Frequently Asked Questions - Research
Many cognitive science majors are interested in finding positions as research assistants – either during the academic year here at Yale, or over the summer break at Yale or near home.
For those students wishing to go on to graduate school in the cognitive sciences, several factors will be important – grades, breadth and depth of coursework, test scores, recommendations, etc. – but for many programs the most important factors may be: research, research, and research. One reason for this is simply that doing research is what being a graduate student in many disciplines of cognitive science is all about. Whereas other factors such as grades and test scores are only indirect clues to research abilities, demonstrated past success at research is a direct indication. Another way to put this is that grades and test scores – and, indeed, most aspects of undergraduate education – are about being a consumer of knowledge, while being a good graduate student has a lot to do with being a good producer of knowledge. Because these two classes of abilities don’t always correlate, high grades and test scores can’t be taken as a sure indication of research ability, whereas demonstrated research ability can be taken as a sure indication of research ability.
Another reason why you might want to pursue research opportunities as an undergraduate is simply to discover how much you like it. The process of coming up with research ideas and then implementing them (and analyzing and reporting the results) is a fresh experience for many students, and one that differs from other undergraduate experiences (taking classes, writing essays, etc.). As such, it can seem a bit silly for students to pursue graduate work – a major commitment of time and effort! – without first checking to be sure they enjoy doing research.
Finally, assisting with research will provide a completely new dimension on which your recommenders for post-Yale positions may comment.
Happily, many cognitive science laboratories at most schools have opportunities for undergraduates to get involved. Some labs take on undergraduates during the academic year either for academic credit, work-study $, or on a volunteer basis. In addition, some labs will hire undergraduate research assistants (RAs) full-time over the summer break, typically paying several thousand dollars. Most RAs begin with relatively simple tasks, to help get their feet wet: for example, in a psychology laboratory you might be put on an existing project, perhaps helping a graduate student or postdoc run subjects for an experiment which has already been designed. Other common tasks include helping to create stimuli, program experiments, analyze data, or even help design new studies. RAs will also often get the opportunity to attend weekly lab meetings, and to participate in discussions of the lab’s work. The best RA positions offer room for advancement. For example, RAs in some labs typically begin by running subjects for existing experiments, but are eventually encouraged to develop their own projects (often as seeds for eventual senior projects). A final type of opportunity is a full-time paid RA position for recent graduates during the year: many labs have such an employee who runs the day-to-day operation of the lab, and such positions can be perfect for recent college graduates who want to go to graduate school but want to get more research experience first.
Unlike classes and other typical academic experiences, research positions will not fall into your lap: you have to seek them out. Regardless of what type of position you’re looking for (part-time, summer, paid, volunteer, etc.), the process is basically the same. Your first step should be to contact the professors whose research projects you find especially interesting. To help start this search at Yale, check out the lists of professors, departments, and laboratories. The easiest way to do this is to scour webpages for work that sounds interesting, and then to email the professors, asking if they have any RA opportunities available. If you’re looking for positions at other schools (e.g. over the summer), you may want to ask your professors here for advice on who might be exciting to work with.
You’ll find rather a lot of variability in the availability of RA opportunities. Here at Yale, there always seems to be at least one or two labs looking for RAs. On the other hand, if you’re keen to work in a specific lab, you might need to wait a semester (or even two), if the lab is already ‘full’. For this reason, it can help to ask early. Some lab even have a waiting list of interested students. Some professors pay RAs with work-study funds; others expect a volunteer commitment at first, with pay for more advanced RAs. Other labs offer academic credit via ‘directed research’ for lab experience. Given this variability – and also variability in the degree of responsibility that RAs are given – you might find it useful to find out the names of other students currently working in the lab, and ask them what it’s like to work there.
Paid RA positions over the summer are typically harder – but not impossible – to find. At Yale many labs prefer to hire summer RAs from the pool of those students already working in the lab during the academic semester, since they require less training, etc. The same is true, alas, of other schools: most professors prefer to hire RAs from their own school, who are more likely to continue to work in the lab after the summer. On the other hand, volunteer positions are often easier to come by. (One good strategy is to say in your note that you’re hoping for a paid position, but may also consider a volunteer position, given your immense interest in the work.) Again, your best bet is just to contact people by email, and to do so early. Younger professors who may have just started may be more likely to have positions for students coming from elsewhere, since they may not already have a pool of students working in their lab.
