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Becoming a Productive Researcher: Jump-Starting Your Development

May 23, 2018

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


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.





Countdown to Berkeley 2010!

July 28, 2010

Photo Courtesy of University of California-Berkeley

As the summer winds down and MSRE comes to a close tomorrow with Scholars presenting at the UNL Research Colloquium, it’s time to prepare for the UNL McNair Scholars trip to the 18th annual California McNair Scholars Symposium, held at UC Berkeley. Two former McNair Scholars, Morgan Conley and Brian Shreck, who made the trip and presented at last year’s conference offered to share some words of advice and encouragement on preparing for the trip to Berkeley. Check out their advice below:

What helped you the most when preparing for your individual presentation? Practicing with friends? With McNair staff? By yourself? Memorizing your presentation?

Morgan: In the beginning, rather than memorizing my presentation, I remembered the order and what was listed on my slides. That way, I could come up with my own transitions each time I presented and would not stumble if I forgot my script. Then, I worked hard on introducing my topic. I felt the introduction was most important because that is where I would get the audience interested. (I used a question to do this) Once I accomplished this, I practiced in front of my roommate, another McNair Scholar, and in front of a few friends.  I wanted a variety of listeners so that I would get experience with different questions at the end. After practicing only a few times, I found my rhythm in presenting and also my own style.

Brian: The amount of time and effort that the McNair staff put into helping us prepare was probably the most useful for me.  From the session Dr. Lombardo led on delivering effective research presentations to the individual PowerPoint sessions, the practice presentations, and the UNL colloquium, I had a lot of opportunities to familiarize myself with and refine my presentation.  Then I practiced a lot on my own.  I recommend practicing at least once each evening right up through the night before you present at Berkeley.  In addition to helping reduce your reliance on notes, this will also help calm your nerves when you actually present.

Did you have experience presenting your research prior to MSRE?

Morgan: No. I had presented in classes, but I had never had the experience of presenting my own research.  Fortunately, I had numerous opportunities presenting after MSRE and I was much better prepared for those occasions.

Brian: I didn’t have any experience giving formal presentations.  But by the end of MSRE I had a good understanding of how to organize and present information and ideas in a way that was accessible. It also came in very handy this spring when I took my first graduate seminar and I was expected to be able to talk about my semester research project with colleagues and the professor and communicate my thoughts and ideas on course readings during class discussions.

What was Berkeley like? Fun? Scary?

Morgan: Berkeley was absolutely fun! By the time Scholars reach Berkeley, all of the “hard stuff” should be taken care of. Nerves certainly kick-in when its time to present, but I found presenting to be fun because it was Scholars of all types of backgrounds.

Brian: Both, of course, but mostly it was exciting.  In addition to having a great time and getting to spend some time getting to know the other Scholars in my cohort better, I came away from the conference with a greater confidence in myself as a scholar and a motivation to jump into the graduate application process.

Any advice for this years’ presenters?

Morgan: Just remember that you are the expert. It was you who put all of your energy to what you are presenting, so showcase that. Also, remember to have fun! Then you will be able to look back and see that the experience was about much more than just a conference.

Brian: Make sure you’re well prepared, including taking full advantage of all the preparation McNair offers. Then, relax and be yourself.  I’ve had the privilege of watching this cohort progress through MSRE.  I’ve read the papers and seen the presentations and I can see that everyone has worked very hard and done great work.  I know they’ll all do themselves, UNL McNair, and their faculty mentors proud at Berkeley.

You said it well, Morgan and Brian. To this years’ McNair Scholars: we’re proud of you and can’t wait to see your presentations at the UNL Research Colloquium and at Berkeley!

MSRE Week Seven: Learning the Ropes of the Research Process

July 9, 2010

One of the most rewarding (and challenging) aspects of being a McNair Scholar is having the opportunity to conduct a full-scale independent research project under the guidance of a faculty mentor. This experience is kind of a mini-graduate school boot camp as students are expected to learn, research, and report on a project that they complete in ten weeks time. Just like graduate students, Scholars are expected to be reliable, accurate, and independent thinkers–the same attributes that McNair Scholars gain and learn during the UNL McNair Summer Research Experience.

To see how McNair Scholars are doing, we turned to two McNair Scholars. Karise Carrillo, whose research project looks at attitudes towards organ donation, and Tyler Scherr, whose research works to target bacterial primase, while potentially adding to the science trying to combat multi-drug resistant bacteria.

UNL McNair: So far, what have you learned about conducting a full-scale research project?

