Gaining research experience is a crucial part of preparing for
graduate study in Psychology, particularly Ph.D. programs. In terms of
the research requirement for the program, a postbac is required to
complete 2 semesters of research in a Columbia psychology department
lab to earn the certificate. One semester may be done on a volunteer
basis or as a paid research assistant. The other semester must be
taken for credit. For this semester you will register for 3 points of
Psyc W3950. Typically, a student will work in a lab for a minimum of
10 hours per week to fulfill this requirement each semester. Modified
schedules over an extended period of time can be arranged to
accommodate your scheduling needs.
Supervised Independent Research (W3950) can be taken for 1-4 credits per semester. Generally, 3 hours of lab work per week are required per credit and at least some of these hours must be completed during the day (a consideration if you are also working a full- or part-time job). The exact requirements vary from lab to lab so it is a good idea to establish what the requirements are with your supervisor at the beginning of the semester. In some labs you will mainly be working on a project with a graduate student. You can still get very good research experience this way. If lab meetings are held, attend whenever possible. This is a good way to learn about all the ongoing projects in the lab and get some personal contact with the professor. Finally, a general rule is that the longer you work in a lab, the more responsibilities you will be given and the more you can get involved in the research process.
Volunteering is an option in some labs.The exact requirements vary from lab to lab so it is a good idea to establish what the requirements are with your supervisor at the beginning of the semester. In some labs you will mainly be working on a project with a graduate student. You can still get very good research experience this way. If lab meetings are held, attend whenever possible. This is a good way to learn about all the ongoing projects in the lab and get some personal contact with the professor. Finally, a general rule is that the longer you work in a lab, the more responsibilities you will be given and the more you can get involved in the research process. Contact the professor or lab manager associated with the lab(s) you would like to work with as soon as possible in order to assess the needs of their lab.
Paid research assistant positions are usually advertised at the beginning of the semester. Much of the advertising takes the form of signs posted around the department - so keep your eyes open! Even if the sign has been up for a few days, make a call if you are interested - don't assume the position has been filled. You will also receive occasional notices for research assistants (both volunteer and paid) via email from the program adviser. Finally, you can check the psychology department website for research assistantship listings.
Choosing a Lab
The first thing you need to do is to find out about the research going on in the department. Most labs have websites describing their research, though these may be somewhat old and not present the most current research.
In the Fall, the Postbac Program hosts an Open House for Postbacs and undergraduates who are interested in getting involved in research labs. At this event, graduate students from each of the labs come and describe their work and what they are looking for in research assistants. Following the presentations, graduate students are available to meet with interested prospective research assistants. The postbac students have a reputation for being extremely serious and focused research assistants and are typically sought out by graduate students. Contact information for graduate students and labs looking for research assistants will be provided.
Another excellent way to learn about current research is to attend the weekly area seminars: Cognitive Lunch, Social Snack, Behavioral Neuroscience, Psychology Department Colloquia and University Seminars. Professors and graduate students present the hottest topics in their current research. Sometimes outside speakers also present. All are invited and there are no requirements for the attendees except to pay attention. If you find a topic to be very interesting, ask questions during or after the talk, or contact the professor or graduate student afterward to tell him/her of your interest and discuss the possibility of working with them. Here the seminars offered during the Fall and Spring semesters:
Finally, although the quality and quantity of research is very important for getting into graduate school, the topic is less important. It is optimal to find a lab doing research you are really excited about, however it is not necessary to do research on the exact question that you hope to study in graduate school. Because of the small number of labs in this department, you may have to be somewhat flexible about who you work with. In addition, although you must work with a professor in this department for your W3950 requirement, you can work as a paid research assistant or volunteer in labs at Barnard, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, Teacher's College or some other facilities in the city with the approval of the program advisor.
Getting Accepted into a Lab
Postbac students typically have little difficulty finding a lab placement. A good place to start is to attend the Lab Open House at the start of the Fall term, but if you are unable to attend this event or want to get started looking for a lab even earlier, there is no reason not to contact faculty, lab managers and/or graduate students directly to ask them about research opportunities in their labs.
Some labs tend to be oversubscribed, but some very good ones are undersubscribed. You may have more luck getting into the undersubscribed ones. Also, you often have the opportunity to work more closely with a professor when there are fewer students competing for his/her attention.
In terms of getting in touch with the professor, personal contact is always the best, but start with email. If you aren't having much luck getting a response, try dropping by the lab. If the professor is not around, ask to talk with one of the graduate students. Indeed, for some of the larger labs, you may have more luck contacting the senior graduate student than the professor. Try to be somewhat prepared when you contact the professor. Have some idea of what type of research the he/she does and be able to talk about why you are interested in working with him/her.
Internships are paid or volunteer positions that can give you hands-on experience in a clinical or clinical-related field. They are particularly useful for students intending to pursue a Psy.D., but also supplement the clinical Ph.D. graduate application. Although the Postbac program cannot guarantee that you will get an internship, it can help you with the application process.
If you are just starting out, a volunteer position is your best bet. The Department of Volunteer Services at the New York State Psychiatric Institute has a great service whereby they try to match you with a volunteer opportunity that best suits your strengths and interests.
Barnard College occasionally offers a course that provides field work experience in Psychological Services and Counseling. It is taught by Prof. Sandra Stingle and students must apply for the course during pre-registration. Below is a link to the course website, which also has a link to a list of organizations that have offered volunteer positions in clinical psychology to students in the field work course.
Another option on campus for students looking for a hands-on experience is the Barnard Toddler Center. This is a full-year course that in most cases would be more appropriate for postbacs in their second year of study. Students work on research projects connected with the Toddler Center which is an unusual opportunity to work with young children in a research setting.