Other Senior Essay Tips
by Brian Edwards (class of 2008, winner of Crowder Award)
What is the senior essay?
The senior essay provides an exciting opportunity to explore an aspect of psychology in greater depth through a literature review and/or empirical study. A literature review summarizes and analyzes a large body of empirical research concerning a specific topic. Writing a high quality literature review requires reading a large number of journal articles, synthesizing the results of previous experiments, and highlighting areas for future research. Since the senior essay must involve an original contribution, at least some part of the literature review must approach the topic from a novel angle. An empirical study is an experiment (or series of experiments) that addresses a novel research question. Performing an empirical study for the senior essay requires identifying a question that has not been adequately explored by existing studies, developing an experiment that addresses the question, and analyzing the results and drawing conclusions. If you choose to do an empirical study for your senior essay, your essay must also include a literature review; however, the literature review will be significantly briefer than if you choose to make the literature review the focus of your senior essay. Although this process may seem daunting, if you choose a topic that you are passionate about and are deeply interested in exploring it further, the senior essay has the potential to be a very rewarding experience.

Choosing a lab and advisor
If you plan to conduct an empirical research study for your senior essay, you will need to join a research lab affiliated with the psychology department. It is never too early to start doing research! Many psychology labs accept students with varying backgrounds and levels of previous research experience. In fact, many labs encourage freshman and sophomores to apply for positions in the hope that these students will work in the lab for several semesters and possibly complete senior essays in the lab.

The three most important criteria for choosing a lab are (1) the amount of overlap between your research interests and the lab’s research interests, (2) the quality of mentorship afforded undergraduate students in the lab, and (3) personal compatibility between you and your advisor.

(1) It is essential that there is some overlap between your interests and the interests of the other members of the lab. Faculty members are most knowledgeable about topics relating to their research interests, and furthermore, if your interests do not intersect with those of other lab members, it is likely that either you or your advisor will not be enthusiastic about your essay. The psychology department website contains information about faculty research interests. Faculty member websites often contain more detailed information about their research and links to journal articles they have recently published. It is especially important to read recent publications to find out about your faculty advisor’s current interests.

(2) Labs vary greatly in the nature of responsibilities and support given to undergraduates. In some cases, students will join existing essays and gradually develop their own essays, whereas in other cases, students will be encouraged to start their own essay immediately. In some labs, the professor works closely with undergraduates and in other labs, graduate students are primarily responsible for advising undergraduates. It is important to ask (i) “what do you expect from me?” and (ii) “what is the nature of the mentoring I will receive?” before joining a lab. Here are some specific considerations you might want to ask about. (i) What is the expected time commitment? What will my responsibilities be (e.g., running experiments, designing experiments, data analysis, writing a paper based on the results)? How much input will I have in the experiment’s design and other intellectual aspects of the essay? Are there opportunities for becoming a co-author on research studies? (ii) What is the advising structure in the lab? What contact will I have with the professor (e.g., weekly one-on-one meetings, group lab meetings)? To what extent will I be expected to work independently and to what extent will I be expected to work collaboratively with other members of the lab?

(3) Academic considerations are very important when choosing a lab, but you also need to consider the personal compatibility between you and your advisor. As is the case with any endeavor, if you can’t stand the people you are working with, you probably won’t have a good research experience. Alternatively, if you have a positive working relationship with your advisor, this will increase your enthusiasm and improve your attitude toward your essay. Thus, you should consider “personality” and “fit” issues in addition to academic issues when selecting a lab and an advisor.

Undergraduates working in labs are an excellent source of information regarding their experiences. They are likely to speak candidly concerning the pros and cons of their labs. Speaking with current seniors is particularly helpful for learning which professors are especially good senior essay advisors.