Karise: I have learned that research does not always go as planned. Setbacks can and will happen, but working with it can often yield interesting results. I am a high-stress person, so learning to roll with the punches is possibly the best thing one can do to stay positive about the data. Data is data and will still yield results, even if they were not the ones you were expecting. Sometimes they turn out more exciting than expected!

Tyler: One of the biggest things I have learned so far is that conducting a full-scale research project takes a lot of thorough planning. I’m sure this is true of other disciplines as well, but with my research, I probably spend about 1/2 the time analyzing prior results and planning the next experiment, and about 1/2 the time actually running the experiments.

UNL McNair: So far, how do you feel your research has been going? Are you enjoying the experience?

Tyler: I feel pretty good about my research so far, especially since I have finally been getting some positive results. Even though it feels like I have not accomplished that much yet, my mentor keeps telling me that I’m still on pace to complete the project before the end of the summer. I guess, as far as my research is concerned, I had to put a lot of effort in at the beginning in order to get the ball rolling. I’m hoping it’s almost all downhill from here, but I know there will be a few hurdles left to climb.

Karise: I am very excited about my research thus far. I still am awed by participant turnout, so I was safely able to stop data collection on July 1st. I am still in the process of learning how to analyze the data I have thus far. With the knowledge I have, I’ve been able to realize I have very exciting results! While much of the preliminary data has come back with statistical insignificance, some surprising results have popped up. I look forward to doing the final analyses once all the data is in. Related to MSRE, I am thoroughly enjoying the interdisciplinary atmosphere of the group. I am getting to learn about incredibly amazing and significant research from talented people I have come to respect and consider good friends. There’s never a dull moment during MSRE sessions because I am constantly learning from my peers, both in critical feedback and from reading their research findings.

UNL McNair: Has there been anything about MSRE that was unexpected?

Karise: I was not expecting to have to cut back on the purview of the project. I did not realize I may have been casting the net too wide, but this will give me the opportunity to continue examining the data at a later date!

Tyler: Coming into the summer research experience, the only chemistry labs I had run were in class, which means they were already set up to work 99% of the time without fail. This is not at all true of doing actual research. Even the best-planned research contains some mystery; you may have a hypothesis concerning what the results should look like, but you don’t really know until you see them. Even though this fact is kind of obvious, I was still a little surprised when my first experiment “failed.” But as my graduate mentor said, as long as you got results you can learn from them, all results can teach you something.

Thanks, Karise and Tyler. And to the rest of the McNair cohort–keep up the hard work! We’re in the downward stretch, and Berkeley is just around the corner!

Moving right along….MSRE week 3!

June 18, 2010

Unbelievably, this is already the third week of the 2010 McNair Summer Research Experience! Scholars have been hard at work and attended seminars focusing on competitive graduate fellowships, learned about the fundamentals of strong research writing and structure, and putting this new knowledge to use, this week McNair Scholars completed an outline, introduction, and literature review draft for their final research paper.

Two Scholars took a few moments away from their busy research schedules to give us some insight on how MSRE is going for them so far. Below, Michelle Haikalis and Katie Haferbier share with us what they’ve been up to these past three weeks, and what they’ll be working on in the weeks to come.

UNL McNair: How has MSRE been for you so far?

Michelle Haikalis at work

Michelle: So far MSRE has been pretty intense but really enjoyable. Having a community of scholars going through the same experience with you makes it a lot easier to manage and it’s pretty exciting to hear about what everyone is researching.

Katie: MSRE has been great! I didn’t realize how much I would learn by working in a lab.

UNL McNair: What do you feel you’ve learned about the research process so far?

Michelle: One of the most helpful concepts MSRE has taught me is that research is a process that needs to be attacked methodically. Taking time to make outlines, proofread, and revise often has made a task that seemed incredibly intimidating turn into something I know I can handle.

UNL McNair: What are your research plans for the upcoming weeks?

Katie in the lab

Katie: These next couple of weeks I will be focusing on redoing uptake experiments using exogenous bHA and varying the time points.

Michelle: In the next few weeks I will be focusing on refining my introduction, writing my methods, and entering and analyzing the data for my results. I will also be taking some time to study for the GRE.

Keep up your dedication and hard work, Michelle and Katie! It will definitely pay off later this summer!

