Advice for Undergrads Seeking RA Positions
Many students each semester ask me how they can go about finding RA positions -- either during the academic year here at Yale, or over the summer break at Yale or near home. This page has a bit of advice for such students.
For those students wishing to go on to graduate school in the cognitive sciences, several factors will be important -- grades, breadth and depth of coursework, test scores, recommendations, etc. -- but I tend to think that the three most important factors are: research, research, and research. One reason for this is simply that doing research is what being a graduate student in most disciplines of cognitive science is all about. Whereas other factors such as grades and test scores are only indirect clues to research abilities, demonstrated past success at research is a direct indication. Another way to put this is that grades and test scores -- and, indeed, most aspects of undergraduate education -- are about being a consumer of knowledge, while being a good graduate student has a lot to do with being a good producer of knowledge. Because these two classes of abilities don't always correlate, high grades and test scores can't be taken as a sure indication of research ability, whereas demonstrated research ability can be taken as a sure indication of research ability.
Another reason why you might want to pursue research opportunities as an undergraduate is simply to discover how much you like it. The process of coming up with research ideas and then implementing them (and analyzing and reporting the results) is a very fresh experience for many students, and one that differs from other undergraduate experiences (taking classes, writing essays, etc.). As such, I always think it seems a bit silly for students to pursue graduate work -- a major commitment of time and effort! -- without first checking to be sure they enjoy doing research.
Happily, many cognitive science laboratories at most schools have opportunities for undergraduates to get involved. Some labs take on undergraduates during the academic year either for academic credit, work-study $, or on a volunteer basis. In addition, some labs will hire undergraduate RAs full-time over the summer break, typically paying several thousand dollars. Most RAs begin with relatively simple tasks, to help get their feet wet: for example, in a psychology laboratory you might be put on an existing project, perhaps helping a graduate student or postdoc run subjects for an experiment which has already been designed. Other common tasks include helping to create stimuli, program experiments, analyze data, or even help design new studies. RAs will also often get the opportunity to attend weekly lab meetings, and to participate in discussions of the lab's work. The best RA positions offer room for advancement. For example, RAs in our lab typically begin by running subjects for existing experiments, but are eventually encouraged to develop their own projects (often as seeds for eventual senior projects). A final type of opportunity is a full-time paid RA position during the year: many labs have such an employee who runs the day-to-day operation of the lab, and such positions can be perfect for recent college graduates who want to go to graduate school but want to get more research experience first.
Unlike classes and other typical academic experiences, research positions will not fall into your lap: you have to seek them out. Regardless of what type of position you're looking for (part-time, summer, paid, volunteer, etc.), the process is basically the same. Your first step should be to contact the professors whose research projects you find especially interesting. The easiest way to do this is to scour webpages for work that sounds interesting, and then to email the professors, asking if they have any RA opportunities available. If you're looking for positions at other schools (e.g. over the summer), you may want to ask your professors here for advice on who might be exciting to work with.
You'll find rather a lot of variability in the availability of RA opportunities. Here at Yale, there always seems to be at least one or two labs looking for RAs. On the other hand, if you're keen to work in a specific lab, you might need to wait a semester (or even two), if the lab is already 'full'. For this reason, it can help to ask early. Our lab, for instance, often has a waiting list of interested students. Some professors pay RAs with work-study funds; others expect a volunteer commitment at first, with pay for more advanced RAs. Other labs offer academic credit via 'directed research' for lab experience. Given this variability -- and also variability in the degree of responsibility that RAs are given -- you might find it useful to find out the names of other students currently working in the lab, and ask them what it's like to work there.
Paid RA positions over the summer are typically harder -- but not impossible -- to find. At Yale many labs prefer to hire summer RAs from the pool of those students already working in the lab during the academic semester, since they require less training, etc. The same is true, alas, of other schools: most professors prefer to hire RAs from their own school, who are more likely to continue to work in the lab after the summer. On the other hand, volunteer positions are often easier to come by. (One good strategy is to say in your note that you're hoping for a paid position, but may also consider a volunteer position, given your immense interest in the work.) Again, your best bet is just to contact people by email, and to do so early. Younger professors who may have just started may in some cases be more likely to have positions for students coming from elsewhere, since they may not already have a pool of students working in their lab.
In all of these cases, you'll have better luck finding an RA position if you can demonstrate that you are truly interested in (and informed about) the work being done in the lab. Before contacting people out of the blue, take some time to find out what they're working on, and read several of their recent papers. Then when you contact them you can mention some details of their work, and perhaps bring up some ideas that you find especially exciting -- or even some of your own ideas for how the work might be extended. By taking the time and effort to find out about some of the details of the work, you'll demonstrate that you have some shared interests, that you're committed to the relevant area of study, and that you're not simply mass-emailing professors, etc.