UPSA presents York Psychology Undergraduate Research Opportunities: Taking Full Advantage

During this event, Dr. Rebecca Riddell provided students with valuable information and advice related to research assistant (RA) positions and how to get involved in psychology labs at York University. Dr. Rebecca Riddell explained the tasks which an RA typically performs, the importance of having experience as an RA in a psychology lab, and finally guidance on how to acquire an RA position (i.e. how to approach professors, when to apply, etc.). Below is an overview of Dr. Riddell’s main points.

What are the tasks of an RA?

It depends on the lab and its’ area of research and/or expertise however, most positions include:

  • data entry (a basic introductory task which is a necessary skill for graduate school)
  • data collection (in which students have the opportunity to interact with participants of the research)
  • data analysis and discrimination (is rare for undergraduate RA’s to partake in as this involves writing and publishing articles in psychology journals)

Who should get involved in research?

  • Students who aim to attend graduate school as it will expose them to a research setting and can help them determine if they enjoy participating in the research process and what area of research they may want to pursue
  • Experience as an RA is required to be accepted in many psychology graduate programs
  • Students who do not want to attend graduate school as it will aid students who are entering certain evidence based practices such as law and social work

The benefits of an RA position:

  • It provides a stepping stone to other opportunities such as paid positions, independent studies with professors, honours thesis positions, etc.
  • It allows you to develop a rapport with professors who lead the lab
  • Student RA’s are typically awarded with reference letters in which professors elaborate on professional and academic skills which the RA was able to develop and enhance (i.e. able to problem solve, working effectively with others, taking direction, etc.)

Why do professors want students to volunteer in their research?

  • To train students who will be invested in their research in the long term
  • To gain support on research studies in a challenging funding environment
  • To learn about new perspectives on research designs and proposals
  • To provide support to graduate student researchers

RA’s are highly valued in labs! For instance, in Dr. Riddell’s lab, the OUCH lab, undergraduate RA’s are the “front face of the research” as they spend a large amount of time obtaining consent from prospective participants and collecting questionnaire and physiological data from participants. Thus, RA’s are essential for Dr. Riddell’s research to move forward!

What are professors looking for in RAs?

  • Students with a GPA of a B+ or higher (however the GPA cut off for labs may differ so students should inquire about the cut off before applying)
  • Student who are able to dedicate 5-10 hours a week for a year (however, this also differs across labs)
  • Students interested and passionate about research
  • Students who want to grow in a lab
  • Students who are hardworking, can multitask, and have excellent time management and organizational skills

Tips for Applying:

  • Apply at the beginning of September and May
  • Students should read the lab’s website and a few abstracts or journal articles published by the professor and should then write a professional email to the professor inquiring about any available RA positions. Students should attach a cover letter, unofficial transcript, and a copy of their resume. Students should politely follow up within 3 weeks if they have not received a response.
  • In the cover letter, students should state their GPA and why they are interested in that particular lab
  • They should use “Volunteer Position” as the email subject line

What not to do

  • Students should not:
    • volunteer in more than 2 labs at a time as this is a very large time commitment
    • send generic emails to professors when inquiring about RA positions
    • approach professors in person as their first point of contact, email should be the first contact point
    • let GPA drop while volunteering in a lab

Advice from undergraduate RAs (who are currently working in labs):

  • RA’s should attend lab meetings to get an idea of what types of projects/studies graduate students and post doctoral fellows are currently conducting
  • Students should volunteer in a few labs throughout their undergraduate career rather than a large amount so they can develop meaningful rather than fleeting relationships
  • Students should have a cover letter that highlights their marketable skills (i.e. proficiency in Excel, PowerPoint, SPSS, R, etc.)
  • Students should bond with other students working in the lab
  • Students should search and apply for RA positions early on (i.e. at the beginning of second year)


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