A Guide from the Department of Psychology

Welcome to the Department of Psychology. As a psychology major or student taking a psychology class, you have the opportunity to experience the process of scientific discovery through the research being conducted in the department. You can do this by:

  • participating as a subject in a research study;
  • volunteering as a research assistant in a faculty member’s lab;
  • applying for programs such as McNair Scholars, Summer Undergraduate Research Program, and the Student Opportunities for Academic Research (or SOAR);
  • enrolling in PSYC 490 for independent studies credit;
  • conducting your own honors thesis research.


I. Being a Subject in a Research Study – Opportunities and Safeguards

Participating as a subject in a research study can be an interesting and rewarding experience. You help to advance scientific research, and you get to experience firsthand what an experiment is like. Some research entails filling out questionnaires such as personality scales or opinion surveys. For other studies, you might be asked to interact with another person and then to complete questionnaires about your impressions. Still other research involves psychophysiological recordings of your heart rate and skin conductance.

There are two different routes to participating as a subject in a study. First, you may take a class in which the instructor gives extra credit for participating as a subject in research studies. Those extra credit studies may be either in person or on line. Second, you may notice flyers for studies recruiting for research volunteers. Responding to those flyers would not give you any extra credit in a course; instead you might be entered into a lottery for a prize.

In either case, it is important to know that you have certain rights as a student participant in a psychology study:

  • Your Participation is Always Voluntary! If you are in a class that provides extra credit for participation, your instructor should always provide you with an alternative extra credit exercise. You should always remember that you can quit a research study at any time, with no negative consequences. If you are feeling physical discomfort or emotional upset from the study, you should not feel compelled to continue. Just inform the research assistant that you want to discontinue the study, and you will be able to do so immediately.
  • Informed Consent. When you participate in a research study, the researchers should give you a written Information Sheet or Statement of Informed Consent that you sign before beginning the study. These documents describe what you will be doing during the course of the study and what risks or discomfort there might be.
  • Research is Educational. After you have completed your study, the researcher should always provide you with more information about the purpose of the study, and you should have the chance to ask the researcher questions about the study and the purpose of the activities that you did during the study.
  • How to Protect Your Rights and What to do if you feel something is not right or is unfair. USC has many safeguards in place to protect you. The USC Office for the Protection of Research Subjects (OPRS) and Institutional Review Board (IRB) exist to protect research participants, https://oprs.usc.edu/. Every research study in which you participate in the psychology department has been reviewed by the USC IRB for ethical and safety concerns. If you have any concerns or negative experiences or feel coerced or unfairly treated, you may contact Dr. Stephen Read (coordinator of the psychology department subject pool), read@usc.edu, or Dr. Antoine Bechara, (Department Chair) bechara@usc.edu. Contact the IRB if you have questions about your rights as a research participant or you have complaints about the research. You may contact the IRB at (323) 442-0114 or by email at irb@usc.edu.You can also submit a complaint online at the OPRS website. Do not feel hesitant about alerting us to problems! The sooner a problem with a study is identified, the sooner it can be resolved.

Download Instructions for PSYC 100 Participation in the Subject Pool HERE

Download Instructions for Non-PSYC 100 Participation in the Subject Pool HERE

II. Become a Researcher – Seek out the Experience

For many students, being a subject in a psychology study is only the beginning of their experience with research. There are many opportunities for students to become active as researchers as well as subjects in our department.

Volunteer as a Laboratory Assistant. As a research assistant, you may find yourself collecting data in experiments similar to those in which you participated yourself as a human subject. The department maintains a guide listing the research interests and projects of professors in the department here. If you are a subject in an experiment that you find particularly interesting, or if you take an engaging class with a professor, you can ask to work as a lab assistant in his or her lab.

Become a Researcher! As your skills and experience develop, you may have the opportunity to conduct your own research in collaboration with a professor in the department. Many students transition from volunteer research assistants to receiving independent study credit (490) for their work in a lab. Information about PSYC 490 is available in SGM501 or by clicking here. Also, there are programs (such as the McNair Scholars program, the Summer Undergraduate Research Program, and the Student Opportunities for Academic Research or SOAR) that provide stipends and research training during the summer or academic year. The psychology department’s undergraduate advisors or the professor where you are volunteering as a research assistant can help you.

Finally, some students take on the challenge of completing an Honors research project in psychology. These Honors students compete for prizes at the Undergraduate Symposium for Scholarly and Creative Work and can apply to be named a Discovery Scholar. Dr. JoAnn Farver, farver@usc.edu can provide you with more information about the Honors program, or you click here.

Psychological research is not just fascinating to read about in textbooks – you can also become part of the research process and help to discover new knowledge.