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Psychology Research for High School Students

Psychology research can take the form of laboratory experiments, observational studies, case studies, surveys, computational methods, and more. If you find yourself intrigued by what makes people tick, psychology might be the right field for you. Other signs: you’re a good listener; you enjoy solving problems; you want to reduce stigma and advocate for people who can’t always advocate for themselves; you enjoy working with data and drawing conclusions; you’re fascinated by diversity; you want to know how people communicate and understand each other.

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Types of Psychology Research and Careers

Psychological research can take various forms, many of which do not require laboratories and mice running around in mazes. Field studies, for instance, take place in real-world settings, often with minimal interruption on your part. Field study researchers collect data in “natural” environments (in the sense that they are not created by the scientists themselves; a natural environment could be your high school) to study behavior and social interactions as they would naturally occur. Content analysis is another form of research that examines written, visual, or audio materials to identify themes, patterns, and trends. It is often used to study media, communication, and textual data. Neuroimaging techniques like fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and EEG (electroencephalography) allow researchers to study brain activity and structure in relation to behavior, cognition, and emotions.

Whether you’re working in the lab, field, library, or at your computer, psychology research can lead you to a wide variety of careers in different industries. You could become a therapist and practice clinical psychology. You could work in the legal system as a forensic psychologist. You could work in the business world as a productivity or leadership expert. New fields involving psychology are constantly emerging as the human experience changes. For example, the increasing role of technology in our lives gave rise to cyberpsychology, a new branch of psychology that examines the impact of the internet, social media, virtual reality, and other digital technologies on human behavior, cognition, and mental health. 

How to Get into Psychology

Take time to explore different areas of psychology to find out which topics and aspects interest you the most. Start by reading books about the various human behaviors you’re curious about. (We list some good books to begin with below.) Get some exposure to psychology out in the real world by seeking out volunteer opportunities at local mental health clinics, hospitals, or community organizations. Take a psychology course in your high school. Do a deep dive into your subject with a summer psychology workshop or program. One of the best methods is to find a mentor who is a practicing psychologist, psychology professor, or psychology graduate student. They can provide guidance and insights into the profession. Here are more details on some actions you can take right now.

1. Take a Class in High School

The availability of psychology classes varies greatly from school to school, but most high schools offer at least a few of the types of courses listed below. You can also look for courses at your local community college or seek out online versions of these courses. 

  • Intro to Psychology (Psych 101): This is often the foundational course that covers the basic concepts, theories, and principles of psychology. Students learn about topics such as the history of psychology, research methods, human development, personality, and mental health.

  • Advanced Placement (AP) Psychology: Some high schools offer AP courses, which are more rigorous and can earn students college credit if they perform well on the AP exam. AP Psychology covers a wide range of psychology topics and is typically more in-depth than a standard introductory course.

  • Abnormal Psychology: This course explores mental disorders, their causes, symptoms, and treatments. Students learn about various psychological disorders and gain an understanding of how they are diagnosed and managed.

  • Developmental Psychology: This class focuses on the physical, cognitive, and emotional development of individuals across the lifespan, from infancy to old age.

  • Social Psychology: Social psychology courses delve into the study of how individuals' thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by others. Topics may include conformity, group dynamics, prejudice, and social influence.

  • Cognitive Psychology: Students in this class explore topics related to human cognition, such as memory, perception, problem-solving, and decision-making.

  • Biological Psychology: This course examines the biological and neurological factors that influence behavior, including the brain, hormones, genetics, and the nervous system.

  • Forensic Psychology: High schools that offer advanced psychology courses might include a class on forensic psychology, which focuses on the intersection of psychology and the criminal justice system.

  • Health Psychology: This course explores the relationship between psychology and physical health, including topics like stress, coping mechanisms, and behavior change.

  • Sports Psychology: High schools with specialized programs may offer sports psychology classes that examine the psychological aspects of sports performance, motivation, and teamwork.

2. Read a Book

Students of psychology can benefit from reading a combination of classic works that have shaped the field and more recent books that challenge or correct older theories. Here are some foundational texts and some more recent books that can provide a well-rounded understanding of psychology:

Foundational books:

  • "The Interpretation of Dreams" by Sigmund Freud - This book introduced many foundational concepts in psychoanalysis, even though some of Freud's ideas have been criticized and revised over time.

