Becoming a Productive Researcher: Jump-Starting Your Development

Posted May 23, 2018 by unlmcnair
Categories: Academic Success, Graduate School, MSRE, Professional Development, Research & Internships, Uncategorized, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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by Abe Flanigan, Ph.D., UNL McNair Assistant

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As you prepare for the McNair Summer Research Experience (MSRE), it might be helpful for you to reflect on the habits and qualities of productive researchers. During my time as an undergraduate researcher, I often found myself wondering about the things that I should start doing to prepare myself for a career in educational research. In fact, my curiosity about the factors that contribute to research productivity led me and my graduate research advisor to conduct a study in which were interviewed four world-renowned researchers about what makes them so successful (Flanigan, Kiewra, & Luo, 2018). Below, I’ll share a few of their tips, as well as lend my own suggestions for transforming yourself into a confident and productive researcher.

Find your scholarly role model. Each researcher I interviewed identified an influential mentor who helped set them along the path to productivity. Rather than try to

forge their own path, productive researchers aren’t afraid to seek out mentors, learn from them, and attempt to emulate their strategies. Find a mentor who you admire and then pattern yourself after him or her. I owe a lot of credit to a professor of mine at Northwest Missouri State who took me under her wing and showed me how she develops, conducts, and reports her research. Without a mentor, I likely never would have developed the confidence to believe I could pursue graduate-level research.

Block off time each day for research activities. When you get to graduate school, research becomes part of your lifestyle. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t read an article, work on a manuscript, or talk to collaborators about our research. One of the researchers I interviewed simply said, “Protect time for research every day. Make it a priority just like going to class, eating, or sleeping.” During MSRE, you’re perfectly situated to learn how to make research part of your daily routine. Don’t let your enthusiasm for research wane once MSRE concludes. Keep going! Even when MSRE is finished, try to devote time every day—whether it’s 30 minutes, an hour, or whatever you have available—to research-related activities. You don’t need to write multiple pages of a manuscript or collect data every single day. But, you can read through a few sections of an article, write or revise small sections of a manuscript, or spend some time just thinking about the direction of your research every day. If you embrace the process, then you’ll have a more enjoyable and productive time as a researcher.

Identify and pursue your passion. Collectively, the productive researchers I interviewed noted that the best researchers are those who are passionate about their area of research and who are motivated self-starters. During MSRE (and beyond), think critically about the topics that you are most passionate about and make those topics the focal points of your research agenda. Even if you find yourself in a situation that is largely directed by your advisor’s ongoing project(s), that doesn’t mean you can’t familiarize yourself with the literature in your area of interest or seek out opportunities to volunteer as part of another team.

Develop a firm grasp of statistics. Statistics didn’t come easy to me. I had to put a lot of time and effort into learning the advanced statistics needed to conduct graduate-level research. And, I had to devote considerable time to learn how to operate SPSS, Mplus, SAS, and other statistical software packages. Unfortunately, most scientific research doesn’t consist entirely of basic t-testing or correlations. For most of you, if you’re serious about pursuing graduate-level research, then you should be prepared to take graduate-level statistics courses. As an undergraduate, learn as much as you can about the statistical software used in your field and try to absorb as much knowledge as you can about statistics. By doing so, you’ll give yourself a head-start on building your statistical proficiency.

Learn about research grant funding. The research funding landscape is vast and can be difficult to navigate when you’re first getting started. If you take a look at the websites for the National Science Foundation, Open Education Database, or National Institutes of Health, then you’ll get an idea of just how big the landscape is. For most of the projects that you’ll work on with your mentors, they probably had to secure research funding to make the project possible. Learn from them about the funding resources they typically use and the process for applying for grants. There will likely never be a time in your career when grant funding doesn’t play a critical role in the life of your research, so try to learn as much as you can!

Hopefully, these five suggestions provide you with some insight on things you can do to jump-start your development as a researcher. Remember research is an incredibly rewarding experience, but requires a lot of time and effort on your part to be successful. Participating in MSRE and the McNair Scholars Program are great ways to start learning about and practicing the five tips outlined here.

 

 

 

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McNair Alumni Spotlight: Adrienne Ricker

Posted February 21, 2018 by unlmcnair
Categories: Accomplishments, Graduate School, McNair in the News, Research & Internships, UNL McNair Alumni

Adrienne Ricker (McNair Scholars 2013-2016) earned a bachelor’s degree in geology and biological sciences in May 2016. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in Earth & Planetary Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She was awarded the prestigious Eugene Cota-Robles Fellowship. Adrienne describes how the McNair Scholars Program helped her develop a positive working relationship with her research mentor and provided her with the support and tools necessary to navigate the graduate application process.