MSRE 2010: McNair Scholars Begin Their Journey By Looking Back to UNL’s Past

June 9, 2010

The UNL McNair Scholars began the 2010 summer research experience together as a cohort last Wednesday by watching the NET documentary “Frontier University Dreams.” The documentary detailed the early years of UNL and its creation as a land-grant institution on the Great Plains, describing how world-renowned scientists, authors, and athletes began their careers at UNL, and demonstrating how the legacy of UNL alumni continue to impact students, researchers, and scientists more than a century later.

Tying UNL’s past to the present, the film described the individuals who gave their names to some of the best-known buildings on campus, such as: Canfield Administration Building-James Canfield, University Chancellor in the 1880′s, Bessey Hall-Charles E. Bessey, Botanist and University Chancellor, and Pound Hall, named for Louise Pound, literary scholar, athlete, and women’s advocate. The film included a fitting example to us here at the McNair Scholars Program, the story of George Flippin–Nebraska’s first African American football player. George Flippin’s presence on the team resulted in Nebraska’s first 1-0 victory in 1892 after the Missouri football team forfeited. However, in the true spirit of land-grant institutions–that all were eligible to attend (and to play)–Nebraska refused to take Flippin off the roster, demonstrating UNL’s rich history of supporting a more equitable and diverse academy.

In addition to making a social impact, early figures in UNL history put UNL on the map nationally with their research. The film concluded with Nebraskan geologist Erwin Hinckley Barbour. Barbour wrote and published a pamphlet of homemade windmills based on observations he made while traveling across Nebraska by train. The pamphlet was distributed nationally by the U.S. Geological Survey, and taught drought-stricken farmers across the US to create their own windmills, thus helping them to survive the widespread drought self-sufficiently. Dr. Bellows used the story of Barbour to illustrate a powerful point highlighting the fact that we, as researchers, scientists, and members of the UNL community have a truly proud tradition to uphold of scholastic and professional excellence.

Examples like these may seem far removed from the world we live in today, but they convey an important and timely message: the work of Nebraska researchers, students, and scientists, such as UNL McNair Scholars impacts lives not only here at home, but around the nation and world.

17th Annual California McNair Scholars Symposium: Building the New Academy

September 3, 2009

McNair Scholars have returned from the 17th Annual California McNair Scholars Symposium, which was aptly titled, “Building the New Academy.” Over 50 McNair Programs with budding future academics from across the United States were welcomed to the opening ceremony by Dr. Harold H. Campbell, director of the UC Berkeley McNair Scholars Program, which hosted the conference.

Gibor Basri, UC Berkeley Professor of Astronomy, Vice Chancellor for Equity & Inclusion, and world-renowned astronomer whose work on NASA’s Kepler Mission is currently making headlines, also welcomed McNair Scholars and emphasized one of the key reasons we had all made the trip to the UC Berkeley campus, “… honoring [students] accomplishments which are living testimonies to the aspirations of Challenger Astronaut, Dr. Ronald E. McNair.”

Throughout the conference, each scholar presented their original research, typically in a presentation that included two or three other McNair Scholars from around the country whose research was related thematically or generally within the discipline. One UNL McNair scholar, Andrea Rieger, had the opportunity to share her research during one of the six plenary sessions featured throughout the conference. Andrea performed fabulously (much like her fellow McNair Scholars), and presented her work in front of 200 audience members!

Andrea along with fellow plenary presenter, Isai Orozco from Cal State Polytechnic University.

Andrea along with fellow plenary presenter, Isai Orozco from Cal State Polytechnic University.

Another highlight of the conference was a workshop which featured internationally known author, Donald Asher. Mr. Asher specializes in higher education, career planning, and specifically for the Berkeley McNair conference, compiling a successful graduate application. Asher’s dynamic presentation on the elements of a successful graduate school application left audience members energized and inspired. As scholar Brian Shreck noted, Asher’s talk, “… helped me to begin thinking about how I want to frame my personal statement for graduate school applications. His advice and examples gave me some great ideas for how to include my unique life experiences, such as my military experience, into my personal statement in such a way that it helps explain why I want to go to graduate school.”

It wasn’t all work and no play, however. Arguably, the highlight of the trip was the evening boat cruise up the San Francisco Bay. Scholars had dinner, enjoyed the sunset and Golden Gate Bridge on the top deck, sang karaoke, and some even learned the finer points of the art of DJ’ing (right Jeanette?)

As Michael Harpster reflected, “I began to realize that the Berkeley conference represented the final step of the scientific research process. This sharing of ideas and perspectives [at the conference] created an incredible academic environment. Ultimately, the McNair conference at Berkeley allowed me to move from seeing the MSRE research process in isolation to seeing it as a part of a larger network of academic processes.”