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!

Life Shift

Our selection committee meets today to select our next group of McNair scholars. We’ve completed the interviews, reviewed the applications and we’re at the point in which we are going to have to make some really hard decisions. As we weigh each candidate and discuss their potential for achieving their Ph.D. and making the most of the McNair opportunity, I can’t help but think about how we are about to really impact the lives of the students that are selected.

It’s no secret that not all of our students will ultimately go on to achieve their Ph.D. That’s not the goal of McNair. The goal is to envelop our students in a certain experience made up exploring life goals, being exposed to new things such as doing original research, stretching one’s self mentally and sometimes physically. It’s about knowing that each of us has the choice to take our education to the level of a Ph.D. if we so choose. Our goal is to instill the confidence and knowledge needed so that every scholar knows this choice is open to them. Each scholar ultimately decides if this will be their path, but one thing is for sure, each scholar is going to be challenged, encouraged and supported in this vein throughout their experience with McNair.

As we select this next group of scholars, I’m keeping these things in mind. I always joke about how I wish I had a “crystal ball” in order to really know which students will make the most of this special opportunity. In the end I tend to do what I always do – go with my gut. That’s why the interviewing process is so so so important. For me, I’m listening to stories and ideas about the future, but I’m also feeling the energy – excitement about the unknown – about where this journey might take them. The best is when I get all goose bump-ly (which does actually happen) by what I’m hearing, seeing and feeling. That’s when the magic really happens for me.

I know, I know! Lots of people think it’s a bit hokey – they don’t buy into this notion of “destiny” and having something “meant to be.” But I sure do. I believe that each student that comes through the McNair experience – the McNair experience that we provide in particular – is meant to have this experience. They are meant to “test out” the experiences we offer. They are meant to grow and bond together with one another. They are meant to become more informed about their abilities and choices as they make decisions about their future and life work.

So, I’m excited that this process will be happening in about an hour. I’m also trusting that we will be making the best decisions possible for each person involved. Some will be asked to rise to the challenge of becoming a McNair scholar and, deep down, I know each of them will.

2013 McNair Scholars - on the journey - together.

2013 McNair Scholars – on the journey – together.