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!

It’s happening.

And by that, I mean everything. Or at least it seems. This time of year is bittersweet (oh my gosh, it is!), what with scholars getting ready to move on to graduate school, some moving to new cities for summer research programs, and a whole new crop of scholars putting the finishing touches on their research proposals, just in time to begin the Summer Research Institute which, at its core, is about research, but so much more than that!

I sat in our McNair resource room the other day, surrounded by scholars at various stages in the process, they were talkative and sharing stories, the “younger” with the “older” students, passing along tidbits of wisdom here and there. I took a “snapshot” in my mind and felt all tingly with happiness as I soaked in the fruits of our work (if you can call it that).

A good friend and former McNair program assistant recently posted this on my timeline and pretty much sums things up:

I love to have lunch with the McNair scholars! It is always amazing to hear their stories—where they have come from, what they are doing, and where they are going! Today, I heard about Georgia Tech dreams and Harvard dreams come true!! I was even asked about my own classes and my running. You have the best job in the world and work with some amazing scholars, past and present! #mcnairscholarsrock

So that afternoon, there was Alli printing out her acceptance letter and full-ride offer to attend Indiana University Purdue University’s Ph.D. program in Neuroscience. Truth be told, she was having some trouble figuring out how to do that (I know, kinda funny). As it turns out, she discovered how they had included a self-addressed stamped envelope for her response, just after getting an envelope ready for such purpose herself. Alli is the kind of gal that just “goes with the flow” and so she laughed it off and continued on, talking about how she would be driving down to Indy that weekend to scope out apartments. Exciting!

We had Jay in the corner, appearing to be doing work, but still chiming in with the conversation. He’s been working with our new scholars on verbal prep for the GRE and will be doing more of that before taking off for his full-ride Ph.D. program in Genetics at Stony Brook University in New York. Amanda C sat next to me on our comfy couch and was sharing some insights post-acceptance into Harvard’s Ph.D. program in Chemical Biology … also fully-funded … come on, you know that I have to add that in!

The grad application process can be convoluted to say the least and it’s not for the faint of heart. It takes tenacity, optimism and a ton of fricking hard work. It’s not easy securing a full-ride to grad school, but just think about what that means if you can actually make it happen.

Full-ride @ Stony Brook for five years means $290,000 being handed to you for your education. Jay is getting over a quarter of a million dollars to go and study at one of the top-research institutions in our country to learn to become a top-researcher in his field and solve critical problems facing our society right now.

I don’t say this to brag (well, maybe, sorta) … but seriously … think about that. That’s the goal of McNair. For our scholars to develop themselves in such a way during their undergraduate career so as to be able to make choices, like attending a fully-funded Ph.D. program of their choice, if it makes sense and feels right within their career goals and trajectory.

Amanda’s key insight per successfully navigating the grad process: see through any bullshit. Love it! I posted this “little gem” on our quote wall in the resource room, and really, it can mean many things … but ultimately, we all have to see through both our own bullshit and the bullshit we might encounter along the way if we are going to arrive in a life filled with meaningful work.

On the receiving end of this advice, Christian was busy “navigating through” the process of solidifying a summer research position @ Georgia Tech. I’m happy to report that things eventually worked out, but not without a ton of proactive motion on Christian’s part. Sometimes, the situation needs to be “massaged” and sometimes the situation is “speaking to you” (often in code) to “get the eff out” and start trailblazing another path.

Faith and perseverance. It’s what it’s all about. Cliche but true.

I’m closing out on a high note by stating how our new McNair scholars absolutely hit it out of the park presenting their research proposals last week. So exciting! And nerve-wracking (mostly for them hehe) … and the product of lots of hard work with each of their faculty research mentors this past semester.

SIDE NOTE: We love our McNair faculty research mentors.

The group is poised to “bust things out” this summer and we can’t wait to see the process unfold. This group will also be exploring options for grad study so as to find themselves with full-ride offers for their Ph.D in the not so distant future.

2015 spring research symposium

2015 scholars rocking it out at the McNair Spring Research Symposium.

Crazy to think about, I know. As they say, it goes fast. And that’s why our scholars grab hold of the opportunities and try their hardest to make really good things happen while they can.

It’s happening right now.


Dr. Caitlin Demsky after defending her dissertation!

P.S. Just as I am putting the finishing touches on this post … I receive word… our most recent Ph.D. graduate from our CMU McNair Scholars Program!

Introducing: Dr. Caitlin Demsky (CMU McNair Scholar ’09), who attended Portland State University in I/O Psychology, received NSF’s graduate research fellowship and now has a tenure-track faculty position in the business school at Oakland University starting this fall.

Many congrats to Caitlin!!

It seems like just yesterday you were sitting in my office deciding whether you would pursue psychology or creative writing for your graduate study. Wow!