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!

Posters, Posters, Posters

Next step in the presentation process – creating your poster. Not a huge deal since you already have your oral presentations (aka PowerPoint’s) in hand. These obviously are a feeder of content. The poster is simply another form of expression.

While we are certainly here to help and guide you in this process, you are ultimately responsible for the final product and all of its magnificent depiction of your work and the bigger framework within which your work is connected. Unfortunately, this may also include unprofessional typos, confusion and even boredom if you aren’t careful to put in the time and effort necessary to craft something really cool and something that you, your mentor and McNair can be ultra-proud of. That’s the goal!

A quick Google of “poster presentations” will lead to all sorts of sites brimming with full out instruction as well as tips, tricks and samples galore. In particular, Susan Koskinen, a physics-astronomy librarian @ Berkeley has a nice site that leads you right through the process (it’s geared toward the sciences, but the basic pointers are relevant across the board). Check it:

Research Poster Guide

Susan stresses three points that your poster should achieve >>>>

convey your research quickly and clearly

express your findings succinctly

draw your audience in with design, figures, graphs and illustrations

Creating Your Poster

A common format for poster presentations involves creating one large poster using PowerPoint. This essentially entails formatting ONE SLIDE according to the specifications below. You’ll create various text boxes and insert images and graphs as appropriate. We require that you have your poster printed according to the standard dimensions of 48×36 inches, as this size is likely to work in most settings.

1. Open a new PowerPoint presentation and access the Page Set-up menu (File – Page Set-up)

2. Designate the width as 48 inches and the height as 36 inches

3. Change the slide to a landscape orientation and close the window

4. Create and format text boxes to contain titles, headings and content of your poster

5. Insert images by using the Insert – Object, Picture, etc. menu options

6. Graphs and charts may be created either through PowerPoint itself, or through Excel and inserted as an image

Design Tips

>> A poster is a visual storytelling. Make it eye-catching and easy to read so people will stop to look.

>> Use a basic font like Arial or Times Roman; don’t use dark backgrounds.

>> Your poster should be able to be read at a distance of 4 feet.

>> Use pictures, graphs, tables, charts and drawings; avoid a lot of text.

CRITICAL POINT: images must be of the highest resolution possible so that they print out clear –
we DO NOT WANT fuzzy, pixelated images – that’s just tacky!

>> Each part of the poster should be self-sufficient; most people will only read a portion.

>> Poster should be symmetrical and balanced and look good up close and from a distance.

>> Leave white space around your material; use bolding and italicization to organize content.

>> Keep what text you have to short sections; use an outlined form and bullets for easy reading.

>> Introductions should get to the point quickly and draw in the reader.

>> All figures should have a full legend with the conclusion clearly stated.

>> Conclusions/summary should be in bullet form for “fast-food reading” of your poster.

>> Be sure to acknowledge your sponsors (if any) and base institution (i.e. CMU).

Here is a LINK for print-quality CMU word marks.

>> You may want to include key bibliographic sources used in your research.

>> Proof! Proof! Proof! – There are no excuses for typos and it makes you appear unprofessional; formatting must also be consistent throughout (bullet points, indents, text boxes properly aligned etc).

>> Be available and friendly to attract people and conversation; be prepared to discuss the material on your poster and answer questions; you should have a prepared “five-minute walk through” of the highlights.

You are in luck!


To make this process even more streamlined, straightforward and easy peasy lemon squeezy … you have access to “specially curated samples” from previous McNair scholars that you can simply use as templates.

Go to our “McNair Scholar Sample Work” Trello Board for access.

Click HERE to access Brooke’s handout on posters – more good tidbits and ideas.

Click HERE to access Kim’s handout – the nitty gritty – all good stuff!

Good luck! Take this exercise seriously (READ: put in ample time and effort) because having a kick-ass research poster is one of the best ways to get people excited about your work – let them know why it’s important – and to showcase YOU.

Poster Sample

Sample research poster by previous McNair graduate assistant – Brian Siers – in Industrial/Organizational Psychology