The McNair Scholars Program presented the opportunity to engage in research at an early point in my undergraduate career. Through McNair, I developed a one-on-one relationship with a faculty advisor in order to design and complete a research project. He provided mentoring and instruction on how to develop a research project and communicate with others effectively. That experience helped greatly in my first year as a graduate student, where active engagement in research is expected of students in my program.

As a low-income first-generation student, McNair helped me navigate the graduate application process–something I would have been lost in otherwise. I am now in the second year of my PhD and more certain than ever that the McNair program prepared me for this experience! Additionally, my McNair faculty mentor was imperative in my graduate school search and application process. He helped me navigate the application process and prepared me for the demands of life as a graduate student.

My background experiences and participation in the McNair Scholars Program helped me receive the prestigious Eugene Cota-Robels Fellowship, which has given me the freedom to develop a thesis project I am truly passionate about. Otherwise, I would have probably taken on a project previously funded by my advisor’s existing grants. This freedom has been rewarding and a great opportunity to learn the full process of a developing a research project through to the end product.

Being involved in exciting research is one of the best parts of graduate school, but you shouldn’t let your research consume you. My advice to McNair Scholars would be to look for something outside of your research to be involved in—whether that is a campus organization or a volunteer experience—find something you enjoy that is relevant to your goals and gives you a break from the rigors of graduate school. Moreover, I’d also recommend you establish expectations for work/life balance with your advisor early on. If expectations are clear right away at the beginning, then it will help relieve concerns about whether you are filling those expectations or not!

 

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McNair Alumni Spotlight: Jason Thomas

Posted February 20, 2018 by unlmcnair
Categories: Graduate School, McNair in the News, Research & Internships, UNL McNair Alumni

From the Nebraska Plains to French Fields: Jason Thomas’ Doctoral Journey

Jason Thomas (McNair Scholar 2012–2014) has followed his passion for botany all the way from the UNL McNair Scholars classroom to the Plant Reproduction and Development Laboratory at the Ècole Normale Supérieure in Lyon, France. This path is leading Jason to his ultimate goal, earning a Ph.D. in Plant Biological Sciences from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Below, Jason describes how the McNair Scholars Program prepared him to pursue graduate study and apply for a competitive Fulbright Fellowship.

First of all, I’d like to say that I might not have been able to experience graduate school, let alone everything with it (the US Fulbright Program in France, publishing papers, meaningful research projects) without the UNL McNair Scholars Program. What I’ve learned from the McNair Scholars Program was useful well after I entered my graduate program. It was a key resource for getting me here to France. Applying for a Fulbright fellowship is much like applying to graduate programs or any fellowships that McNair Scholars are prepared for. But thankfully, there is no GRE.

In my PhD, I study field pennycress, a biofuel crop that produces oilseeds much like canola that can soon be used in everything from cooking oil to jet fuel. Specifically, I’m trying to make its flowers produce more nectar to feed pollinators such as honey bees, which should also increase pennycress seed yield. I chose to bring this research to France because working with their top plant scientists would be a valuable international experience that I can use throughout my career. Furthermore, environmental problems like climate change and biodiversity loss are often global and can in part be combated with plant science.

While here I am finding out the joy of collaborations, especially the feeling of knowing that I’ve linked two groups together to discover something new that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. As a Fulbright Scholar I am supposed to exchange knowledge from my home graduate program to my host institution. I’ve learned of new ideas and ways of doing science that I’d like to bring back to my lab in Minnesota. Hopefully, I will bring back scientific results that are worth publishing. And of course, I’ll also bring back the memories of immersing myself in a new culture and learning their customs, trying French cuisine, and learning a new language.

I have two main pieces of advice for current and future McNair Scholars. Firstly, work hard and intelligently. One of the things I remember being told in one of our first McNair meetings is that you get back whatever you put into the McNair Scholars Program. The same goes for graduate school and all of life really. Secondly, do things that you didn’t think were possible and abandon your comfort zone. Take those risks such as applying for competitive fellowships or leaving the country. By doing so, McNair Scholars can enhance their professional development above and beyond what they imagined.

*I acknowledge that the views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the Department of State.

