Six common pitfalls to avoid when conducting research and
designing interventions for recent transplants to the United States.
BY REBECCA VOELKER
If you’re planning to be a practitioner, in just a few years your client list might include patients who’ve immigrated to the
United States from at least a dozen different countries.
But will you know how to treat this diverse, rapidly changing
Not unless researchers focus more intently on immigrants’
unique mental health needs, says Dina Birman, PhD, a
psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago
who studies immigrant and refugee acculturation. The influx of
immigrants is so great that it can’t be ignored in academic circles
or among practitioners, adds Alejandro Morales, PhD, assistant
professor of educational, school and counseling psychology at the
University of Missouri.
Consider these statistics: From 2000 to 2010, the Hispanic
population grew by 43 percent, far outpacing the 10 percent
growth in the total population, according to the U.S. Census.
In addition, one in five U.S. residents is a first- or second-generation immigrant, and nearly 25 percent of children and
teens have an immigrant parent.
Consider, too, the fact that many are fleeing poverty, war
and persecution, and it’s clear that psychologists will be needed
to help them cope and adjust to their new environment,
says Nadine Nakamura, PhD, a psychology professor at the
University of La Verne in California who studies gay, lesbian and
“To be able to deliver good services, we need to know much
more about these populations,” she notes. That means graduate
students have burgeoning opportunities to fill knowledge gaps
by learning how to responsibly conduct research and design
interventions for immigrants and their communities, Nakamura
According to prominent immigration researchers and their
students, the most common pitfalls include:
Trying to ‘save’ the community you study
When you’re passionate about working with an immigrant
community, the line between research and advocacy may become
blurred, says Morales. “Many times, students feel they want
to come in and save the community, but that shouldn’t be the
mentality,” he notes.
Moving too quickly
Before you can design interventions or even study an immigrant
community, you have to first earn members’ trust, says Corrina
Simon, a clinical psychology student at the University of Illinois
at Chicago who studies the experiences of refugees and asylum
Simon suggests talking with stakeholders in the community
— religious leaders, for example — to find out the type of
research project that interests the community. She also suggests
doing volunteer work to learn more about the population’s needs
and to make connections.
“Don’t do ‘drive-by’ research,” she advises. Swooping in
on a community to quickly collect data on deeply personal or
traumatic experiences and then leaving can do more harm than
good, she says.
Relying on surveys
Quantitative research can tell graduate students a lot about the
people they want to study, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, says
Nakamura. So before you send questionnaires to 100 Mexican
immigrants about their experiences of racism, do some in-depth,
open-ended interviews, Nakamura suggests. Sometimes, study
participants can point you toward critical issues you hadn’t even