Having worked in a research lab for 7 months now, I have learned that “real life” research isn’t always a slick process. Lectures provide a great basis for the theoretical idea of how research should be done, but this is often unrealistic. Some things have surprised me and I’ve learned a lot, so I thought I would share 3 things lectures won’t teach you about research.
1. No such thing as a perfect study?
We recently finished data collection for a longitudinal study exploring parent-child attachment relationships, stress, and 3-year-olds’ self-regulation, a process that took over a year to complete. Despite over 300 participant lab visits, not one was the same, because no participants are the same. This means the ‘lab visit protocol’ that all research assistants follow can only go so far in telling you how to run the visit - there’s no bullet point set of instructions for dealing with a temper tantrum or surprise toilet break (which I found out the hard way…).
Encountering variations in participant interactions doesn’t mean that the data collected are not reliable or valid, more that it is an unavoidable aspect of data collection with human subjects. Varied behaviour can also highlight new research questions that may not have been in mind when the study was launched. For example, we found that some mothers used their mobile phones during the ‘snack break’ sections of the visit when they could have been interacting with their child. This kind of behaviour could be related to mothers’ stress levels, an intriguing research question. Noticing this behaviour really highlighted for me the dynamic nature of research.
Overall I found the experience of working with different participants a highly rewarding one, providing a sense of mutual interest and benefits for both parties. Mothers get to interact and explore new tasks with their children, and we get invaluable data for improving children’s development.
2. Participant recruitment – not always easy to find volunteers.
A major aspect of my role for this study was recruiting fathers to participate, particularly important as father-child relationships are heavily unexplored in existing literature. For me, this has been the most challenging but rewarding aspect of my job. Fathers who work 5-7 days a week are unlikely to want to spend their free time in a research lab for 2.5 hours. This meant I brainstormed methods to help persuade potential participants to come in, aside from the financial incentive we already offered. These included making life as easy as possible for them, such as working around their schedule to book a visit even if this meant working weekends, and ensuring they knew how valuable they are as a participant. It’s highly rewarding to know I’ve played a role in increasing our knowledge and understanding of father-child relationships.
The final, and most important, lesson I have learn about research is the dedication it takes. With lab visits frequently running over-time and on weekends, endless footage to be transcribed and coded, and being on call to participants after office hours, the success of the lab relies on the hard work of all the people who work there. Our hard work is fuelled by a common passion for the research and knowledge of the benefits to families that can be drawn and applied from our data. For me, there is also a sense of comradery that this study could not happen without each of us.
If you’re going into a placement in research, I would highly recommend it. You are helping to extend our knowledge on important psychological issues & pushing forward psychological theory, whilst learning a range of applicable skills which make you employable across the board.