Training for the Ph.D.: National Conference Brings Together First-Generation College Students on the Road to a Doctoral Degree

By Chew, Cassie | Black Issues in Higher Education, April 8, 2004 | Go to article overview

Training for the Ph.D.: National Conference Brings Together First-Generation College Students on the Road to a Doctoral Degree


Chew, Cassie, Black Issues in Higher Education


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. …

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