Scholar post: Laura Warner, 2014 McNair Scholar
This month we got to meet the new scholars. While meeting them, I couldn’t help thinking how fast my year with McNair had gone. During my cohort’s orientation in December 2013, I remember thinking that I had a long road ahead. In truth, I did have a lot of work ahead of me. Even just writing “December 2013” made me feel like orientation was a long time ago. Having completed my summer research and helped welcome a new cohort, I now feel as if that year was half as long as I expected.
I was so excited to begin McNair. I remember liking the group from the start and getting along with everyone. I also felt like a huge VIP getting all the McNair bags and shirts. I remember feeling very unused to the kind of special treatment with which McNair graces its cohorts. I appreciated the experiences that I gained through McNair—experiences that I would not have had the opportunity to take part in, had it not been for the program. These experiences served two main purposes. The first was so that we could have fun bonding with our cohort and experiencing new things. The second was so that we would not be utterly shocked when people outside our comfortable little nest at CMU started treating us like professionals.
This became apparent to me when I visited the University of Rochester in New York. I certainly didn’t feel like a ”big deal” when I got accepted into the visitation program. During the visit, however, I began to realize that the group of students selected for the program was carefully chosen. We had things that our program faculty wanted, and they were pulling out all the stops to make us want to attend their school. It took a little getting used to, but I realized that McNair had prepared me for exactly this type of situation—one where a student has a lot of control or is being treated like a valuable professional. I felt very able to navigate my visit there and speak to the faculty with confidence.
To the incoming scholars, I would offer some simple, but very important advice. First of all, pick a project that you love and that is relevant to your future graduate program/career. I chose a project that was not completely tailored to my interests, and my graduate school search has definitely taken a hit because of it. The words “no relevant experience” seem to haunt my rejection emails. If I could go back, I would definitely pick a different project. However, hindsight is 20/20, and I was not entirely aware of the types of graduate programs I would be applying for currently. Some faculty will understand this, but competitive programs will often not. So, even when someone tells you that any experience is good, I would argue that relevant experience is what takes you from applicant to assistantship.
My other piece of advice is to pick a mentor that matches your interests, working style, and personality. This can be difficult, especially because McNair mentors aren’t always people that you were familiar with ahead of time. However, I think it is crucial to find these things out ahead of time. Don’t just pick a mentor because you like them, when their research interests don’t match yours at all. Conversely, don’t choose a mentor that you do not think you can get along with, even if their research is everything you’ve ever dreamed of. This goes for your McNair project, and any other research project for the rest of your life. You are going to be spending an inordinate amount of time with these people, trust me. You want to be able to ask them for guidance, and you need to know that their teaching style meshes with your learning style. Otherwise, your project could be severely hampered by lack of communication and cooperation. Don’t worry, even if everything imaginable goes wrong with your research project, I promise it will still be an invaluable learning experience that will build a strong foundation for your career.
[end of new scholar advice rant] :)
I am realizing now that McNair is not an experience that simply ends once a new cohort takes your place. It is a part of your life that stays with you long after it has prepared you for a professional career path. I am grateful to have made this experience a part of my identity—to have taken every opportunity that was offered to me. In the future, I know I will always have my McNair family to lean back on and my McNair experiences to guide me through life.