CWRU’s psychology research desert

Carsten Torgeson, Staff Writer

“Members of the [Case Western Reserve University] community conduct research daily that makes a lasting difference. But don’t take it from us—the numbers tell our story,” so reads the CWRU’s curated “Research” webpage. The numbers—$373.5 million in competitive sponsored research projects last fiscal year, No. 21 among 100 world universities receiving U.S. utility patents and 270+ recent industry partners—are impressive in a vague and aggrandized sort of way. These statistics, meant to woo and attract prospective students with their scholastic allure, tell a certain story, though exactly whose story is unclear. What is clear is that they do not represent the many psychology—and more broadly, social science—undergraduates who are foiled at nearly every turn in their search for research opportunities. 

When I decided to transfer to CWRU from an institution in England, one of the biggest draws was CWRU’s status as a “leading national research university.” Perhaps naively, I foresaw myself participating in research as soon as I arrived. Alas, this did not happen. Two years and many hopeful though ultimately pointless emails to psychology professors later, I have still not been able to participate in any psychology research at CWRU. 

However, I want to qualify my position. The troubles I have faced may stem from being a transfer student. With most research labs requiring a commitment of at least two semesters, younger students are automatically preferred for their ability to commit to research labs for longer, and I—as a transfer student—have never been as young at CWRU as most have. It is also possible that, having taken the majority of my intro psychology classes at another institution, my troubles come from a lack of connections in CWRU’s department of psychology. But even if this problem were restricted to transfer students, and students who perhaps did not choose their major immediately, CWRU—lauded for allowing students to take classes from any department—should be capable of supporting students who choose to explore other areas of study before settling on psychology.

And this problem is not specific to students who cannot get their foot in the door from the very beginning. In my conversations with psychology professors and students alike, I frequently hear  that even first year psychology majors are struggling to become involved. These students carry the advantage of not being expected to have any prior research experience, an expectation that students increasingly begin to struggle with the more senior they become. 

Two commonly referenced reasons for why it has been difficult to offer more research opportunities include COVID-19 and the burgeoning undergraduate student population. Regarding the increase in student population, President Eric Kaler said during his March 21 USG address, “there shouldn’t be a qualitative change in the quality of the education, the experiences you get with [these] relatively minor or modest quantitative changes in the number of students.” President Kaler—like the statistics arrogantly boasted on CWRU’s “Research” webpage—represents a distant perspective that does not consider how the increasing student population disproportionately inflates popular majors like psychology and hinders the faculties’ ability to deliver upon their pedagogical duties.

The fact is that CWRU’s psychology professoriate is only numerous enough to support a student to professor ratio of 15:1—nearly two times greater than the university’s average of 9:1. The disproportionately small psychology professoriate is further stressed by the fact that, inherently, the subject of psychology is inseparable from research. 

Take the English major at CWRU, which despite having little responsibility to engage students with related research labs, benefits from a student to faculty ratio of 3:1. Considering that undergraduates intending to pursue a career in psychology must have ample research experience—in a way that undergraduates intending to pursue a career in English do not—it is absurd that the psychology department must make due with so few professors. This past semester, while psychology majors fretted over finding research experience to prepare themselves for life after graduating, English majors were invited to sit in on lectures put on by prospective journalism professors. The department sought to not only add another professor to their already vigorous ranks, but to create a new journalism major.   

The scarcity of research opportunities in the psychology department is not a result of indolency. The CWRU department of psychology offers an honors program that allows undergraduates to design their own research project with the guidance of a faculty mentor and conduct their study. The requirements on the psychology department’s web page include maintaining a GPA of greater than 3.25 in psychology coursework, an overall GPA of greater than 3.0 and the completion of the course Research Design and Analysis (PSCL 375). However, the page does not address how, even with a GPA above the requirement and a passing grade in PSCL 375, many will be unable to find a professor willing to sign on as their research advisor. And who can blame them? The psychology faculty are already stretched nearly to their limit, and being a research advisor is no small thing.   

The desert of research opportunities I faced in England corresponded with the lack of interest from the student body. I’m happy to say this situation felt much worse than the situation at CWRU, as there were limited research opportunities and a small likelihood for change. However, here, the interest is abundant. Whenever I visit the psychology department offices in Mather Memorial to meet with my advisor, it’s too often that a student’s voice greets me by inquiring about lab openings, barely concealing their desperation to find research opportunities. And as I leave, a student—cautiously eager and soon to be crestfallen—reliably waits in the hallway with a grim expression on their face, perhaps steeling themselves for the answer the words they have been told many times over: “I have no openings now, check back next semester.” Where interest is as intense and widespread as it is in CWRU’s psychology majors, there is bound to be change. And with CWRU attracting intelligent and motivated students, the potential for the psychology department to become one of CWRU’s strongest programs is high. The question is, can CWRU take the steps needed to fulfill its obligation to psychology majors before entire graduating classes fall through the cracks? Only time will tell.