The McNair Scholars Program: PhD Preparation for Underrepresented Undergraduates

May 21, 2024
Rowan, wearing a pinstripe suit, bows his head while the McNair program coordinator, a woman in black, drapes a stole around his neck. Other McNair Scholars wearing formal attire and stoles stand in the background.
The graduation ceremony of the University of Oregon McNair Scholars Program cohort of 2022–23.

By Rowan Glass

The Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, better known as the McNair Scholars Program, is a Federal TRIO Program designed to prepare students for doctoral studies by engaging them in research and other scholarly activities. The program targets students who are either first-generation college students with financial needs or belong to a group that is traditionally underrepresented in graduate education. To participate in the program, students must also demonstrate strong academic potential. 

The McNair Scholars Program aims to increase the number of graduate degree awards for students from underrepresented segments of society. McNair Scholars receive comprehensive support to earn their undergraduate degrees and complete research projects in their respective fields. The program is well known for enabling high-performing undergraduate researchers to obtain PhDs and become leaders in their chosen fields. As academia and the professional world remain, in many respects, homogenous and exclusive in terms of class and race, DEI initiatives like the McNair Scholars Program are essential for enabling upward mobility for minority and underrepresented populations.

As a McNair Scholar myself (University of Oregon, 2021–23), I know from experience just how important the program’s resources are for high-achieving students with great ambitions but limited financial resources or a nontraditional background. The McNair Scholars Program is unique in the comprehensiveness of its approach, offering mentorship opportunities, research funding and publication support, graduate school preparation, a close-knit community, and lasting benefits long after graduation. In this article, I explain each of these advantages in the hopes that other nontraditional students like myself will apply and benefit from the excellent resources offered by the McNair Scholars Program.

1. Comprehensive mentorship and faculty support

One of the primary purposes of the McNair Scholars Program is to involve ambitious students in research at the undergraduate level to make them more competitive applicants for research-based graduate programs. To this end, the McNair Scholars Program pairs students with faculty mentors who help them design, carry out, and publish unique research projects over the two-year term of the program. Faculty mentors supporting McNair Scholars perform much the same role as advisors at the graduate level, providing advice, feedback, and networking opportunities that enable their mentees to advance in the research process and learn the ins and outs of academic life.

In addition to the faculty mentor, students in the McNair Scholars Program also benefit from the mentorship of program staff. McNair program staff serve to connect students with resources and funding opportunities while helping students navigate academic structures and expectations. This can be exceptionally helpful, as many Scholars may be from nontraditional and non-academic family backgrounds. This guidance is crucial in preparing McNair Scholars for the rigors of their eventual graduate studies.

2. Research funding and publication support

In fulfillment of the program requirements, all McNair Scholars must complete an independent research project during their involvement in the program. To this end, up to $5,000 is offered to students through the McNair Scholars Program Summer Research Fellowship. These funds help defray expenses and provide a living stipend during the most intensive data collection and analysis periods. Additional funds are available for necessary equipment purchases; in my case, these supplementary funds paid for the laptop, hard drive, and audio equipment that proved vital to the ethnographic fieldwork I conducted for my McNair research.

After completing McNair Scholars’ summer research, the program also supports publishing it. At the University of Oregon, all McNair Scholars are encouraged to submit their research to the university’s premiere interdisciplinary undergraduate research journal, the Oregon Undergraduate Research Journal, which annually publishes each McNair cohort’s research in a special issue. In other cases, McNair Scholars are encouraged to find different homes for their research, sometimes including major journals in their disciplines. At every step of the way, faculty mentors and program staff are there to help.

3. Graduate school preparation and application support

Another critical aspect of the McNair Scholars Program is graduate school preparation. The program offers several resources to help prepare students for graduate school and an eventual PhD. Because the program is a graduate preparatory program, McNair Scholars are continuously encouraged to think ahead about their graduate school plans and doctoral ambitions. The program helps them identify universities and programs of interest and reach out to potential advisers well before application season. Students are also required to participate in a summer graduate school boot camp, in which they learn how to write application essays, prepare their CVs, solicit letters of recommendation, and prepare the strongest graduate school applications possible.

McNair Scholars are also encouraged to prepare for the research presentations that become common at the graduate level by presenting their research first at undergraduate research symposiums and conferences. At the University of Oregon, for example, McNair Scholars actively participate in the annual Undergraduate Research Symposium, presenting their research in both oral and poster form and competing for presentation awards. This early presentation experience offers significant practice for the very common experience of presenting research at the graduate level and beyond.

Finally, one of the most practically beneficial aspects of the program is that, like other graduate preparatory programs, it offers fee waivers that can be applied to almost every graduate program application in the US. Application fees are a major financial burden for financially underprivileged students, so the benefit of the fee waiver can be immense, especially if applying to many programs. In my case, I spent a grand total of $80 on 16 graduate school applications during the last cycle. Without a fee waiver, that number might well be over $2,000!

4. Cohort and community

One of the most essential characteristics of the McNair Scholars Program is its emphasis on close-knit cohorts and a spirit of community between McNair Scholars at the national level. After two years of working with my cohort, sharing the rigors and excitements of our studies, research, and graduate school preparation, I could call them all my friends and colleagues—and I’m not alone in that experience. Well after graduating, many McNair Scholars choose to volunteer their time and expertise to support the next generations of McNair Scholars, a demonstration of McNair Scholars’ commitment to their community.

The culminating event of the academic year in the McNair Scholars Program, at least at the University of Oregon, is the annual McNair Scholars Program Conference. In the case of my cohort, the program paid for a three-day retreat at a local hotel, complete with guest lectures and panels, graduate school Q&As, research presentations, and the formal induction ceremony at which students are officially named McNair Scholars. Attending the conference two years in a row significantly strengthened my appreciation of my wonderful faculty mentor, fellow McNair Scholars, and program staff. It offered a sense of support and solidarity that’s often so rare for underrepresented, first-generation, and nontraditional students like myself. And that experience alone shows just how meaningful the McNair Scholars Program can be.

If you’re a current undergraduate from an underrepresented or nontraditional background with ambitions to pursue a PhD, you can do no better than the McNair Scholars Program!

Rowan Glass is an anthropologist, multimedia journalist, writer, and filmmaker from Oregon. His research, reporting, and travels have taken him from Indigenous territories in Colombia and Mexico to primary schools in Senegal, Kurdish restaurants in Greece, and music festivals in Morocco. In all his work, Rowan endeavors to help tell engaging stories about underreported people and places through incisive research and creative endeavors. Whether at a keyboard or behind a camera, at home or in the field, Rowan is always looking for the next chance to apply his skills to both creative and socially impactful ends. Rowan holds a BA in cultural anthropology from the University of Oregon and is currently applying to graduate programs in anthropology.

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