Psychology/Public Affairs/Social Work Pre Grad Intern Ashley Shew
The IE internship has been a great experience for me. I was fortunate enough to assist with research in Rebecca Bigler's Gender and Racial Attitudes Lab under the mentorship of Sarah McKenney. During my research assistant position, I traveled to St. Francis School to assist with data collection from elementary school students. I really enjoyed interacting with the little kids and I have a new appreciation for the patience it takes to gather data from that population. From getting parent permission, assembling enough researchers to collect data within the time frame, working with teachers so as not to disrupt instruction, to maintaining patience with a small child's attention span, learning about child development is no easy task. It is rewarding, however, as many of the children's answers to survey items are incredibly interesting and contain a wide variation of ideas.
I also had the opportunity to assist in the Girls Sexualization study run by my mentor and graduate student. I assisted in the setup of material, collection of forms and administration of surveys to the middle school girls who participated in our research. The experiment was aimed at determining how girls prepare for a video taped academic task. The girls were given a choice of either preparing with makeup or with a transcript of the mock newscast, and then given a survey about their attitudes of their appearance. I really enjoyed interacting with the parents and participants. When reviewing the video and surveys, I was amazed again at the variety of approaches each girl took to the task.
In another project, I assisted graduate student Amy Hayes on a measure to determine reasons behind female graduate student involvement in Math and Sciences. We endeavored to collect data from graduate students on their attitudes about gender in graduate study by serving pizza and administering surveys in the engineering building on campus. Only three graduate students showed up for the survey. This may seem like a disappointing experience, but I actually learned a lot about research. Sometimes, your experiment doesn't go as planned. The graduate students and our lab supervisor, Dr. Rebecca Bigler, stayed in good spirits and discussed ways to make the project work in the future. While disappointed, they remained resilient. From this, I learned that research isn't perfect, that it doesn't work every time, but that you adjust as the project changes.
Working on these projects taught me to appreciate human diversity and has given me a better understanding of how research that explores social issues like gender and racial inequality is done. I've also immensely enjoyed learning from my mentor. Sarah is a genuine and fun person to work with. She is very intelligent and easy to talk to, and has been very understanding of my crazy undergraduate schedule. She has given me some valuable insight for graduate school, including studying for the GRE and writing a personal statement. I have really appreciated the relaxed atmosphere of the Bigler Lab and the dynamic personalities within.
However, a big reason the internship was so successful for me was because through the process of reflection on my research assistant-ship, I realized I absolutely do not want to be a research psychologist. The GARAL lab was a great experience, but I cannot see my skillset best utilized through that line of work. Research requires a bit of creativity when designing experiments, a nuanced ability to develop survey items, an ability and willingness to meet tight deadlines for publication, and above all, a passion for the question. While these skills are useful and transferable to many fields, working with the data in research does not appeal to me the same way working with the people does. Conversations with the graduate students and Dr. Cherwitz did, however, encourage me to explore other fields similar to psychology, and not to be afraid to look outside research universities.
I've taken their advice. After a lot of soul searching (and Google searching), I've come to the fields of Social Work and Public Policy. What I like about these disciplines involves the application of research to effect social change. I joined the Bigler Lab because I am passionate about gender and racial social inequality. While getting first hand experience with the research is rewarding, my real passion lies in its application. From my perspective, so what if we learn that even elementary school children struggle with race relations and middle school children are sensitive to media messages about women's sexuality? I am more interested in how we can utilize this knowledge when we develop educational curriculum, internet safety policy or efforts to promote diversity on college campuses. From the researcher's perspective, answering the question of how and why is enough, and application for research is mentioned in the discussion section of a publication, mostly as an afterthought. However, research like that done in Dr. Bigler's lab is hugely important in developing effective social policies. Without understanding the individual or the individual populations we wish to serve, we cannot create policies or design social programs that work.
In sum, I am excited that the program taught me so much. By asking me to reflect on my experiences and apply it to my future career, I was able to capitalize on my experience as a research assistant and put it into perspective with my interests and goals. The IE program helped me critically analyze the career of research psychology and helped me see it was not something I was practically suited for. Without IE, I may have blindly made the decision to pursue psychology in graduate school based on the prestige or the understanding that it "sounded cool." Just because gender and racial attitudes research was the closest thing to my interests at this research university, doesn't mean it is the best career fit. Through my personal explorations as a result of IE, I was able to think outside the box of our institution and see how other fields or other universities might better help me in achieving a fulfilling career.