Finding Your First Research Opportunity as an Undergraduate, by Qiyuan (Grace) Miao

Finding research opportunities on campus may sound a little intimidating at first, since faculty members are so busy and the thought of speaking with a professor can be scary. For those of you who want to get started, I would like to share my experience finding my first research assistantship and doing my first independent research:

1. Start with your classes

As one of the best research universities in the United States, UCLA has brilliant and resourceful faculty who are always working on research projects. As a result, the easiest way to unlock new experiences is talking to the professors who are teaching you right now!

I major in communication, with departmental honors and a specialization in computing. During the fall quarter of my second year, I took COMM154: Social Communication and New Technologies. Students in Professor Francis Steen’s class needed to conduct a small independent research project, and I looked into the relationship between north campus students and technology. I regularly went to office hours to discuss the research project. One day, towards the end of the quarter, Professor Steen asked me if I was interested in being his research assistant, and I immediately said yes. Since then, I have been working with Professor Steen, managing the UCLA Department of Communications NewsScape Library, which contains more than 200,000 news programs from around the world.

An additional tip for those of you reading this article – throughout a quarter, there are times when students do not show up to office hours, such as weeks without any exams or assignments due. If you are interested in getting to know a professor and asking for potential opportunities, those weeks are the perfect time to inquire!

You can start by asking questions related to course material, expressing interest in the professor’s research (listed on the faculty profile pages), or just telling them about your passion. Our brilliant and resourceful UCLA faculty can always help you in one way or another.

2. Maintain healthy rapport with your professors

I took the GE Cluster – Frontiers in Human Aging during my freshman year. GE Clusters are a one-year-long, interdisciplinary course series for freshmen. The spring quarter of the cluster program requires a writing seminar with one of the six faculty members of our choice. Having the opportunity to take a small writing seminar class closely related to the faculty member’s research area is a unique experience at UCLA. Due to the small class size, students and faculty can get to know each other very well.

I took Professor Levy-Storm’s seminar, which focuses on communication, aging, and social support networks. This class only had eight students, which allowed me to get to know her. I was active in class and went to office hours frequently. Although I wasn’t sure at the time I took the class if academic research was in my future, a year later I decided that I wanted to go to graduate school and would need more research experience. When I reached out to Professor Levy-Storms again during the spring quarter of my second year, she still remembered me very well, and said that she would love to work together.

During a brainstorm session, Professor Levy-Storms and I developed the specific topic and methodology of my independent research project. First, I started off by telling her my broad interest – older adults and communication. Then she described how she could support me, for instance, by providing different datasets she had collected. Finally, she gave me an overview of quantitative and qualitative research styles I could choose from.

Among the several options she provided, I chose to work on the video dataset of meal-time interactions between older adults with dementia and caregivers in nursing homes. We then further developed the research idea together. She told me about Conversation Analysis, an in-depth qualitative analysis methodology that she was interested in but never had the chance to actually implement on a research project. I thought Conversation Analysis sounded cool, and it became the methodology I am currently using in my independent research.

An organic brainstorm session like this really helps bring things together, and it works the best when both participants have open minds and curious hearts. After that, I started conducting the research – learning about the Conversation Analysis methodology, diving into the video data, and taking notes on interesting things I noticed. Eventually, I landed on a specific research topic: emotional connections and responses during dementia care. My research is funded by the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (URSP), and it has been a very helpful resource. I will now be continuing my academic training in a graduate program at Columbia University.

