Overcoming Unique Challenges in the Pioneer Research Program

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Let’s not sugar-coat it. Pioneer is hard. It’s not for the faint-hearted, nor for the student for whom academic success has come easily and expects their Pioneer experience to be the same walk in the park.

Pioneer is for students who are up for a challenge and possess—or are willing to develop—GRIT.

Angela Duckworth, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Grit, the power of passion and perseverance, defines the term as the ability to harness “a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal.” She furthermore calls it “the hallmark of high achievers in every domain.” 

The focus of Dr. Duckworth’s research is how self-control and grit relate to success in both academic and professional pursuits. She has found that, rather than a static feature of personality, grit can be cultivated and grown. Good news for aspiring Pioneer scholars!

So what are the characteristics that lead to the requisite amount of passion and perseverance that leads to grit and by proxy, success as a Pioneer scholar?

In her Forbes article on the characteristics of grit, Margaret M. Perlis names the following five essential traits: courage, conscientiousness, follow-through, resilience, and excellence. Courage appears to be self-explanatory, however, Perlis makes several distinctions regarding the other four characteristics. She emphasizes that conscientiousness refers to individuals who are “achievement-oriented” rather than “dependable” and that people with follow-through demonstrate endurance while working towards long-term goals. Resilience has three important components, according to Perlis (optimism, confidence, creativity) and excellence is discussed in terms of how it differs in healthy, important ways from perfectionism.

At this point, you may be thinking that this is quite the prescription for grit. 

However, this is not to say that students are on their own as they develop the qualities needed to succeed in the Pioneer Research Program. And while rigorous, the program is specially designed to support scholars throughout their journey. From cohort advisors and peers to writing center staff and professors, an array of people—and structures, activities, and services—are built into the research program to support students as they develop the grit—or courage, conscientiousness, follow-through, resilience, and excellence—necessary to succeed. 

Pioneer alumni from around the world have attested to the value of having acquired these personal traits through their participation as Pioneer scholars. So when does the going get tough in Pioneer and how do students get beyond it? And, perhaps most importantly, do we really need grit anyway? 

Pioneer scholar James (philosophy, 2020) from the United States shared that doing original research presented the biggest challenge for him. “I think the toughest part of the research process is making something out of nothing.” This took a tremendous amount of patience and perseverance on his part. “There were points in my paper, where I was sitting at four pages and I thought I poured every single idea out of my brain that could possibly be poured…into this paper…and I just had to keep going. I had to reread the texts and look for new quotes and different thought trains that might be worth exploring.”

Ishaan (mathematics, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from India, had a similar experience when conducting research in combinatorial games. “The hardest part was probably all the frustration of all the failed attempts that I came across in my research…When you’re just sitting in your room and going over Sudoku grids for hours and hours, it can get a little difficult to keep up with it.”

Ishaan shared that the support he received from his faculty mentor played a big role in his ability to persevere. “I think the bi-weekly discussions with [my] professor really helped in that regard…help[ed] me get back on track. I think just even one hour with my professor was extremely extremely valuable…coming up with what I was going to put in the paper and working through all the failures again and again until I finally came up with the ideas.”

For Jahin, (political science, 2020) a Pioneer scholar from Nigeria, data collection proved to be a particularly daunting part of his experience. “I was researching something international and…I would have to cold email…there was the language barrier which made it really difficult to collect data, but eventually I had some success. But I would say that was one of the more difficult aspects.”

And though Jahin was familiar with selecting a topic and carrying out research, he said that following the specific undergraduate model of an academic research paper (including a literature review, methodology, abstract writing, etc) upped the ante considerably. And time management became crucial as he worked throughout the summer on his Pioneer research paper in addition to participating in other internships.

Pioneer scholar Maged (history, 2020), from Egypt, had a difficult time deciding on a single topic for his research. He shared that in his first individual meeting with his professor, he presented a slideshow with five different research questions he wanted to pursue. And in fact, he went through three of these research questions before settling on the topic of his paper. “It took me like three weeks to decide on a topic and to start building my research paper…once my professor and I decided on this topic…we spent a whole meeting trying to build the skeleton of the research …talking about what I have to start with and the sub-questions that I need to answer. Then we started the process of finding resources that I can use.”

Maya (political science, 2020), a Pioneer scholar from the United States, found that coming from a background in physical lab work involving data collection to a research program focused on data analysis presented a unique challenge for her. “I think the hardest part for me,” she said, “was I had never had to approach data in such a way that it wasn’t directly able to be concluded or I didn’t answer my question in its totality.”

Pioneer scholar Johnelle (material science, 2020), also from the United States, described that despite her excitement at joining the program, “imposter syndrome” presented an obstacle to her participation right from the start. “The first session I was like ‘Oh my gosh this is gonna be the best thing ever.’” But by the end of her first cohort session, Johnelle described having an identity crisis. “I was like, ‘I don’t belong here’…it was so much, and I was scared that I wasn’t going to understand.”

Johnelle described those first cohort sessions as dipping one’s toes in the water. At first, it feels cold, she explained, and you want to get out. But then you stay and it becomes refreshing. This created a shift in Johnelle’s mindset. “I love to be in an environment where everyone around me wants to challenge themselves…we were really there to learn and to be excited about learning,” she explained. “I would ask questions, they would ask questions, and then we’d start having thought-provoking discussions. So it was exciting and then it was scary. But then it was exciting again.”

So. Was the struggle worth it for these Pioneer scholars

The answer to this brings us full-circle, back to Dr. Duckworth’s idea that grit is “a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal.” 

The desire to do well and make a meaningful contribution to a field of study for which he holds deep passion is what drove James to forge on in the face of difficulty. He shared, “You really have to push through even when you don’t want to, if you want to produce a quality paper, and that was definitely a big takeaway from my experience. You have to keep going.”

It was her passion for learning and the excitement of challenge that also pushed Johnelle to overcome the identity crisis she described initially. Not only did Johnelle’s experience with her cohort peers (finding out many of them had similar feelings of imposter syndrome during the student-led seminars) and professor (who got to know her personally in one-on-one sessions) lead to higher degrees of self-confidence, but her ability to rise to the demands of the work in which she was engaged. This is actually what she calls the “defining moment” of her Pioneer experience. “We had a homework assignment and the problem was like they gave you the answer, but you had to show your work and how you [arrived at] that answer…it took me I think literally five hours to do it, and when I finally got it, I was so proud of myself. I’m like ‘Wow I get it. I actually got it right.’”

Johnelle’s takeaway,“If I put in the work and the effort and the time, I’ll get it. At the end of the day, I just have to persevere…Other people have had this struggle and they’ve overcome it, so I can overcome it as well.”

And it was exactly the challenge that Pioneer presented that motivated Jahin to persevere, too, sometimes even working late into the night as he juggled competing responsibilities the summer of his Pioneer experience. He shared that it was “because of how challenging…and how rewarding it was [that] I really wanted to do it well.”

And the truth is, Pioneer scholars are driven. They want to succeed. And they do what it takes to meet their goals.

If that’s not GRIT…what is?

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