for in an applicant:
· Students with no prior research experience will be considered, but prior experience is an asset because it lets us know that you know what you’re signing up. It also suggests that you have good organizational, time-management, communication, and interpersonal skills. If you do not have any prior research experience, you should explain you have demonstrated these skills in your prior work/volunteer experience.
· Interest and aptitude can be demonstrated through achieving strong grades in prior relevant coursework. Relevant coursework includes not just psychology classes, but other areas in the cognitive sciences, particularly computer science and neuroscience. Although grades are not a perfect predictor of research aptitude, achieving a minimum of a 3.5 cGPA generally reflects a commitment to and solid comprehension of relevant material along with good organizational skills. Undergraduate students in the lab tend to have GPAs above 3.7, but there are exceptions! We understand that there may be reasons for lower grades, and we will take explanations into account during the application process. In particular, we look favorably on transcripts that show an upward trajectory.
· Interest and aptitude can also be demonstrated through a thoughtful application. Students who have read papers from the lab and have interesting things to say about them stand out. Students who have a deeply thought out interest in cognitive psychology and memory (i.e., don’t just state that they are interested in these topics but can clearly articulate why they are so interested) are also given priority.
· Your commitment can be indicated by describing what you have to gain from the position – how will what you do in the lab help you to achieve your long-term goals?
· Communication skills can be demonstrated through the quality of application writing (e.g., demonstrating clear thinking, not overly formal) and through the quality of discussion, if selected for an in-person interview.
· Technical skills (e.g., computer programming) can be demonstrated through relevant coursework, work/volunteer experience, and the completion of online courses/training (e.g., Coursera, Code Academy)
· Availability can be demonstrated by having a relatively flexible schedule. While not required for all projects, some experiments in the lab involve collecting data for complex, multi-session designs, so researcher availability is prioritized in these cases.
We usually offer eight work-study positions per year, four with applications due in September and four with applications due in May. All full-time students are eligible for these positions and they are a fantastic way to get research experience while financing your education. Research Assistant positions involve many of the duties performed by volunteers (see above), but also include assisting the lab manager with more administrative duties. Lab Programmer positions involve working with lab members to program experiments, run analyses, or develop new tools. They also assist in website maintenance and other IT needs. As these positions are more competitive, we prioritize candidates with the most relevant prior experience, but they have been offered to applicants with no research experience in the past when they have demonstrated outstanding interest in and aptitude for our research along with relevant organizational and interpersonal skills.
There are several research courses that undergraduate students can complete in the lab. This is an excellent way to gain research experience while fulfilling your program requirements.
· ROP (Research Opportunity Program) courses: These are courses for 2nd year and 3rd year students to assist a senior lab member on a research project. These full-year courses run either in the Summer or Fall/Winter terms. 2nd year ROP courses (applied for at the end of your first year of studies) provide many students with their first research experience. We evaluate candidates using the same criteria as we use for volunteer applicants, but the process is a little more competitive. Successful applicants to 3rd year ROP courses generally have relevant research experience, but it is not required. Students taking ROP courses are usually directly supervised by a senior lab member, but they will have meetings at the beginning of their projects with Prof. Duncan. For more information on Research Opportunity Program courses, please click here.
· Individual Projects: Many departments offer Individual Project courses. These also can run in the Summer or Fall/Winter terms, and often can be either half or full year courses. We have supervised students through psychology, HMB, and the cognitive science programs. Students conduct these projects from beginning to end, which often involves programming an experiment, collecting data, analyzing data in R, and writing a paper about the findings. We only consider students with extensive research experience for these projects, and generally take students who have already demonstrated excellent commitment and aptitude within the lab as a volunteer, work-study student, or ROP student for at least two semesters. The projects are either directly supervised by Prof. Duncan or by Prof. Duncan and a senior lab member. Students interested in completing an individual project should contact Prof. Duncan at least 2 months in advance of the proposal deadline. For more information on individual project courses, please click here.
· Mini-Thesis and Thesis Projects: The Research Specialist program in the Psychology Department is an excellent opportunity for students who are interested in psychology research. Students generally apply for this program in the spring before their 3rd year. Students in this program receive fantastic training in research methods and career development in their courses and complete a one-semester mini-thesis project in their 3rd year, along with a two-semester thesis project in their 4th year. Admission into the program requires strong demonstrations of research interest and aptitude (including prior research experience). Students in this program are then paired with labs based on common interests. We have also supervised thesis projects for students in Engineering and Computational Biology programs. For more information on the Psychology Research Specialist, please click here.
Tips for gaining research experience as an undergraduate student:
Do your research. You can find a list of professors and their labs in the Psychology Department here. Use this list to identify labs that fit your interests and keep an eye out for openings posted on the labs’ website, Facebook page, Twitter page, or look for ROP opportunities or work-study positions on CLNx. Once you find a few labs that are conducting research that you are interested in, follow the application instructions in their postings. If there are no application instructions, you can email the professor or their lab manager of each lab to ask if they are looking for a research assistant in their lab. You could also ask your professors and/or teaching assistants about available positions in their labs.
Be flexible. Labs affiliated with the Psychology Departmentment but housed off campus (e.g. research institutes and hospitals) tend to receive fewer undergraduate applications. If you are having trouble securing your first research position, they could be a great option. Relatedly, getting experience in a lab that studies topics more tangentially related to your interests is a great way to build your CV and explore your interests.
Timing is everything. Labs usually take on new students in August/September, December/January, and April/May. These are great times to apply for positions. But often labs have “off-cycle” openings so it never hurts to apply in the middle of term. Even if they don’t have openings, they may put your application on file for consideration when they do.
Be politely persistent. Emails, especially to professors, can slip through the cracks during busy times. If you don’t receive a response to an inquiry, it never hurts to send a polite follow-up email. This demonstrates your commitment and organizational skills!
Note that it is never too late or too early to apply for a research position, and do not give up if you are not able to find a position quickly as the positions are competitive and depend on the needs of the lab.