I want to kick some cognitive memory ass!
November 23, 2010 6:48 PM   Subscribe

I just got hired at a psychology research lab at a very prestigious university. I have no background in academic research and very little academic background in this field. I have an associates degree in humanities, and psychology is a field that interests me greatly. What can I do to not mess this up?



I am a 26 year old, uh, human being who has been working full-time in the heating oil business doing random accounting work and customer service for the last 5 years. I have been going to school part-time at a local community college and recently earned my associates in humanities. Finishing my bachelor's degree has been put on the back burner because holy crap school is expensive (I already have a ton of debt from getting my associates degree), and it's been hard to figure out what I want to do with myself. I have a strong academic background mostly in the hard sciences and creative writing. I've taken two psych courses in my academic career, however it is definitely something I would consider pursuing as a potential career.

The Job:

The research lab is run by a fairly well-known doctor in the field of psychology. It focuses on computational memory. I was hired to do annotation full-time. Normally, the annotation is done on a part-time basis by undergrads who are interested in the field. The director of the lab has already admitted that he does not see me as a big part of his lab in the future, due to my lack of experience in academic research and psychology.

The Question:

How the heck do I not mess this up? The job itself is easy. I've done it for 15 hours or so already, and I'm doing well with it. However, I DO want this job to be one in which I can grow and be useful. I'd like this to be a great experience for me to point to down the line, or perhaps one to help me get my potential dream job. How can I earn this doctor's respect so I can eventually be better paid, get benefits (tuition, mostly), and, in general, have a great learning experience. I'm also very interested, now that I've mentioned tuition, in studying at this university in a related field.

I'm pretty set on subject-specific reading material, but if you are experienced in a situation like this, or you have any advice for me, please let me know. I really want to shine here, especially since I feel I've been given a chance to do something a poor, first-generation college kid from the ghetto would never dream of having. I realize I'm being dramatic, but god damn, I want this so badly. How can I rock this situation?

posted by two lights above the sea to Work & Money (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Step 1: Do the job you were hired for well. Nothing else is going to happen if you don't do that.
posted by procrastination at 6:53 PM on November 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don't be afraid to ask someone (grad student, professor) how to do a certain task if you have a question. Be dependable and responsible.
posted by mbd1mbd1 at 7:27 PM on November 23, 2010

I apologize if some or all of this is too obvious or at all condescending:
  • Do what you're assigned well. If you have nothing to do, ask for something to do. There is always something to do.
  • Find non-intrusive ways to show interest in the research (works best if your interest is genuine):
    • ask to attend regular lab meetings
    • ask other assistants about the research design of the study you're working on; don't bother your supervisor with these questions too much, but listen carefully when they are the topic of conversation
  • Try to read a few papers that are relevant to the work the lab is doing, so that at least you know what people are talking about when they say "Czikszentmihalyi 2004," etc. Don't try to read everything in the field. Don't get discouraged if it's slow and tedious going — research papers are often impenetrable.
  • See if you can acquire some basic research skills. Very little can go a very long way:
    • learn basic experimental design vocabulary — factors, levels of a factor, experimental conditions, counterbalancing, random assignment
    • learn basic data manipulation in SPSS or R (whichever is used in the lab)
    • learn to run and interpret t-tests, one-way and factorial ANOVAs, multiple regression analyses, and correlations. Mathematically, they're all fairly complicated, but the skill of running and interpreting them at a glance is simple and very handy.
  • Again, try to be unobtrusive, but reliable and motivated. You are probably a little out of place in a lab full of undergrads, so do your best to act like you're there for a reason.

posted by Nomyte at 7:38 PM on November 23, 2010 [5 favorites]

Rock that annotation. Rock it hard. Be ready to start and all set up five minutes early, but punch in (or the equivalent) exactly on time.* When you are on the clock, you cost money. And spend the first few months watching your lab and paying attention to the dynamics.

*this is if you are a university employee, full-time, non-exempt, with benefits. This doesn't mean no off-the-clock reading; this is a hint from someone who is university staff during budget crunches. For now, do your reading off-campus or away from the lab. You want to impress your PI. You don't want to draw departmental attention as the lowly newbie research assistant breaking HR policy by being in the lab after-hours too often. It is a shitty balance to navigate, especially given research culture. But it's important for you to understand that free overtime for your PI--which you might hear recommended by people who are in grad school or who went throug the RA to student to grad student process earlier--and your interest in the work is negated by the administrative shitstorm that ensues for the lab if you are caught working unpaid overtime. You make up for it by making your on-clock hours count, and taking your reading off-lab/campus/anywhere you won't be confused for on the clock.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 7:47 PM on November 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Double-check your work.

Also, although this won't actually be true, and you shouldn't take this advice too much to heart-- your goal is to make it seem as though the study would be worse off without you.

And remember, whether this job pans out to be long-term, you can use the experience you gain here in future endeavors.
posted by samthemander at 7:51 PM on November 23, 2010

Things I should clarify:

Currently, I am classified as a temporary staff member. I'd love to be upgraded to full staff so I can get benefits.

The lab is very, very behind on their annotation, so my goal for the next few months is to get them caught up. So, yeah, I'll pretty much be doing nothing but that.
posted by two lights above the sea at 8:13 PM on November 23, 2010

Nomyte’s answer is great, I wish I could favorite a few more times.
In addition, a few more possibilities:

• Find out if you can attend any journal club meetings and/or departmental lectures for your field.