3. Don’t be discouraged by rejections

As college students who need to reach out to numerous places, it is absolutely normal to receive rejections. I have been rejected multiple times by professors, companies, and for other opportunities throughout my three-year undergraduate journey. This happens to everyone! As a result, don’t take rejections personally and don’t let rejections affect your mental health. Instead, be truly grateful to those who said yes to you, maintain a positive attitude, and luck will keep coming! 🙂

Ethnographic Research on a Secret Society, by Conor O’Brien

Whether completing a literature review, gaining access to communities of interest, or analyzing data back at the university, research is a journey filled with twists and turns. For example, you may have an amazing thesis initially; however, upon reaching the field you realize that reality is not the same as it is presented in literature. You may also realize the issue you thought was affecting your target group is different than you assumed. A change of plans can be frustrating, especially after arduous preparation prior to entering the field. This does not mean that your project is over with; in fact, this can be fun. It is important to remain flexible, and open to change, as it is all a part of the journey. I had an idea of what I would find, yet upon reaching the field I immediately had to change my project within the first week of my two-month Cuban journey.

My work examined Abakua, an all-male secret society in Northwestern Cuba. Established in 1836 by slaves, Abakua secretly operated as a mutual aid network which provided protection for slaves, and later as members gained key positions within blue collar professions, a network guaranteeing Abakua initiates employment over those who were not. With temples located in communities of Havana and Matanzas deemed marginal, Abakua is celebrated as an authentic legacy of the Afro-Cuban experience, especially as it is forbidden from being exported or initiating non-Cubans.

President Obama’s plan of reinstating relations between America and Cuba seemed to represent the metaphorical doors opening. I questioned whether Abakua would regain control over the docks and slaughterhouses of Havana, and if they would initiate more foreigners as this would arguably increase economic reach. I planned to do archival work in the Biblioteca Nacional and ethnographies of Abakua ceremonies. Shortly after my arrival to Havana, President Donald Trump announced plans to restrict American travel to the island. I also realized how difficult it is for a religion to have power within a socialist society. Tourist dollars that were coming into Cuba were not reaching the masses of people on the outskirts of Havana and Matanzas.

I was fortunate to have interviews with Abakua members and Cuban scholars my first week in the field. I was notified that power granted through control is not what Abakua represents. Instead, the legacy of Abakua is rebellion against power structures. Members emphasized that manliness, or hombria, is central to Abakua and driving forces behind the bravery that earned them their reputation. In order to be initiated, one must be considered to be a good man by all members of his community and go through an investigation process that will prove this. From initial interviews, I gathered that many youths in marginal sections of Havana had been initiating into Abakua and committing crimes, which many believe is in accordance with demonstrating connections to Abakua. This phenomenon, known as guaperia, and the question of what it truly means to be a man and Abakua member came up so frequently that I decided to further examine this situation.

Instead of focusing on how Abakua members would respond to a changing Cuba, I decided to interview members on their life-stories, asking what brought them to Abakua. I also wanted to gather a general consensus of member’s opinions on the differences between hombria and guaperia. After narrowing my focus, I then faced another problem: access. I needed consistent access to Abakua members in order to gain entry into ceremonies and hold more interviews with members. I needed to make sure that I was not offensive. As Abakua is a secret society, many people were apprehensive to discussing the topic with me. I ensured interviewees at all times that I was not after ritual secrets, but only wished to understand cosas sociales. I also was open to learning about the other Afro-Cuban religions and their roles and perception within Cuban society. Things changed when I was introduced to a writer and journalist who happened to be an Abakua member. After meeting with him a few times, more doors began opening, and I found myself having interviews with more members and being invited to important events.

Stories of exclusivity and power ignited much of my interest in Abakua. However, during my time in Cuba I realized that manhood and fraternity sustain Abakua’s reputation and there is a thin line between hombria and guaperia. Undergraduate research has been a great opportunity that has developed me both academically and intellectually. Being flexible and open to changes that occur throughout this process is one of the strongest strengths a researcher can have.  The times where I felt frustrated, fearing that I would never gain access, were the instances where I began to understand Cuba and what it is like to be an American researching a complex topic.

