What It’s Like Being a Music Therapy Research Assistant

I’m really into research. Like, I read peer-reviewed journals to unwind. Nothing’s better than grabbing the latest copy of the Journal of Music Therapy to enjoy in a bubble bath. And research is very tied to my identity as a music therapist. I’ve always seen it as my form of advocacy. For a lot of decision-makers (administrators, legislators, donors, etc.) who can impact others’ accessibility to music therapy, the value of our work is sometimes reduced to data and statistical significance. I’m not happy about this trend, but it’s the world that music therapists often operate in. In my first few years as a clinician, it became obvious to me that the music therapy field is wide open for a new generation of researchers.

I was really excited when I started my master’s degree because I knew I would finally have the chance to get my hands dirty. Over the course of my two years of grad school, I was lucky enough to be involved in three research projects: 1) video coding for a study about emotion regulation in preschoolers with Dr. Kimberly Sena Moore and Dr. Deannna Hanson-Abromeit, 2) data collection for a study about physical and cognitive outcomes for people with Parkinson’s disease after an intensive piano “boot camp” with Dr. Teresa Lesiuk and Dr. Jennifer Bugos, 3) my own thesis study about which musical elements help older adults remember verbal information.

The opportunities to be involved of the first two research projects presented themselves in my first year of grad school. While I didn’t directly solicit my professors to be on their research teams, I don’t think it was an accident that I got these chances. Starting with my personal statement in my application materials, I was really clear that I wanted to get as much research experience as I could. My first week at school, I was assigned to help Dr. Sena Moore with follow-up stages of research stemming from her dissertation as a part of my graduate assistant duties. A semester later, I was approached by Dr. Lesiuk who was looking for someone with availability over the summer to help with testing for her piano boot camp study with Parkinson’s patients.

All these projects kept me super busy! Before becoming a research assistant, I daydreamed I would spend my time like a bad stock photo. I’d spend hours inputting data and writing research articles while sitting lazily under a tree on my laptop and the perfect cup of coldbrew. Nevermind that I don’t own a laptop because I’ve already destroyed two, and I have a habit of spilling coffee on anything I wear. Naive me didn’t imagine the realities doing research, which runs a spectrum between monotonous, drudging tasks in isolation, to moments of intense creativity, teamwork, and flow.

To get a feel of what my responsibilities involved, here is just a selection of things I’ve done under the title of “research assistant”:

  • Organized hundreds of copies into testing packets
  • Searched online databases for articles
  • Administered standardized psychological tests
  • Scored and input data from those dozens of tests
  • Fetched appropriate furniture for a testing environment
  • Watched and coded videotaped music therapy sessions
  • Brainstormed and debated definitions of musical elements
  • Conducted videotaped interviews
  • Taught group piano lessons
  • Written sections of papers for journal submissions
  • Directed parking and searched for lost participants

In short, there is no simple job description for being a research assistant. I’m grateful that I’ve had chances to observe and learn first-hand the different process of doing research. Most of all, the importance of flexibility stands out in my mind because conducting research is not a straight path. The task of research itself involves many stages that may unfold at a glacial pace, or fall on you all at once. My willingness to jump in wherever needed or roll with an unexpected delay served me well. In the end I fell in love with the onerous and scintillating process of research even more with every new challenge. As I start the next stage of my music therapy journey after graduation, I know that I’ll continue to prioritize research in my future practice!

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