You’ve Got ‘Em – Now What?

NOTE: This post is for new scholars getting situated with their faculty research mentor.

Mentor situated – check. Awesome. Now what? You establish connectivity. You figure out the game plan for your research project. You start to get to know one another. You determine the best method of connecting on a regular basis and you – ideally – set up a weekly meeting time. Although you might not need to meet in person each and every week, chances are in the beginning, you will. Having a weekly meeting time set up in advance ensures that you can access your mentor when needed. It’s also much better than meeting with them during their office hours.

Weekly meetings with your mentor are KEY.

As a McNair scholar, you are special. As a burgeoning researcher and scholar mentee, you deserve to have ample time interacting with, and learning from, your mentor. We make sure our faculty recognize this is our preference for our McNair scholars and good mentors will have already established such a game plan as a matter of protocol.

While you shouldn’t hold back in “being yourself” and allowing your personality to shine, you should allow your mentor to take the lead during these initial weeks. See how they tend to operate, see how your conversations generally go. Keep in mind that the relationship with your faculty mentor will likely evolve and change over time. It’s important to establish a professional working relationship while keeping personal drama and other issues to yourself.

Be professional. Be on time. Be prepared for meetings.

In our experience, most relationships will grow to encompass more personal interactions (ones that are still professional); however, it’s always good practice to keep things like going into great detail about your personal problems, etc. at bay. Right now, most important is that you are learning about research and your field of study from your mentor. This is such a huge bonus as an undergraduate student.

Take full advantage of having this kind of access and opportunity to develop a really cool relationship with your mentor.

Remember that you are (obviously) looking to have a positive experience working with your mentor. By doing a great job (stretching yourself, working hard, taking initiative, going beyond what’s expected) you are pretty much solidifying that you will have a top-notch letter of recommendation from your mentor. The importance of this letter, or reference, cannot be stressed enough! Period.

Mentors help get you into grad school – and get funded.

In many instances, scholars applying to graduate school might not have the “perfect” record with regard to their grades, or their GRE scores might fall just a bit short. Having a strong letter of recommendation (having THREE for that matter) is like having an ace in your back pocket. It’s what selection committees really look at in the application process and it’s also possible that a particularly strong letter referencing your extensive and productive research experience will be what gets you in the door – and what gets you money.

Not to dive in too deeply to the application process already. Just know that these first steps you are taking with your mentor are really important. They are also really special – and exciting. Have fun getting to know your faculty mentor. Show your enthusiasm and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Now is the time! You want to make sure you are understanding the topic of your study. You also want to make sure you are setting up a game plan that will hit all of the critical benchmarks along the way – developing your proposal in the spring, presenting it in April, actually starting your research, completing it by the end of July, writing up your final paper in August and then presenting your results in fall.

Keep in mind that when you sign the “mentoring partnership agreement” with your mentor – this document is meant to help hit all of these important points and to establish a baseline plan from which you can successfully operate. We know there will be tweaks along the way, sometimes even big shifts in your work, but communicating regularly and creating a plan up front will help to make sure you have the best possible experience working with your mentor.

Take home points.

  • Have fun getting to know your mentor!
  • Meet weekly and establish a game plan for your project.
  • Ask questions and be up front if you are not understanding something.
  • Figure out how you will communicate – certainly by meeting in person, but is your mentor good with email, many will give you their cell number, are they okay with you texting them?
  • Always be on time and prepared (to do items completed and a short meeting agenda prepared) for meetings with your mentor.
  • Be responsible and work hard from the get go – your mentor will appreciate this and be super impressed.