Expanding Psychology: One Lab at a Time

In my first year as a faculty member at the University of Illinois I remember having one person really stand out in my small pile of prospective graduate school applications: Stellar letters of recommendation, high GRE scores, a close relationship with a couple of academic advisors, and an active research program that they were driving. I was a little shocked to be staring at such an amazing prospective applicant and I proceeded to try everything to convince this person to come to Illinois and work with me. After the student decided to go elsewhere for their PhD, I learned they were from an academic family — both of the student’s parents were faculty at prestigious research universities.

Learning this made me think more critically about my role as a teacher and mentor: The aforementioned prospective student is almost certain to be a successful researcher — possessing of all the experiences and cultural know-how to navigate academia. And non-trivially for un-tenured faculty, the prospective would also have certainly contributed positively to my lab and research. Despite this, I did wonder what my role should be as a teacher and mentor of PhD students. Rather than sharpening the skills of people already well-positioned for success, could I use my own position, knowledge, and resources to expand research opportunities to more students from non-traditional backgrounds?

It was in this spirit that in 2017, now at Yale University, I launched a summer internship program in social psychology and organizational behavior. The internship would last 8-weeks over the summer of 2017, and would provide students with hands-on research experiences, mentoring from faculty and graduate students, and an opportunity at the end of the internship to present research findings at the annual conference of the Society of Personality and Social Psychology. The position would pay $15 to $20 per hour and students would work 20-hours per week. Critically, the internship encouraged students from non-traditional educational and research backgrounds to apply. We received over 150 (!!!) applications for the internship. There is clearly a need for this sort of research opportunity.

The Internship

Prior to the internship we consulted with current graduate students about the cost of living in New Haven during the summer and the climate of the subleasing market. We used these conversations to identify an hourly pay rate that would allow the interns to live comfortably in New Haven. Having realistic pay incentives was crucial for recruiting non-traditional students for the internship, who may not have had the means to temporarily move to New Haven for summer research.

We used responses from the application process to whittle our final group of applicants down to about 10 finalists who I then interviewed. Eventually we settled on three people for the internship, all of whom accepted the offer.

The internship began on June 15th and concluded on August 15th. The students worked on two unique research projects. The first involved following up on a prior study in my lab on how the voice communicates social status. The second involved conducting a pre-registered replication of research published in my lab years ago. Each intern took on a unique piece of the project and met with me one-on-one each week to discuss the execution of the project, study design, data collection, and data analysis. All three interns will be presenting their work on the first project at SPSP in Atlanta in 2018.

Throughout the internship we also had weekly professional development sessions where students discussed current issues in science, psychology, and academia with faculty and graduate students. Several graduate students from my laboratory or affiliated labs in psychology participated in these group discussions. For a full run-down of presentations and a syllabus for the summer internship go here. It took a small village to run the internship!

Content and Budget

Content. Our first goal for the internship was to offer valuable training and knowledge relevant for people interested in pursuing a PhD in social psychology and organizational behavior. But it is sometimes hard to choose what to focus on over such a short (8 weeks) period of study. We settled on a mix of (1) hands on experience with research projects, (2) professional development activities to provide a strong sense of what academia is, rather than what we wish it were, and (3) research method workshops to expand the skills of the interns. And because my lab studies inequality, at every stage of the internship we examine where inequalities manifest themselves. So for instance, in our research projects inequality is the general topic of inquiry whereas in our professional development sessions we focus on the inequalities of academic relations and their potential pitfalls (e.g., between professors/graduate students, publishers/researchers). Again, the syllabus and accompanying slides can give you a good sense of what we covered during the internship and how we approached inequality in each context.

In short, we tried to deliver a research and teaching experience that would prepare students for a PhD. Two of our interns provided brief reflections about the internship content that I have included below:

Nate Marino says:

My experience working with Michael through this summer internship was a tremendous season of growth for me intellectually and academically–and was really fun too. The focus of the internship was to broaden and deepen the intern’s knowledge and experience with psychological research. The wonderful aspect of interning with Michael is that instead of having us gain research experience through typical research assistant grunt work, he made us responsible for various aspects of his research which became our own individual projects. Not many researchers would do that with interns but Michael’s idea is the best way to learn the ins-and-outs of research is to do the ins-and-outs of research. Spearheading my own research project I learned new ways to collect data, new data collection tools such as Qualtrics, and new statistical software such as R. Learning and gaining experience was not the only reward of the internship; one of my projects turned into a poster presentation for an upcoming conference. All in all, this internship although brief grew me into a better researcher and a better scholar.

Fariba Ghayebi writes:

…the summer internship was a wonderful experience. The internship gives you an opportunity to learn and at times challenges you to unlearn what you might know about the psychology of inequality and social class.
In our lab meetings with other graduate students we discussed papers, designed studies, and learned about current pressing topics such as replicability and pre-registration. The summer lab meetings were expanded to include workshops on professional development and mentoring on the transition to graduate school. The graduate students in the lab were very supportive. I was able to go to them with any questions or issues I had. The internship allowed me to make connections with other researchers. It also gave me a realistic picture of what it would be like to work in this field and how to anticipate and overcome the challenges of being a graduate student.

Budget. By the time the SPSP convention arrives we anticipate spending about $18,000 on the internship after including salary, travel, conference, and research expenses. We are in the process of expanding the internship program, and this expansion means additional costs that will require additional sources of funding. We are currently exploring several options and additional organizational partnerships during this expansion effort. Given the volume of applications we received for the internship the need for a program of this nature is clear, and I could see it working quite well at any number of other universities with active research laboratories/ facilities.

Total Operating Costs, 2017 Yale SOM Internship

Our operating costs, it bears mention, are dwarfed by the remarkable time costs and daily inconveniences taken on by the interns themselves who uproot their lives to come to Yale for 8-weeks. Pay notwithstanding, there are still very real barriers for non-traditional students taking on our internship. For instance, subleasing an apartment requires payment prior to arrival, and logically, before one is paid for the internship. We also had an intern lose their housing temporarily when a subleaser returned from summer break before the agreed upon time. We had to think creatively about ways to allow our interns to take on the initial costs of travel and lodging prior to the arrival of a first paycheck, and to troubleshoot these challenges as they arose. Having a small network of people working together to create a successful internship was crucial for navigating some of these logistical challenges.

Conclusion: The 2018 Internship is a Go!

I find that mentoring students is among the most rewarding and important things I have done in my career, and this internship has been a way for me to direct those efforts toward the students who can benefit the most. In the end, all three of our interns continue to be actively engaged in research on the projects that we started over the summer (in fact, it is me who is holding them back!). Where this opportunity leads the three of them is totally up-in-the-air at this point, but at this early juncture at least, we accomplished our immediate goal to make science a little more inclusive than it was before.