Conducting Qualitative Research in an LA High School, by Bernice Andrade

Not sure what research approach to use? I had the same concern when I was conducting research for the first time through the Undergraduate Research Fellows Program (URFP). As a Sociology and Chicana/o Studies double-major with a minor in Education, I had an interest in the achievement gap, which refers to the disparity in academic performance and outcomes between minority students and their white counterparts. From a student’s perspective I wanted to locate potential factors that contribute to this gap, which led me do qualitative research.

Qualitative research is used to gain an in-depth understanding of a problem or social phenomenon from the point of view of those experiencing it, by allowing them to share their perspectives, insights, and ideas. The aim is to understand the social reality of individuals by studying them in their natural setting, and allowing them to teach the researcher about their lives. Common qualitative methods include focus groups (group discussions), individual interviews, direct observation, and participant observation.

To learn more about the achievement gap, I developed a student-centered study. Through participant observation and semi-structured interviews, I learned about students’ schooling experiences as well as the positive and negative factors that shaped their academic performance and engagement in school. I recruited participants from an alternative high school in Los Angeles that is predominantly African American and Latino. Recruitment can be difficult if you do not have access to the population you want to study, but, luckily, I obtained access to this school through a UCLA service-learning course I was taking at the time. As part of this course I completed twenty-eight hours of fieldwork to practice mediation and mentor students on how to do mediation. This gave me the opportunity to talk to and interact with students before I carried out my study.

My role as a mediator helped me get to know the students on a more personal level and allowed me to become a part of the high school community. After multiple mediation sessions I noticed the students stopped seeing me as a stranger and more as someone they could confide in. As a mediator, I learned to be a more attentive listener and developed the capacity to discuss issues with sensitivity, objectivity, and confidentiality. These abilities coupled with my interpersonal skills helped me connect with the students and prepare me for the research I planned to conduct. One of the takeaways from my experience is the need to establish a positive relationship with participants beforehand. Gaining trust and convincing individuals to participate in your study is easier when you get to know more about them. Thus, collecting data qualitatively takes time.

Different methods can be used to recruit participants. It was most suitable for me to use convenience sampling, which means I interviewed students based on their availability and willingness to participate. Due to time constraints and students’ schedules, I was only able to include four students in my study. Although this is a small sample size, in qualitative research such a sample can still yield important findings. Deciding what days and time to conduct interviews may be challenging at first. I recommend developing a schedule with your participants to decide the best times to collect data. Doing this keeps you organized and helps you track your progress.

To prepare for the interviews, I formulated a list of open-ended questions that would help guide the discussion. For example, I asked students “Can you describe what a typical school day looks like for you?” and “How would you describe yourself as a student?” I noticed students had more to say on certain questions, which helped me decide which questions I did not need to ask or I needed to change. Depending on the answers they provided I saw certain themes emerge. Some questions also brought up topics I had not previously considered. In addition, the information they shared sometimes countered what I originally anticipated. This shows how interviews can take your research in different directions and it is okay for changes to occur.

How you conduct your interviews can also shape the information you collect. For instance, I found benefits in interviewing two of the students individually, and the other two students together. For each one-on-one interview I noticed the students were more open to sharing about their personal life, including very sensitive information. However, in the interview with two students I found they elaborated more on their answers. What one student did not mention, the other added. Sometimes they agreed on questions and other times they disagreed. Both methods provided me substantial insight.

Another qualitative method I used was participant observation, which requires the researcher to immerse themselves and participate within their participant’s social environment. When I visited the school I engaged in classroom activities, helped students with their school work, and interacted with students and faculty during breaks and/or lunch. This method helped me establish mutual trust and respect with the students and the school at large. The data I collected through my observations and participation in the school also helped me understand how students’ behavior and interactions aligned with the experiences and perspectives they shared with me during their interviews. This method turned out to be my favorite part of doing qualitative research because it gave me the opportunity to meet new people and learn from them. I had a great experience, and I would recommend research to anyone looking to expand their education beyond the four walls of a classroom or the pages of a book.

