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Psychology in the real world

When Jean McMahon was finishing her undergrad studies in psychology, she knew she wanted to go to grad school, and she looked for a university where her work could have real-world impact.

“I wanted to address questions that were important, but I wanted that information to be useful,” she says. “I didn’t want to just publish academic articles and have that be the end of it.”

Many university psychology programs are lab-based and theoretical, their student researchers rarely venturing out into the community to do field studies. But PSU’s Department of Psychology, with its focus on applied psychology, gives its students the chance to collaborate with many community partners and work with them to understand and address societal problems.

McMahon is now in the her fifth year as a PhD graduate student at PSU, where she’s a researcher in the Gender, Race, and Sexual Prejudice (GRASP) Lab run by Psychology professor Kimberly Kahn. Psychology faculty members like Dr. Kahn have their own labs, in which they conduct research and supervise students. The GRASP Lab studies contemporary forms of prejudice and bias across domains in society, with a particular focus on the criminal justice system and policing, and it has multiple projects going at all times. Many of those are done with outside organizations, including the Portland Police Bureau, other police groups throughout Oregon, and the Center for Policing Equity, a research and action think tank that builds connections between law enforcement practitioners and social science researchers.

McMahon’s primary research focuses on sexism, and whether it’s directed in the same way at black women and white women. For her dissertation, she’s looking specifically at domestic violence, analyzing police reports to see how race affects the way different cases are handled.

Another student in the GRASP Lab is Jaboa Lake, a third-year PhD graduate student researching intraminority intergroup relations, solidarity, and participation in collective action movements. She says that one of the advantages to being in an applied social psychology program is that students have more career options after they graduate. “Some go right into tenure-track academic positions, but others go into industry. The program prepares you to do both.” 

According to McMahon, there are always a lot of projects going on in the GRASP Lab, so Dr. Kahn is able to spread the work among all her student researchers. 

“These projects take a long, long time to finish,”she says.,“A year is the bare minimum. It’s helpful to have a lab full of excited people.” To join a lab, undergraduates and postbac students can go to the website of the lab that interests them and fill out an online application, like this one, for the GRASP Lab. 

“Spend time getting to know what the lab does,” says Lake.  “Faculty are very open to talking to undergrads. Send an email, get in touch. Focus on what your interests are.”

Photo: Jaboa Lake