First Steps

NOTE: This post is for new scholars getting ready to pick their faculty research mentors.

Pretty much the first thing you do as a McNair scholar is determine what faculty mentor you will work with. While I like to keep this first step “light and airy” if you will (read: not attaching too much meaning to it, and thus, making it a huge deal), it is a significant step in the McNair experience. Figuring out your mentor will provide you with a platform for 1) exploring your interests, 2) learning about research, 3) developing a professional working relationship and 4a) discovering what kind of person you are, 4b) what you have to offer and 4c) what traits you will look for in future mentors and colleagues. No big.

Couple of things to keep in mind here. First, we have limited options (as would be the case at any institution) with regard to what faculty might be willing and able to work with you. Secondly, you want to explore a number of people, but ultimately, you’re going to “go with your gut” when making a choice (this goes back to keeping it “light and airy”). Key here is understanding how this is really “practice” for the “real thing” once you get yourself into graduate school. That means that while this research experience is significant, it is not the “be all end all” of experiences.

The research project is on a very small-scale, enough for you to “try it on” and get a decent sense about this kind of work, while at the same time, you are going to blink and it will be over! We have very specific “book ends” when it comes to starting and completing your McNair project – you start in January and finish in October. The bonus is most of our scholars continue to work with their faculty mentors, and thus, go much deeper into the research process, sometimes even publishing before they finish up their undergrad!

Our BIG goal is to expose you to the process of research so it’s really important to find someone who is an active researcher in your field. It’s also important that “your gut” is telling you that you will be able to develop a positive relationship with this person and that you are feeling some level of connection or camaraderie upon discussing the option of working together. More important than the actual topic of your research project, is finding a good person that can teach you the process of doing research in your field.

As far as the actual “how to” of finding your mentor – what you want to think about are professors that you might have had in class that you found particularly compelling – whether that be in their persona, within the content they presented or their current line of research that they may have talked about in relation to class material.

You also want to make sure that you are covering all of your bases. This means going to the departmental website and clicking on “faculty” and reviewing each and every faculty bio, blurb, list of publications and/or their CV. What you’re looking for here (since you really can’t tell much about their personality if you haven’t had them in class) are topics that might be intriguing to you.

For those individuals, we recommend emailing them to set up a brief (15 – 20 minutes) appointment to introduce yourself, learn more about their research and discuss the possibility of potentially working with them as a McNair scholar. Requesting a meeting time often works better than simply stopping by during office hours for a couple of reasons. It sets the stage as to why you are interested in connecting. It also (hopefully) guarantees that the faculty member will have the time to sit down with you and focus in on your conversation.

NOTE: For students who may have already determined who their McNair mentor will be, we still want you to go out and connect with a few new faculty. Doing so is a great networking opportunity. Establishing connections among multiple faculty is essential in preparing yourself for graduate study. Of course you will have a great relationship with your primary mentor with whom you conduct research (they will, in fact, supply your primary letter of recommendation if all goes well), but it’s always good to grow relationships with other professors you have in class or you may just be interested in talking to them about their work and interests in relation to your own.

In this scenario, you want to be “straight up” when contacting that faculty member – let them know that you are looking to meet more faculty in the department and that you are interested in learning more about their work. You can certainly mention that you are a McNair scholar and will be working with Dr. So and So for your project. It’s also nice to chat a bit about your long-term interests and career goals as you never know when you will meet someone who will be KEY to opening that door you might not even know exists right now. This is really the fantastic (and exciting!) part about meeting new people, establishing connections and growing those relationships. Right now you are building the foundation of your network – starting with your McNair mentor.

A brief recap here. What you are looking for in a mentor:

  • Someone who is an active researcher.
  • Someone who seems genuinely interested in you and your long-term educational/career goals.
  • Someone who you think you can connect with – both personally and professionally.
  • Someone who can teach you how to do research in your field.
  • Someone who can help you figure out and take those next steps in your schooling and career.
  • Someone cool! Of course!

Traits you need to bring to the table starting NOW:

  • Openness to learning new things.
  • Respect for your mentor’s time and expertise.
  • Confidence in the knowledge and skills you have right now.
  • Being responsible and hard-working with whatever task is at hand.
  • Natural inquisitiveness, ability to engage in conversation with your mentor and ask questions when you have them.
  • Proactive mindset – take direction from your mentor, but also demonstrate initiative.
  • Oh, and BE YOURSELF.

Selecting your mentor is an exciting first step in the McNair journey. Have fun with it, take it seriously, but at the same time, go with your gut as you are exploring different folks and different options. Chances are you’ll find your way to the best McNair mentor for you!

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.