What does it take to become a Pioneer scholar? The paths of the more than 4000 scholars from 71 countries who have participated in the Pioneer Research Program over the last ten years are as individual as the scholars themselves. However, because the rigorous admissions process is the same for everyone, there are some common threads. Several Pioneer alumni have shared parts of their own experiences to help provide answers to some common questions and concerns.
The first big step, after learning about Pioneer, is taking the initiative to start the application process. This is not always as easy as it sounds. Pioneer scholar Layla, from Illinois in the US, was impressed with a friend’s Pioneer research paper. She hoped to do research in quantum computation, a field often not available to high school students, but says, “I was truly concerned that I might not be ‘good enough.’” However, after spending some time with the Pioneer website and its various links, she realized that “every scholar is really an ordinary teenager just like myself.”
Lucia Murillo, Global Associate Director of Outreach at Pioneer, might not completely agree with the word “ordinary.” In her view, “the ideal Pioneer scholar candidate is a high school student with a deep intellectual curiosity and the maturity to persevere through the challenge of an academic system that demands them to continuously grow, learn and meet really high standards.”
Many Pioneer scholars are looking for just this kind of challenge. Pioneer scholar Nikita, from Bangalore, India, who learned about Pioneer from other students at her school, says, “I’ve always been interested in research, but I never had an avenue to conduct it, never had mentors, it was just me writing articles. So I decided it was time to join a program that would help guide me in the right direction.”
Other potential scholars and their mentors find the Oberlin college credits to be an important factor. Pioneer scholar Mila, from North Macedonia, was encouraged by her school advisor to apply to Pioneer, because the program offered both college credits and an experience “that you might later use in your field.” Mila was attracted by “the interactive character of the program, because I am able to be with professors from amazing universities and do research with them, something that I will continue to do in my future studies.”
Other students are motivated by the opportunity to join the Pioneer community, and the promise of producing significant work. Pioneer scholar Marvin, from Hong Kong SAR, learned about the program from one of his friends, who completed the program in 2020 and who introduced him to the website. Although he was “quite ambivalent as the deadline was closing in, what strengthened my decision was the prospect of producing an articulate piece of research and speaking to past Pioneer scholars, the friendships that I would forge through Pioneer Academics with the professor and fellow students.”
Two aspects of the application process that can be particularly intimidating to potential scholars are the essays and the interviews, often new experiences for a high school student.
Pioneer scholar Crystal, from Shanghai, China, summarizes what many scholars say about writing the essays: “It’s important for you to be real.” Pioneer scholar Kaushal, from California in the US, also offers another common piece of advice: “It matters if you’re passionate about your own field. Share that, and your own story as well, what kind of person you are.” Mila found that the essays “were not difficult to write because they were about my interests and who I am as a person.” Nikita advises “leveraging your past experiences.” When she applied to Pioneer, she was already writing independent research papers and doing a lot of reading, so she mentioned that in her essays. “Pioneer isn’t looking for experts,” she says, “they’re looking for eager students.”
Nikita was more intimidated by the prospect of the interview, but found she needn’t have been—despite having a nightmare experience. “It was my first ever interview,” she said, and there was a power outage and “I kept dipping in and out of the call.” Her interviewer, however, was “an understanding human being” who helped her calm down. “I think combating your nerves is the biggest step in an interview process.” Mila, who was already used to public speaking, had a very different experience. For her Pioneer interview, “I just showed up, I was myself, and I was simply not anxious.” Kaushal took a different approach and looked up sample interview questions online. “In the interview, you can forget everything so it’s good to have ‘muscle memory’ of answering the question.” His advice: “Go in with an open mind and just try to have a conversation. It’s very informal.”
One important aspect of applying to Pioneer is the student’s individual suitability for the program. Over the last two years, Pioneer Academics has received 7716 applications from 87 different countries, with very different educational styles. Lucia Murillo says, “the biggest challenge when recruiting new students is making sure that they understand what the program is.” Since Pioneer wants all Pioneer scholars to accomplish their goals, understanding the academic system is critically important. Nikita encourages potential scholars to think about their own attitude to academics. “Research isn’t for everyone. It involves a lot of reading. Writing your research paper should be enjoyable. You have to consider whether or not you like doing research.”
What happens when a student is not accepted into the program? Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing. Both Kaushal and Crystal applied unsuccessfully in their sophomore years, and again, successfully, when they were juniors. Both used the extra year to do additional study, increase their knowledge in their fields, strengthen their applications—and mature. Being rejected is not a pleasant experience, but, Kaushal says, “I should not have taken it so personally.” And, he advises, “Don’t give up.”
And what if the research concentration offered does not seem to match the student’s interests? Crystal, whose major interest was genetics, found herself in a medical-focused research concentration. At first, she was “kind of confused,” but she did what many scholars in similar situations have done. She was open minded in understanding the underlying matter of the concentration, embraced the new content, and then worked with her professor to develop a creative research topic that combined her primary interest and the subject of the research concentration. And in the process, she learned something else that is common to Pioneer scholars: “It’s always good to explore, to grab an opportunity.”
Nikita and Mila sum up the experience of most successful Pioneer scholars. Mila says, “Pioneer was a head start on my university experience.” And Nikita says, “I’m very grateful for Pioneer.”