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McNair Alumni Spotlight: Michelle Haikalis

Posted June 28, 2017 by unlmcnair
Categories: Graduate School, MSRE, Research & Internships, UNL McNair Alumni

McNair Gave Haikalis the Confidence and Skills to Thrive

Michelle Haikalis (McNair Scholar 2009-2012) earned her master’s degree in clinical psychology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2014 and is currently pursuing her doctoral degree at UNL in the same field. Below, Michelle describes how the McNair Scholars Program provided her with the confidence to pursue graduate-level study and the skills to thrive in her research and coursework.

The Ronald E. McNair Program was absolutely vital to my success in pursuing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Although my mother was unable to finish her undergraduate degree, she taught me about the importance of education in order to develop critical thinking skills and open up doors for career possibilities. Thanks to her, I greatly valued education upon entering college but knew little about post-undergraduate education or how to prepare for it. I would have been lost navigating the process of pursuing a graduate degree alone. Further, because I did not have models in my personal life of people who had attained Ph.D.’s, it was hard for me to know if I had what it took, or could develop the skills needed, to excel at the doctoral level.

The McNair Scholars Program identified my uncultivated potential and filled in the gaps from my background. Specifically, McNair provided me with opportunities to build critical skills necessary for success at the doctoral level and bolstered my confidence so that I would pursue the challenge of graduate school. The intensive research experiences central to the McNair Program helped me to build important research skills and knowledge that have served as an essential foundation—a foundation that I will continue to build upon throughout my career as a clinical scientist.

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When Life Hands You Lemons… (and you have a Paper Due)

Posted June 21, 2017 by unlmcnair
Categories: Graduate School, MSRE, Research & Internships, Study Skills

By Jenn Andersen, McNair graduate assistant and UNL McNair Alum

We all know that college (and graduate school) is hard enough on a good day, but what happens when life gets hard too? When you consider the mental and physical health issues many college students face themselves, as well as family issues that happen back home, it can get pretty daunting to be a college student. For example, more than 30% of students in college are dealing with the death of a parent or close friend within the past two years (Balk et al., 2010). Almost 20% of those students are at risk of withdrawing from college (Plaskac et al., 2011).

I’m here to tell you, however, that there is support available to help you get through these situations. I bet you’re asking yourself, “How would she know?”, and it’s because I’ve been there myself. I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes my second semester of grad school, and my Dad passed away from ALS a year later during my second year of grad school. That made for a rough year or so, but I succeeded in earning my Master’s degree and am moving on to my PhD. Read the rest of this post »

The MSRE Project that Keeps on Giving

Posted June 15, 2017 by unlmcnair
Categories: Graduate School, MSRE

by Jenn Andersen, McNair graduate assistant and UNL McNair Alum

My MSRE project kept me busy, not only during the first summer, but also during my senior year, the summer after that, and through my first year and a half of graduate school. My project isn’t something I’m now studying (I switched disciplines for graduate school), but it gave me a head start on my graduate school work. Here are some ideas for making your MSRE project the gift that keeps on giving.

  1. Use your MSRE project as a senior thesis (dependent on department). UNL’s College of Arts and Sciences requires a senior thesis to graduate with the highest distinction, and to ensure graduating with high distinction or distinction. I used my project (with some added work) as my senior thesis. Check with your department on how your paper might help you work towards this goal.
  1. Use it as your writing sample for graduate school applications. You have worked very hard on getting your MSRE project done. Why not use it as your writing sample for graduate school applications? This is especially important if you are applying for graduate school the Fall semester after MSRE.

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Getting the most out of MSRE: Grad School Boot Camp

Posted June 8, 2017 by unlmcnair
Categories: Graduate School, MSRE, Research & Internships, Study Skills

by Jenn Andersen, McNair graduate assistant and UNL McNair Alum

Graduate school is an eye-opening experience for all new graduate students (myself included). Grading policies are stricter, workloads are often intimidating, and then there is the ever-present imposter syndrome—the feeling that maybe you don’t belong in graduate school. But, guess what? MSRE is a great time to get the grad school experience without leaving the comforts of UNL.

Three challenges that are often reported by first-year graduate students are (a) time management, (b) amount of reading due/understanding the reading, and (c) graduate-level writing (Schramm-Possinger & Powers, 2015). In addition, first-year graduate students have to learn how to motivate themselves without the undergraduate structure they are used to and with other duties like teaching or research. Sound familiar? It is pretty close to the day-to-day experience you are having right now, right? This is why my MSRE mentor called me and her other McNair scholar ‘grad-students-in-training.’

So how do you make the most of the MSRE experience so you won’t be as shocked when you jump in the grad school pool? I’m going to share five tips that might just help you out. Read the rest of this post »