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Training for the Ph.D.

Training for the Ph.D.

National conference brings together first-generation college students on the road to a doctoral degree
By Cassie Chew

From as early as the third grade, Kimberly Sellers knew she wanted to earn a doctoral degree. So year after year, when her father brought home the issue of Black Issues In Higher Education listing college degrees conferred to African American students, she would study the statistics on graduates who had earned a Ph.D.
Despite finding single digits, Sellers was not discouraged. She told herself  “I am going to be one of those numbers. … That was my motivation — and the McNair program helped feed that motivation,” Sellers told aspiring graduate students attending the Fifth National McNair Scholars and Undergraduate Research Conference at the University of Maryland, College Park held last month. Sellers is now a visiting assistant professor of statistics at Carnegie Mellon University. After receiving a Ph.D. in statistics from The George Washington University in May 2001, Sellers became the first McNair Scholar from the University of Maryland, College Park to earn a doctoral degree.
“It’s not easy,” Sellers said to the students who arrived at the national conference from college campuses across the country. “The point is to keep your eyes on the prize.”
Focusing its efforts on increasing the participation of economically disadvantaged, first-generation college students in graduate studies, the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program was established in 1986. The program is currently offered on 179 campuses and honors the achievements of McNair, a mission specialist aboard the 1984 Challenger space shuttle flight and the second African American to fly in space.
Designed to prepare the next generation of researchers and university faculty, the main feature of the program requires that students design research projects and work with a professor to develop the research project.
“Involvement in research gives us a chance to take charge of our own intellectual development,” Dr. Donna B. Hamilton, University of Maryland interim associate provost for academic affairs and dean of undergraduate studies told the students during the conference’s opening session.
At the conference students gave oral presentations on research projects across a variety of disciplines with the results having the potential for applications ranging from the development of public policy to advances in medicine.
Program administrators believe that listening to success stories of former McNair scholars, presenting their research projects, learning about the research conducted by their peers, and discussing their research with university faculty will give the scholars the drive to continue the journey toward a doctoral degree.
“A lot of times students who do summer (research) programs don’t realize why they are doing it,” said Dr. Nthakoana Peko, director of the McNair Scholars program at the University of Maryland. “When students apply (to McNair) they come in knowing that they are training for the Ph.D.”
Mochia Thomas is one of those McNair scholars with a clear idea of what she wants to do and how she is going to do it. The St. Johns University senior is receiving her bachelor’s degree in psychology and sports management this spring. She will soon make the final decision on which program she will enroll to earn a master’s degree in kinesiology. After earning that degree, Thomas plans to begin work toward a doctorate in psychology.
“I want to be a sports psychologist,” Thomas said. At the conference Thomas presented research on the influence of role models on African American female participation in physical activity.
For Cedrick Daphney participation in the McNair program has led him down an unexpected, but rewarding path. Daphney began his undergraduate career at a community college and is now working toward a bachelor’s degree in chemistry at Georgia State University.
Through his participation in McNair, he found out about an opening to participate in a research project studying the characteristics of proteins. He went to see the professor conducting the research so many times that she said “Don’t come see me anymore. I’ll call you,” he said. Daphney eventually got that research spot. At the conference he presented on the current results of the research.
“You never know where it will take you,” Daphney said.
At the conference university deans and previous McNair scholars also provided practical information to students with explanations on the difference between undergraduate work and graduate studies, advice on the best way to present yourself in a graduate program application, and strategies on getting through the program.
“To complete any project requires us to grind it out every day and that we take the lead with ourselves everyday,” Hamilton said.
“Just realize that graduate school is different. You are coming in with one focus,” said Manouchka Poinson, who participated in the McNair Scholars program at the University of New Hampshire and currently is pursing her doctorate in American studies at the University of Maryland.
The conference also offered guidance to program directors at schools like Delaware State University which is in the start-up phase of building its McNair Scholars program.
Tonia Perry-Conley, associate director of the program at Delaware State University, is excited about the challenges ahead as she begins to recruit the first class of McNair students at the university.
“What I have seen now is the whole thing come full circle,” Perry-Conley, who has worked to prepare middle-school students for high school and high-school students for college. “I can see how you prepare students to be professionals.”

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