"When I joined a lab, I watched firsthand as graduate students navigated through different phases of the research process - designing a study, collecting data, analyzing that data - and was even able to participate in that process myself. No amount of classwork or reading can match that direct experience."
- Micaela Rodriguez, Class of 2020 Concentrator
Working in a research lab is an incredible experience and there are many options available to you! This page is your guide to getting involved in psychology research as an undergraduate at Harvard.
What is Lab Research?
Lab research is how psychological scientists make discoveries. When you work in a lab, you can expect to be involved in all aspects of the experimental research process: completing administrative tasks that keep the lab and its research projects running, reading and reviewing literature, collecting, coding and analyzing data, preparing written and oral reports, and participating in lab meetings and journal clubs. Labs are run by a Principal Investigator (or PI) who is usually a faculty member. Most undergraduates working in labs are closely mentored by a graduate student or postdoc in the lab in addition to the PI.
Over 85% of Psychology concentrators at Harvard conduct research in a lab at some point during their academic career!
How Do I Find a Lab to Join?
There are several places you can check for lab research opportunities! Here are a few to get you started...
- The UGO's Departmental Research Opportunities - Each semester, labs that are actively seeking undergraduates for research assistantships post openings here. See each posting for more information about current projects and how to get involved in them.
- The UGO's Non-Departmental Research Opportunities - Opportunities for undergraduate research sponsored by faculty outside of the Psychology Department at Harvard.
- The UGO's Summer Opportunities - Updated in December/January with opportunities for the following summer. Check back often for updates!
- Faculty Lab Websites - Each Psychology faculty member has a lab website that describes the research program of the lab and provides contact information. If you find a lab you’re interested in, contact the faculty member or lab manager to see if there are any open opportunities for undergraduates!
- Board of Honors Tutors - This is a list of researchers in psychology and related disciplines from the broader Harvard community who may be interested in supervising undergraduate research assistants. Reach out to any faculty whose research interests you!
- The MBB Program's Research and Other Opportunities Board - Not monitored by the Department of Psychology, but these postings may be applicable to Psychology students. Check back often for updates!
For a discussion of helpful issues to consider when joining a lab and matching with a faculty mentor, check out this Neuron article on How to Pick a Graduate Advisor (the tips are equally helpful for undergraduates).
You can also check out our handout How to Join a Lab!
How Do I Reach Out?
If the lab has posted on the UGO's Departmental Research Listings, they will provide contact information and tell you what they are looking for from you (resumé, e-mail expressing interest, etc.). If you have explored their lab site and have not found any contact information, you are welcome to reach out to the faculty member or lab manager, usually via e-mail.
In your e-mail, you should briefly introduce yourself (name, status as a Harvard undergraduate), and explain what areas of their research interest you. This means you should have done your homework and know what work is being done in the lab. Finally, you can politely ask if there are any openings for a research assistant for the coming semester. Be sure to clarify whether you are seeking course credit, volunteer work, or a paid position.
Here is a fantastic resource for e-mail etiquette you might want to consult before hitting "send"!
Frequently Asked Questions
How much time will I spend working in the lab?
If you’re working in the lab for course credit, you are expected to commit 8-10 hours a week to the lab.
If you want to see what it's like to work in the lab without making a semester-long commitment, you might start by volunteering in the lab for a few hours a week or asking permission to sit in on a few discussion groups or lab meetings. Some labs are not able to accommodate this type of request, but will most likely be willing to meet with you and show you the lab.
In general, faculty members are looking for people who seem interested and excited by their research and would be dedicated research assistants. Keep this in mind when inquiring!
Can I change labs?
You certainly can! Sometimes students stay in the first lab they work in for several semesters or several years. Other students try out several different labs over the course of their time in the concentration. Some labs have commitment expectations - e.g., a two-semester minimum, and you’ll want to be sure you’re aware of this up front. You’re likely to have the most fulfilling research experience when you’re excited about the research ideas and work in the lab, and it may take time to find your true passion. Feel free to check in with your CA or the UGO for advice on changing labs, and keep the conversation open and honest with your supervisors as well!
Will I come up with my own project idea, or will I be assigned to an ongoing project?
It depends! This will vary by lab – typically, you’ll be assigned to an ongoing project that a graduate student or postdoc is working on. If you’re pursuing a thesis project, however, you’ll take an independent role in developing the study and making an original intellectual contribution. It’s good to start by working on a project that the lab is already equipped to conduct – that way, you’ll already have ready access to subject pools, equipment, and lab members familiar with your topic and methods.