Jennifer Andersen Ph.D.

portrait of Andersen

Assistant Professor in the Office of Community Health and Research Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

What would you like to share about your background and/or experiences in the McNair program?

As a first-gen and non-traditional student (I started college in my early thirties), McNair was one of the first programs on campus where I felt accepted- so many programs are geared to first-gen students traditional students. I really had no idea what I wanted to do for graduate school, only that I wanted to work in an academic medical center when I was done (I started pre-med and decided to change after enrolling at UNL), but the McNair program was instrumental in the process of gaining the knowledge and experience I needed to be able to both decide on applying graduate school and knowing it was the right fit for me. The program also clearly demonstrated the value of seeking out mentors who both know what they are doing AND care about their students.

Do you feel the McNair Program prepared you for graduate study and research at the graduate level? If so, how?

It might be easier to say what they didn't prepare me for! I learned how to conduct a research study from beginning to end during summer research. I learned how to write at the graduate school level. The program also gave me the support I needed to take risks as an undergrad (which is difficult for me, I am very risk adverse) which helped me in an environment like grad school where you aren't always outwardly successful.

For example, I applied for training program in my PhD that was funded through a prestigious program. I ultimately didn't make it in, but I successfully applied which was a success in and of itself. The McNair program really taught me to see those small successes when taking risks (you can't do something great if you never go out on a limb).

What do you like most about working in your current position?

Everything! Honestly, the position I am in now is exactly what I wanted to do after I was done with school. I work in an academic medical center, in a center focused on health disparities in underserved communities. I can focus on research which actually benefits the people in my state, and we actively partner with communities to improve health.

Looking back at your time as a McNair Scholar, was there anything that prepared you for your current position?

Yes! I learned how to communicate clearly and effectively (both in my research/writing and with others) and I learned how to manage my time. The Summer Research program was super helpful in introducing the importance of those skills

As an undergraduate, did you have any positive mentor experiences that shaped your outlook on mentoring?

Yep! Dr. Bellows and Dr. Lombardo (and the rest of the McNair program staff) were excellent examples of how mentors should be- and I was incredibly blessed to have them both remain as mentors is different capacities as I progressed through graduate school). Dr. Brank and Lindsey Wylie were amazing mentors as well. They all modeled how to listen, ask the right questions, and support students to be the best version of themselves. They also set really good examples of how to navigate and be successful in academia, which I wouldn't have known how to do without them. I definitely modeled my mentorship style after my mentors in undergrad.

What advice would you give in regard to searching for graduate programs? What characteristics did you look for in a school/how did you search for programs?

This is hard- I think my best advice is to decide what is important to you in a program and pursue that. For me, I didn't want to leave Nebraska and it wasn't really an option at the time. I applied to three programs at the three schools I was interested in and was accepted at all three. Then I met with people at all three schools, and discussed my interests and goals. When it came down to it, three things mattered: 1) Funding, 2) Potential Advisors, and 3) How adaptable/suited is the program to what I wanted to do with my PhD. The Sociology PhD fit all of my requirements, so that is where I went. I went on to build a relationship with a mentor at UNMC (my second choice program) which rounded out what I needed to be in the position I am in today. I've never regretted my decision.

Did you go directly from your bachelor's degree to enrolling in a graduate program without stopping out?  If so, what advantages do you think that provided? If not, why was this the right choice for you? What, if any, advice would you give student who are thinking about stopping out before beginning graduate school?

I did! For me, if I stopped out and started working again (I worked for ~10 years prior to college) I knew I wouldn't go back. It is too easy to get consumed by life and responsibilities (and bills, let's be honest) when you stop out between undergrad and grad school. If at all possible, don't do it.

Looking back, was graduate school more or less demanding than you expected?

Honestly, grad school was much less demanding than I expected. It had its moments, that is for sure, where I thought it might be too much (comprehensive exams come to mind) but I was able to get through those. I had a lot of 'life' happen while I was in grad school (my Dad passed away, for example) that could have made things really overwhelming, but I had the support of both my grad school cohort and my professors to get through those moments. I think that is a really important thing to ask grad students at programs you are applying at- how supportive is the faculty if something terrible happens in your life? I think it matters a lot what mindset you take with you to grad school as well. Nothing is 100% perfect about any program, and if you let a lot of the minor imperfections bother you, it definitely can be overwhelming and feel very demanding. Taking time out for yourself is helpful too- you can't do your best work if you are worn out and stressed. Final piece of advice- always work ahead of deadlines.

What was the most rewarding part of graduate school?

Finishing? No, seriously though, the relationships I built with fellow students and the faculty were (and continue to be) the best part of grad school.

What experiences did you seek out as a graduate student to prepare you for working in your current career?

Anything I thought might be remotely helpful in preparing me to enter the next stage of my career.

A lot of things in graduate school are competitive, so you have to chase the experiences you want. I also was sure to take classes in other departments and to find mentors that had different experiences/expertise than what my official mentor had, which helped a lot.

What's your best advice for McNair scholars about graduate school?

You get out of it what you put into it. It will be the same later in your career as well.

How has your life changed since you earned your PhD?

I moved to Arkansas? It is hard to say, considering I graduated and started a new position in a global pandemic. I'm sure I'll see more changes post-COVID.

Are you currently involved in research, and if so, can you briefly explain your research? What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishments?

My research focuses on how the social determinants of health influence people's access to healthcare and health outcomes, particularly for people with cardiometabolic disease (eg diabetes) and for rural and minority populations I also study how interventions (e.g., telemedicine) may be able to improve healthcare access and health outcomes to prevent the intergenerational transmission of health disparities.

So far, my biggest accomplishment is applying for a KL2 training grant- it was the first grant application I have done, and they are a lot of work!

Do you have any advice for students on the fence about applying for the McNair Program?

It doesn't hurt to apply- again, you can't do something great if you never try in the first place!

Are there any final words of wisdom you'd like to share with our McNair Scholars?

Enjoy every minute of your time in the McNair program, even when it feels like too much with all of the other things in your life (it can sometimes). Support your fellow cohort-mates- mine have celebrated with me and cried with me all the way through this incredible journey from McNair to Assistant Professor (even from a distance/via social media).