Tracy Saw presenting her research poster at SPSP conference

Presenting at the Society of Personality and Social Psychology’s (SPSP) annual conference, by Tracy Saw

Want to see your research come to life beyond your desktop screen? Are you eager to meet people who share the same academic interests as you? Do you love to travel? Then attending/presenting at a conference could be perfect for you!

In March of 2018, two of my fellow psychology honors students and I had the opportunity to present our honors projects at the Society of Personality and Social Psychology’s (SPSP) annual conference in Atlanta. Having been a research assistant for Dr. Tiffany Brannon, a UCLA psychology professor, in her Culture & Contact Lab since my sophomore year, I had heard about SPSP every year from Dr. Brannon and her graduate students. I never thought I would get the chance to attend the conference, let alone present a poster at SPSP as an undergraduate.

With an incredible amount of support from Dr. Brannon, three of us mustered the courage to apply for the conference. With high hopes and low expectations, we submitted our applications and were eventually all selected to present. With financial support from Dr. Brannon and the Undergraduate Research Center–Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences travel grant, the cost of attending the conference and staying at the beautiful Hyatt Regency in Atlanta (where the conference was held) were fully covered.

The conference was a three-day event, which included talks and several poster sessions. The poster sessions featured around 2000 posters displayed in the exhibit hall over the course of the convention. During each session, attendees walked around to view the different posters, learned about the latest research being conducted across the country and the world, and chatted with the researchers (who typically stood beside their posters) about their work.

Attending and presenting at the conference itself was one of the highlights of my undergraduate life. Nonetheless, it was an overwhelming experience, in terms of both preparing for the conference and trying to make the most of our time at the event. As such, I thought I would share highlights of the conference, as well as tips for anyone who might be interested in attending/presenting at a conference as an undergraduate.

Highlights of the Conference

  1. Sharing my research

While the process of creating my poster and rehearsing a cohesive description of my research was nerve-wracking, the 1.5 hours of standing in front of my poster and sharing it with other psychologists (be it undergraduates, graduate students or professors) was really fun and even exhilarating! Not only was it encouraging when people took interest in my research, but the process of answering questions and receiving feedback gave me many ideas on how to better my research question/methods moving forward. It was a great opportunity to practice my public speaking skills while learning how to present my research in a way that can be easily understood by an audience unfamiliar with my research topic.

  1. Learning about the amazing research out there (and meeting academic crushes!)

The best part about SPSP was attending the presentations about a plethora of interesting topics. I am very interested in social media research and its psychological implications but have been disappointed by the lack of literature exploring this topic. During the conference, there were two full sessions about social media, and they did not disappoint. My favorite talk was about viral altruism and discussed the rise and fall of the ALS ice bucket challenge. The talk was presented by Dr. Sander van der Linden – a psychologist whose work I’ve been a fan of since hearing about him on NPR and in TED Talks. I even got to talk to him after his presentation and ask him questions about his research. I gained a lot of knowledge that day and inspiration for future research.

  1. Career exploration (= you can do other things with research besides be a professor!)

Even though I love doing research as an undergraduate, the idea of pursuing it for the rest of my life is daunting. I had the misconception that choosing an academic path meant that one had to be a university professor and love teaching. However, SPSP opened my eyes to the different paths research can take you on. In particular, I had a great conversation with someone from the Facebook Research team who took an interest in my work and told me about the world of industry research and the possibility of working for Facebook as a researcher. For example, Facebook has an entire team that studies the formation of disaster relief/support Facebook groups, with the objective of better linking these groups up with the resources they need. It was so cool to see research being used beyond the world of academia.

Here are the top 3 pieces of advice I would give for attending and presenting at conferences:

  1. Be proactive in asking your professors/grad students/Undergraduate Research Centers for opportunities to attend and present at conferences – especially for travel grants
  2. Download the conference program beforehand and plan which talks you want to attend
  3. Reach out to the professors/attendees you want to meet in advance – they could be your future advisors in graduate school

Good luck!