Once you’ve decided that you want to work in a particular lab, you should contact the professor with an e-mail describing your background and why you are interested in joining their lab. Professors want to see that you’ve taken the time to think about why their lab is a good fit for you and that you are familiar with the lab’s research. An ideal candidate will have read several of the lab’s recent publications. This shows that you are genuinely interested in their work. Brian Scholl offers excellent advice for students interested in working in psychology labs (CLICK HERE).

Essay timeline (for an empirical study)
Before senior year: If you have a passion for research (or want to find out if you would enjoy doing research, you should consider doing research as early as possible during your Yale career. While you don’t need to start doing research with the senior essay in mind, research essays conducted before the senior year can serve as inspiration for a senior essay. Research takes a long time and many studies that are eventually successful don’t work at first and undergo lots of fine tuning. It is ideal to start thinking seriously about the senior essay in the spring of the junior year.  Since it is easy to underestimate the amount of time needed to complete a senior essay and you will undoubtedly run into a few snags along the way, it helps to start early
Spring of junior year: Start thinking seriously about potential topics for a senior essay. Once you have some idea of what topic you want to explore, contact faculty members who may be suitable advisors. You don’t need to have a concrete plan for a specific research study at this point, but potential advisors will want to gauge your interests before deciding to accept you as a senior thesis student. If you plan to work in a psychology lab over the summer, you will need to apply for positions during the spring semester. Many labs at Yale offer summer research opportunities for rising seniors.
Summer after junior year: If you plan to pursue graduate school in psychology or want to get a head start on your senior essay, seriously consider working in a lab over the summer. The summer is a great time to work in a lab because you won’t have to balance your commitment to the lab with other classes and extracurricular activities, allowing you to immerse yourself in your essay and make significant progress.
Senior year
September: Finalize your choice of an advisor if you have not done so already and continue to develop a concrete plan for your senior essay.
October-December: Determine a precise topic for your study, design your study, and perform data collection.
January: Continue data collection and analysis and write a detailed outline for your senior essay.
Before spring break: Have a complete draft of your senior essay! Yes, you do need a draft this early because it takes a lot of time to revise a senior essay and because it make take your advisor time to comment on your draft. Also, it’s really nice to not spend all of spring break working on the senior essay.
Two weeks before the senior essay is due: Finish a second complete draft of your senior essay. Show your advisor the entire draft if he/she is willing to read a full draft, or at a minimum, any portions of the draft that you think may need substantial revision.
One week before the senior essay is due: Have a near-final version of your senior essay ready so you can concentrate on making minor revisions, proofreading, and submitting the senior essay. Last-minute issues can arise so it’s important to leave some breathing room!

Essay timeline (for a literature review)
Although the timeline for a literature review essay is less variable than the timeline for an empirical study, it is still necessary to look for an advisor early (during the spring of the junior year) and start working on your essay during the fall of the senior year. During the fall, you should extensively read journal articles and think critically about how to present the articles in your paper. The timeline for completing outlines and drafts of your paper should be the same for a literature review essay as for an empirical study essay.

Other Helpful Papers on Scientific Writing
• Technical Writing: By Gray et al.  [pdf] 
• Writing Narrative LIterature Reviews: By Baumeister & Leary [pdf]
• Writing the empirical journal article: by Bem [pdf]
• Writing a Review Article: by Bem [pdf]
• The Science of Scientific Writing: by Gopen and Swan  [pdf]
• Revision Strategies: by Sommers [pdf]

Examples of Award Winning Psychology Senior Essays

• Scott Snyder ’10, Angier Prize Winning Senior Essay entitled “Adaptive Traits Associated with Psychopathy in a “Successful,” Non-Criminal Population” [pdf]
• Meg Martinez ’10, Angier Prize Winning Senior Essay entitled “The Blame Game: Lay causal Theories and Familiarity with Mental Illness.” [pdf]
• Stav Atir ’10, “Memory for Information Paired with Humorous, Relevant Jokes” [pdf]

For senior requirement questions, check out our Frequently Asked Questions.
If you still have questions, then contact Dr. Julia Kim-Cohen (psych.thesis@yale.edu)