  • "The Principles of Psychology" by William James - Often considered one of the most important books in the history of psychology, it laid the groundwork for many areas of the field.

  • "Behaviorism" by John B. Watson - Watson helped establish behaviorism as a dominant paradigm in psychology during the early 20th century.

  • "The Social Animal" by Elliot Aronson - This book offers a comprehensive overview of social psychology, helping students understand the power of social influences on behavior.

  • "The Nature of Prejudice" by Gordon Allport - A classic work on the psychology of prejudice and discrimination, which remains relevant in today's world.

  • More recent psychology books that challenge old beliefs:

  • "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion" by Jonathan Haidt - Explores moral psychology and challenges conventional views on moral reasoning.

  • "Thinking, Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman - Challenges traditional views of human rationality and decision-making by introducing the concept of two thinking systems: fast and intuitive vs. slow and deliberate.

  • "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business" by Charles Duhigg - Discusses how habits are formed and how they can be changed, challenging older ideas about behavior change.

  • "The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds" by Michael Lewis - Explores the work of psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman and their groundbreaking research on cognitive biases and decision-making.

  • "The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature" by Steven Pinker - Challenges the notion that human behavior is entirely a product of culture and argues for a more nuanced view of human nature.

  • "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less" by Barry Schwartz - Challenges the idea that more choices lead to greater happiness and explores the psychology of decision-making.

  • "The Psychology of Climate Change" edited by Susan Clayton and Christie Manning - Addresses the psychological factors underlying climate change denial and offers insights into how to motivate action on climate issues.

Books are a great start, but as in all sciences, practitioners of psychology are constantly making new breakthroughs. Keep up with new developments through reputable websites, journals, and organizations like the American Psychological Association (APA).

3. Extracurricular Study

Remember that quality is often more important than quantity when it comes to extracurricular activities. Choose activities that genuinely interest you.

  • Psychology Club: If your school has a psychology club, join it. It's a great way to connect with like-minded students and engage in discussions and activities related to psychology.

  • Psychology-Adjacent Clubs: If your school doesn’t have a specific club devoted to psychology (and you don’t want to start your own), join clubs such as the debate club, sociology club, or philosophy club, which can complement your understanding of psychology and still provide opportunities for discussing psychological topics. Science or research clubs also often include psychology-related projects or activities.

  • Volunteer at Mental Health Organizations: Look for volunteer opportunities at local mental health clinics, crisis hotlines, or nonprofit organizations that focus on mental health and well-being. This experience can give you exposure to real-world issues in psychology.

  • Peer Counseling: Consider becoming a peer counselor or peer listener at your school. This role involves helping fellow students with personal or emotional concerns, which can provide you with valuable interpersonal and counseling skills.

  • Internships: Seek internships or shadowing opportunities with practicing psychologists, counselors, or therapists. This firsthand experience can give you insight into the day-to-day work of professionals in the field.

  • Independent Research Projects: Undertake independent research projects in psychology. You can investigate topics of interest and present your findings at school or local science fairs.

  • TEDx Talks or Public Speaking: Develop your public speaking skills by giving presentations or talks on psychology-related topics. Consider participating in events like TEDx Youth or school assemblies. Related to that, you could start or join initiatives to raise awareness about mental health issues. Organize events, workshops, or campaigns to reduce stigma and promote mental health in your school community. If your school has peer education programs related to substance abuse or well-being, consider becoming a peer educator. 

  • Writing for School Publications: If getting up and talking in front of people is not your thing, you can contribute articles or essays to your school newspaper or magazine on psychology-related subjects. This can help you develop your writing skills and share your passion for the field.

  • Create a Psychology Blog or Podcast: Start a blog or podcast where you discuss psychology topics, share book reviews, or interview professionals in the field. This can showcase your interest and communication skills.

If you could use some help developing your own psychology research project, our Pathfinders program gives you access to psychology mentors who can listen to your ideas and provide valuable feedback.