• Ask people (probably the PhD students/postdocs) what they read to keep up with the field. If a few list the same journal, get the table of contents emailed to you. If you have library privileges, you can probably download the articles, too. Read the editorials. Try to read 1 to 2 articles related to your lab/month (if they are too hard, try reading a few review articles for the first few months)

• I’d also read a few papers that your PI wrote, and any papers that any PhDs or postdocs in your lab wrote.

• If you are genuinely curious, through conversation ask people what they are working on/why/questions about how they conduct their research. If you are interested in that topic and/or want to learn how to do certain experimental/research techniques, share this with them (when I worked in a lab, a PI in another lab eventually let me work in her lab/trained me on a few techniques…because I told her that it was what I wanted to do).

• If you are interested in actually conducting research, after a year of this, ask your PI or another PI if you can do a volunteer research project in their lab. Even if your PI says no to this, you already will have the skills to read about the experiments/research in other labs and approach those PIs (I know it seems over the top to ask to volunteer, but if they like what you do, they will eventually find funding…I’m also guessing that budgets are tight right now).
posted by Wolfster at 8:17 PM on November 23, 2010

This may be a bit tangential to your question, but if your schedule allows, you might want to look into auditing a few courses at this prestigious university. Even if you can't do it officially, or get any credit for it, it could be a great experience for you if you're trying to transition from an associates degree to a bachelor's or more.

I've never been in your exact position, but I have been consistently surprised by how helpful professors tend to be when you have a genuine interest in learning what they're teaching. So - it couldn't hurt to ask about auditing. You at least have a good story as to what you want to do and why. I'm not sure if I would e-mail or just sit in on the 1st lecture and ask the professor in person afterwards.
posted by Metasyntactic at 9:31 PM on November 23, 2010

I got my bachelor's in psychology from a school that isn't known for much. There were a lot of people taking psychology classes, and a lot of them seemed to be either the smartest kids I knew or the dumbest. You have an interest in the more scientific aspect of psychology, which will already give you intellectual points with the faculty.

The fact that they hired you seems to say enough. People don't always say what they mean; the doctor might give you a chance if you work hard and show your skills. It might take more time than you'd like, but since you were ambitious enough to get yourself out of the ghetto and to spend so much time and money obtaining that associates that nobody expected you to get, you are likely to be successful at this. Good luck!
posted by CorduroyCorset at 10:20 PM on November 23, 2010

I'm a professor in cognitive science (and do a lot of computational modeling). A lot of this is going to repeat what others have said, but I'll tell you what would impress me.

1. First, as everyone has said, do the job you were hired to do, and do it well. If you don't do that, then anything else will do you very little good.

* For any of the rest of this, if you are paid hourly (not sure precisely if "temporary" means "temporary and salaried" or "temporary and hourly") and it is not part of your actual job description, you will have to do it "off the clock." Otherwise, instead of a big positive that you're doing it, it may turn into a big negative -- will look like you're trying to get paid to do something that is more fun and less immediately beneficial to the lab than what you are actually paid to do.

That said, I would also:

2. Ask to attend lab meetings (again, be clear that you wouldn't expect to get paid for this).

3. Talk to people about their work, and ask for some of the basic papers that underlie it. Based on your background, you'll probably also benefit from reading some textbooks that go into more depth in that particular topic than your two courses did.

4. Audit classes (particularly any that are offered by your professor). It's easy when learning on your own to miss big areas because you simply don't know you're there. Also, the structure of a class can keep you motivated in a way that trying to learn on your own won't. Plus, the prof will have physical evidence in front of his eyes every week of you going above and beyond by being there, doing the work, etc., even though you aren't getting rewarded (i.e., paid or class credit) for doing so.

5. *Harder, and more optional, but something to aim for if you actually care about the computational aspect of things: actually learn some of the computational modeling. You do this in the same way as 2-4 but it's way more impressive, because so many more people have difficulty with it. You should also definitely learn the psychology behind things as well regardless, but if I had somebody with your background come in for your job and learn even some basic programming and basic models on their own, I'd be very impressed and would definitely take a second look at that person.

In general, if you did most of these things and did them well, then even if I had hired you initially to be a data monkey and I didn't foresee a future for you in the lab, I would probably take a renewed interest. We're always on the lookout for talent and dedication; you just have to go the extra mile and prove that you have it. Since you don't have the credentials that get some people in the door, you have to do it the hard way; but it can be done.
posted by forza at 11:03 PM on November 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

You sound like a really nice person, so perhaps you would never do this. But I just want to caution you about asking to attend lab meetings and talking to people about their research. These are both awesome things to do, and you should do them. However, just make sure that
(1) It's not taking time away from you doing the job you were hired to do.
(2) It's not taking time away from the other researchers/students in the lab.

If any of the people in the lab is teaching a class that interests you, ask if you can sit it on it. My research group often has (paid/non-student) interns who do the "grunt" work, and a couple have parlayed this into getting into grad school by taking the PI's class and impressing him enough with their booksmarts and hard work on the job to earn them letters of recommendation and help in getting into our own grad program.
posted by bluefly at 7:22 AM on November 24, 2010

Have you been honest with your professor about your background and goals here? The best possible outcome here is for the professor to take you under his wing a little bit. People love to help people and being honest with him about the cant-afford-college-but-gosh-this-is-what-i-want-to-do thing might get him interested in your future. Well known researchers have major political pull at any university. Tell him where you want to be in 10 years and ask him how he'd go about getting there.

Obviously, do your job well. If it seems like this prof isn't going to look out for you, start asking around at the neighboring labs. Do everything you can to stay in that system and, above all else, find a mentor.
posted by pjaust at 5:19 PM on February 15, 2011

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