In all of these cases, you’ll have better luck finding an RA position if you can demonstrate that you are truly interested in (and informed about) the work being done in the lab. Before contacting people out of the blue, take some time to find out what they’re working on, and read several of their recent papers. Then when you contact them you can mention some details of their work, and perhaps bring up some ideas that you find especially exciting – or even some of your own ideas for how the work might be extended. By taking the time and effort to find out about some of the details of the work, you’ll demonstrate that you have some shared interests, that you’re committed to the relevant area of study, and that you’re not simply mass-emailing professors, etc.
Another good resource is the ‘Research Experience for Undergraduates’ program that is funded by the National Science Foundation. To find the relevant summer programs, go the NSF REU search page, and click on ‘Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences’. Note that many of these programs prioritize participants from underrepresented groups, and/or students from institutions that do not typically provide extensive research opportunities.
If you’re working in a laboratory and would like to get Directed Research credit for your work, you will first need to obtain the permission of your research supervisor, and of the DUS. More information can be found on the Directed Research Form, which must submitted (with signatures from your Directed Reading advisor and from the DUS) before you will be able to register for these coures. This form asks you to include:
- The name and contact information of your research supervisor
- A 1-paragraph description of the research project itself
- A 1-paragraph description of the role(s) you will play in this project
- A description of how your activities will be assessed, including some form of midterm evaluation
The course itself will then be managed by your research supervisor – though the DUS may contact them halfway through the semester, to ensure that you are making regular and significant progress.
Many – but not all – research activities will be appropriate candidates for academic credit. Those that aren’t appropriate typically involve little intellectual engagement with the research – e.g. just running subjects for a professor on a ‘pre-packaged’ project. The most common assessment tool at the end of a semester will be a final writeup of the research, to be assessed by the research supervisor; if you’re opting for this manner of assessment, be sure to state how long the paper will be, etc. Finally, remember that Directed Research courses (like Directed Reading courses) can be used to satisfy course requirements for the major, but only for the depth requirement and with permission of the DUS.
The only constraint imposed by the Cognitive Science major itself is the one noted above: Directed Research courses (like Directed Reading courses) can only be used to satisfy the ‘depth’ course requirements for the major, and at a maximum of 2 such courses for the major.
If you’d like to take additional courses of this type beyond the major requirements, however, you may be able to do so (and in fact many students do!). Note, however, that Yale College imposes some additional limits in this respect: You are limited to a maximum of 3 Directed Research and/or Directed Reading courses during your first 6 terms of enrollment. After that – i.e. in your Senior year – you are limited to a maximum of 2 such courses per semester. These limits may be exceeded in individual cases only be petitioning the relevant Yale College committee. If you are interested in pursuing such a petition, please talk to the DUS first.
We are currently attempting to develop funding sources from within the cognitive science program itself. For now, though, many students obtain funding from several other sources in the university and beyond to support their research (e.g. to purchase materials or pay experimental subjects). Among these opportunities:
- Perhaps the most common source of research funding is your research supervisor herself/himself. Many (but not all) faculty members have grants and/or discretionary funding that can be used to support such projects – especially if those projects fall within their own primary research goals, and/or if you have already been assisting in their laboratory.
- CGSC seniors are able to obtain up to $100 for their research on their senior project in conjunction with the Dept. of Psychology. Forms are available in K 109. The forms need to be signed by your senior research advisor in addition to the CGSC DUS.
- Many students find that they can support their research through various funding sources that are managed by their residential colleges.
- Yale College itself also has a number of funding opportunities, many of which are summarized here. Of these various funding sources, two are especially popular. First, the Yale College Dean’s Research Fellowship in the Sciences and the Yale College Dean’s Research Fellowship in the Humanities and Social Sciences each often fund cognitive science students to conduct research (often with Yale faculty) over the summers.
The core departments in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that contribute to the cognitive science major at Yale are those of:
In addition, enterprising students can find research opportunities in several other departments that have specific faculty studying the mind from a cognitive science perspective, including:
- the Child Study Center (in the School of Medicine)
- the Haskins Laboratories
- the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program
- the John B. Pierce Laboratory
- the Institution for Social and Policy Studies
- the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience
- Neurobiology (in the School of Medicine)
- Neurology (in the School of Medicine)
- the School of Law
- the School of Management
Keep in mind that (1) not all faculty in cognitive science run laboratories; (2) not all laboratories have websites; and (3) cognitive science majors often do research with faculty beyond the core cognitive science faculty. As such, you may also want to check out the list of formally affiliated faculty, and also browse faculty interests from the list of contributing departments.) With those caveats in mind, check out the list of laboratories at Yale that relate to cognitive science from the main CogSci program website.