Psychology Research Opportunities 

As a high school student, you have many options for conducting psychology research. There are pre-college programs you can attend in the summer, local community college, internship, or virtual programs you could attend after school or as a homeschooling student, or independent research with a professor or mentor. If you want to conduct your own experiments, we highly advise that you have a qualified adult advisor you can consult. Conducting ethical experiments and properly documenting your work are essential for any research project, and a mentor can help you navigate the trickier parameters of psychology research. Also, networking with professionals in the field and seeking guidance from experienced mentors can be incredibly helpful for your future studies and career.

Find research programs close to home

We’ll go into summer psychology programs in more depth in the next section, but if you want to find all types of established psychology research opportunities close to home, our High School Student Research Opportunities Database is an excellent resource. Click on your state, then search based on your location, institution, event type (in-person or virtual), and tuition (paid or free). 

Work with a professor

If you have a clear idea of your passions, you can reach out to professors in your field to see if they are open to collaborating with you. Refer to our Guide to Cold-Emailing Professors (written by Polygence literature research mentor Daniel Hazard, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University).

Engage in your own research project

Students with initiative and focus can opt to tackle research independently. Carly Taylor, a Stanford University senior who has completed several research projects this way, outlined a guide about how to write a self-guided research paper. By reading it, you’ll get a better understanding of what to expect when taking on this type of project.

Enter a competition

The requirements and deadlines that competitions require you to meet provide a very helpful structure to keep your psychology research moving forward. For some ideas, check out our Top Psychology and Neuroscience Competitions for High School and Middle School Students. Another benefit to attending a competition is that you will meet other students, teachers, and even experts in the field you love most. 

For out top picks, read our "Best Psychology Research Opportunities for High School Students" article.

Summer Programs in Psychology

Here are some top picks for summer psychology research programs. We chose them based on a combination of their affordability, name recognition, social opportunities, and academic rigor.

1. EXPLO Psychology + Neuroscience

Hosting institution: Wellesley College

Cost: $7,550

Format: In-person (Norwood, MA)

Application deadline: Ongoing

This EXPLO Pre-College Career Concentrations program gives high school students interested in psychology the chance to deep dive into highly specific topics. For the neuroscience concentration, participants will dissect a brain, diagnose mental illness in patients, and analyze neurochemical reactions to connect how brain structures and biology deeply impact the way that humans think and behave. Key benefits for participants include the chances to learn from industry experts, such as Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett – one of the most-cited scientists in the world for her psychology and neuroscience research – who was a guest instructor in 2023; and earn credits at Sarah Lawrence College, Hampshire College, or Wheaton College. Check the site for the most current application information.

2. Summer@Brown 

Hosting institution: Brown University

Cost: $3,000-$6,000

Format: Online or In-person (Providence, RI)

Application deadline: Mid-May

You have a lot of options here. Courses range from 1-7 weeks, and you can take them online or in person. Offerings include a variety of study areas, from "Radical Social Movements of the Late 20th Century" to "Food, Identity, and Place", to "Reading Psychoanalysis in American Film & Fiction", and more. If you’re staying on campus, you’ll have the opportunity to participate in additional workshops, activities, and group events. Check the site for the most current application information.

3. Summer Scholars Program 

Hosting institution: University of Notre Dame

Cost: $4,475

Format: In-person (Notre Dame, IN)

Application deadline: Mid-March

This 2-week residential program gives you a taste of what taking a psychology course in college will be like. You'll attend a mix of lectures and discussion seminars, and your reading list will include works on social psychology and philosophical tools. Students can earn one transferable college credit upon the completion of their program. Check the site for the most current application information.

For all 20 of our summer psychology program picks, check out this entire post on the subject.

If you’re searching for a virtual psychology research opportunity, consider doing a project through Polygence with one of our psychology mentors.

Psychology Internships for High School Students

A few of the summer programs we found were either paid or unpaid internships.

1. SHTEM: Summer Internships for High Schoolers

Hosting institution: Stanford

Cost: Unpaid internship

Format: Online or in-person (Stanford, CA) 

Application deadline: Mid-March

In this 8-week internship, you work on interdisciplinary projects directly with Stanford faculty and graduate students. Past multifaceted projects have incorporated themes from psychology, neuroscience, design, linguistics, technology, and more. This is an unpaid internship, and you will be expected to work anywhere from 30 to 40 hours per week. You will work directly with a mentor once you have been assigned a project. Check the site for the most current application information.

2. Recruitment & Training for Under-Represented Populations (RTURP) Program 

Hosting institution: Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus

Cost: Full-time, paid position

Format: In-person (Baltimore, MD)

Application deadline: Early February

This program specializes in the psychology of addiction. And not only is this an immersive 10-week learning experience. It is also a paid summer full-time job. In this highly competitive psychology program, participants will work side-by-side with some of the leading scientists in the world at the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), the primary source of scientific knowledge concerning addiction for nearly 60 years. Students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are encouraged to apply. Check the site for the most current application information.

3. Internships at APA

Hosting Institution: American Psychological Association

Cost: No cost, some internships are paid

Location: Remote or Washington, DC

Application Deadline: Rolling admissions

Interning at the prestigious American Psychological Association helps you explore the science of psychology at the top levels of policy making. It is also a great way to meet psychologists who practice nationwide. Admission is competitive. Check the site for the most current application information.

Polygence Scholars Are Also Passionate About

Psychology Project Ideas and How to Brainstorm Your Own

There are many different types of psychology research and ways to pursue your project. Experiments allow psychologists to determine causation and usually use a control group for comparison. Survey-based research involves analyzing word-based information, such as what participants express in interviews and open-ended response questions, or numerical information. A literature review is a written summary of key work that has been conducted about a psychological topic over several years. Other psychology projects involve analyzing large amounts of data in spreadsheets using statistical analysis. Here are three project ideas. You could use experiments, surveys, literature reviews, or data-based analysis to tackle these subjects.

1. Does meditation improve the mental health of people who feel lonely?

Make sure to standardize the way that participants meditate each day (e.g., duration, any apps that they use). What would be a good control condition for this experiment?

Idea by psychology research mentor Kristen

2. How do members of your family, community, peers, or a specific population think about mental health counseling?

What do they think of people who utilize therapy? After understanding these perceptions of therapy, you can come up with interventions that can challenge stigma around going to therapy. Reducing stigma can encourage people to go to therapy and thus improve mental health outcomes!

Idea by mentor psychology research mentor Nat

3. Media analysis

When portrayed in the media, mental illness is typically exaggerated. Because it is shown to be unpredictable and dangerous, many individuals do not have a good understanding of what mental illness even is. Do a deep analysis of how movies and/or TV shows portray mental illness. Consider the best way to disseminate your findings and discuss what the media gets right and wrong about mental illness. 

Idea by psychology research mentor Urveesha

Check out even more project ideas on the Psychology Research and Passion Project Ideas for High School Students post, which groups ideas into experimental, data-based, survey-based, literature review, and more. 

You can also brainstorm your own project ideas based on what human behaviors, motivations, or trends interest you. If you want support, the Pathfinders program gives you the chance to meet with three different mentors who specialize in your field of interest. You can discuss your project ideas with them, and they can help you grow your idea, discover new research techniques, and point the way to great resources and alternative options. 

Psychology Projects from Polygence Scholars

For a sense of how varied the subjects and methods for psychology projects can be, take a look at topics covered by some of our Polygence Scholars.

1. The Effect of K-Pop on Eating Disorders and Body Image in Teenagers

Abigail conducted an experiment with two randomly selected groups: one shown classical music and the other shown a K-pop music video. Her data backed up her hypothesis that Asians who were shown the K-pop music video would show more of an increase in negative body image than the Caucasians who participated in the experiment, due to differing Asian and Western beauty standards. Her paper was published in the Open Journal of Social Sciences.

2. Overcoming Academic Procrastination: A Behavioral-Cognitive Approach

Joshua used the framework of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to uncover how academic procrastination occurs and then used operant conditioning as a tool to unlearn those behaviors You can download his research here.  

3. The neglected mental health crisis: How the COVID-19 pandemic impacted minority groups and youth in the United States

Valeria researched factors such as strict lockdown measures, homelife stresses, fear, media, and lack of resources and how they contributed to the mental health of minority groups in the U.S. She also proposed some possible solutions that could help mitigate these dangers in the future. Her paper was published in the Curieux Academic Journal.

To more psychology projects done by Polygence Scholars

Writing a Psychology Research Paper

Writing a psychology research paper requires some special considerations that other fields such as historical or mathematical research usually doesn’t. Because psychology is specifically a study of humans, you have to make your research as experimentally and ethically sound as possible. Our introductory guide takes you through some of the best practices, resources, and checklists for recruiting participants, ensuring compliance with the Institutional Review Board (IRB), and designing a valid psychology study. 

Another essential step is outlining your research paper. Your psychology paper will usually have six sections: Materials, Methods, Data, Discussion, and Conclusion. You’ll also need to write an Introduction that opens with the problem you’re trying to solve, any existing research, and an overview of your research—all of which is best written about after you’ve finished conducting all your experiments and/or research. Another important piece to your paper is your thesis statement. You can always come up with a preliminary or working thesis and then refine it or completely revise it as you learn more. You also may need to write an abstract. At its core, an abstract is a standalone piece of writing that offers a snapshot of the problem, methodology, findings, and conclusions. If you need more general guidance overall, here’s a great article on how to write a good research paper

When it comes to the data you collect, you’ll need to figure out how you’re going to set up your experiment and what data types you’re going to collect. This article dives into specific strategies for data collection, defines different types, and gives you some resources and tools you can use in your experiment. Making sure you collect the “right” kind of data can make your work a lot easier in the long run. 

If running your own experiment proves too complicated or beyond your financial means (many participants want to be compensated for their participation), you can always choose to analyze a free, publicly available dataset about your topic. Some health organizations, such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), conduct national surveys and publish their numbers. Just make sure that the dataset you use is coming from a trusted source. If you are reading articles to support your thesis, you should skim their introduction and conclusion first to make sure they’re worth reading all the way through.

Another alternative is to write a literature review (sometimes shortened to “lit review”), which is a written summary of key work that has been conducted about a psychological topic over several years. It’s a type of secondary research that describes how different studies relate to each other and how the field has developed over time.

Finally, to get a sense of the length and organization of a student psychology research paper, you can check out Polygence student Luke’s research on nepotism and poverty, published on the open science platform Frontiers. Or check out Polygence student Sanjana‘s research on the connection between sleep and mental health, published in the UCI xGATI Science Journal. 

If you have some ideas and want to conduct psychology research with the guidance of a mentor, apply to be a part of our flagship mentorship program

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Journals in Psychology

Once you’ve researched, written, and perfected your research paper, it’s time to introduce it to the world. You could enter it into a competition, as mentioned earlier in this post, create a podcast, do a YouTube video about it, or publish it in a journal. Publishing your research in a peer-reviewed journal can take the great work you’ve already done and add credibility to it. It also makes a stronger impression than unpublished research. The process of having your work reviewed by advanced degree researchers can be a valuable experience in itself. You can receive feedback from experts and learn how to improve upon the work you’ve already done. 

Here are some publications you could look into. 

1. Whitman Journal of Psychology

The WWJOP is a publication run entirely by students, where research and literature reviews in the field of psychology are recognized. The journal is run out of a high school with a teacher supervisor and student staff.

The WWJOP uniquely also accepts podcast submissions, so if that’s your preferred format for showcasing your work, then this could be the journal for you!

Cost: Free

Deadline: Rolling

Type of research: Original research, podcasts

2. The Journal of Emerging Investigators (JEI)

JEI is an online, peer-reviewed journal that publishes research by middle and high school students in various scientific disciplines, including psychology. Please note that JEI requires that a teacher, mentor, or Principal Investigator of a lab submit your research on your behalf. 

Cost: Free

Deadline: Rolling

Type of research: Original research in the biological and physical sciences that is written by middle and high school students. 

3. Journal of High School Science

Although this online journal is not specifically focused on psychology, The Journal of High School Science is a peer-reviewed quarterly publication showcasing high school student research in the realm of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics.

Cost: Free

Deadline: Rolling

Type of research:  STEAM-based research or innovations by high school students.

Regarding getting your project accepted and published at these or any other peer-reviewed journal: “Be prepared for the possibility of rejection or revisions. Scientific publishing is a competitive process, so maintain a positive attitude and be persistent in your efforts to improve and disseminate your research.” (Quote from The Journal of High School Science website)

For. more detailed list of publish opportunities, read our Top Psychology Journals for High School Students article.


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