The Daunting Search for a Research Topic and Question: Where Should I Begin?

Firestone is not only beautiful in person, but its virtual resources can also provide you with the necessary tools to begin your research journey

     I know the feeling all too well of sitting down to write a paper and debating for hours about which topic to choose. There are thousands of research questions to explore, so how could you possibly decide on one, and better yet devise a significant and impactful paper from it? These thoughts have swirled through my head just this past week as I sat down to write a paper for one of my law courses. There was so much information that I wanted to include, therefore I struggled to pick one topic. So if you are feeling this way too, remember that you are not not the only one who has encountered these obstacles. I would like to share with you the strategy that I use to break out of this rut and discover a topic and question that I’m both passionate about and can conduct appropriate research on. This is by no means the only way to break you out of a tough writers block, but hopefully my advice can help you move along on your research journey.

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Doing Research in a Pandemic, an Interview with Professor of History Alison Isenberg

For this Spring Seasonal Series, entitled Doing Research in a Pandemic, each correspondent has selected a researcher to interview about the impact of the pandemic on their research. We hope that these interviews document the nuanced ways the pandemic has affected research experiences, and serve as a resource for students and other researchers. Here, Austin shares his interview.

Alison Isenberg, Professor of History; Co-Director, Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities. Taken Feb 6, 2017.
Professor History and Co-Director of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities Alison Isenberg plans to finish a draft of her upcoming book, Uprisings, soon.

As part of our seasonal series, I interviewed Professor of History and Co-Director of the Princeton-Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities, Alison Isenberg. A scholar of the American city and its contested history, Professor Isenberg is currently wrapping up her next book, Uprisings, which she sat down with me to discuss. Professor Isenberg, who took a sabbatical this year to drill down on the draft for Uprisings, details the contents of her book, how the pandemic changed the way she researches, and the implications of her book in our tense political moment.

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On “Choosing Sides” in an Academic Debate: The More Precise, the Better

An amusing remark on academics, itself attributed to several different academics, goes something like this: In academia, disputes take on such huge proportions precisely because the stakes of them are so small. Whether this observation is or is not true, I have found that its general sentiment is passed down to undergraduates, if inadvertently so. Of course, there are pedagogical reasons for instilling this impression; when we are learning about debates on a given subject within a discipline, it can help to read the most absolute positions on either side, if only to distill the terms of argument.

But the impression that such debate must necessarily be black and white, and must be of great intensity, can be daunting to accept as an undergraduate writer. Who am I, I wonder to myself, to so totally challenge the work of an established academic researcher? Even if I might disagree with their broader argument, have they not done far more research than I have? Relatedly, what if their research offers some quite usable background information– am I not just a little hypocritical to use it while arguing against the position it was intended to support? Or, what if I agree with smaller asides or observations by the researcher, but not the thrust of their whole argument? In a word, need the division be so absolute within the scholarly conversation? 

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How to Make Progress on Your Lab-Thesis Outside of the Lab

When writing a research manuscript or a lab report, I have been conditioned to complete all of my experiments first and then start by writing the results section. My mentors have always encouraged me to start with the section that ‘writes itself’, given that when you obtain your experimental results, you cannot alter them. I started the school year thinking I would use this approach for my thesis – focus strictly on experiments during the fall and the start of spring semester and transition into the written portion of the thesis during late spring semester. However, while I was at home and outside of the lab between Thanksgiving break and early February, I knew I could not spend more than 2 months without thesis progress. Although I did not have my results nearly ready by that point, I began to brainstorm different ways in which I could work on my lab-based thesis without access to the lab. In this post, I will highlight ideas and resources that can help you make progress on your thesis, even while you are outside of the lab. 

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Doing Research in a Pandemic, An Interview with Molecular Biology Graduate Student Emily Mesev

For this Spring Seasonal Series, entitled Doing Research in a Pandemic, each correspondent has selected a researcher to interview about the impact of the pandemic on their research. We hope that these interviews document the nuanced ways the pandemic has affected research experiences, and serve as a resource for students and other researchers. Here, Nanako shares her interview.

For this seasonal series, I decided to interview Emily Mesev, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Molecular Biology. I was interested in how her experience as a graduate student differed from my experience as an undergrad. Because undergrads aren’t allowed to be in the laboratory (at least for Molecular Biology), I’ve had to change my thesis topic and redirect it to become computational. I was excited to find out whether the graduate student experience had changed in similar ways!

Emily at her laboratory bench this week.
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Tips for Finding Policy-based Internships

Perhaps one of the more difficult aspects of being a college student is looking for  summer internship opportunities. Furthermore, as I discovered this year in my own search for something to do this summer, there can often be unique challenges for students who are primarily interested in public policy. As a (prospective) economics major, it often felt like no matter how hard I searched on Handshake, nearly every internship that I found was in finance or investment banking. While these were undoubtedly interesting opportunities, this was a little disappointing to me as I was hoping that I would be able to use the summer to explore policy and economics research, and maybe even get a better understanding of possible career paths. 

My initially discouraging internship search notwithstanding, be assured that these kinds of internships do exist. I myself was fortunate enough to find and eventually participate in such an opportunity– but only after I began to approach my search in a different way.

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A Guide to Princeton Libraries during a Pandemic

A view of the North Study section of the new Engineering Library underneath Fine Hall.

Last school year, during my first year at Princeton, I rarely ventured out to study in the libraries, instead preferring to stay in the comfort of my dorm room. However, after spending the fall semester at home, I realized just how much I missed the Princeton libraries, and I regretted not taking advantage of this amazing resource more often while on campus.

Going into spring semester, I challenged myself to explore the many incredible study spaces on campus that I had never been to. I was partly inspired by this post on the best study spaces on campus, and I wanted to provide an update on how studying on campus during a pandemic is like. A lot of the logistics around studying in the libraries have changed due to new Covid-19 regulations. So, in this article, I am going to lay out the changes to the Princeton library system and provide an update on some of the best new study spaces on campus.

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Say Goodbye to FOMO: Making the Most of Your Virtual Experience at Princeton

Whitmanites are making whales and you can too! There is an abundance of academic and social events taking place this semester virtually.

It has been about a year since the world turned upside down and Princeton as we know it changed completely. Most students returned to campus this spring, hoping to feel a piece of what Princeton once was. However, many other students stayed home due to safety concerns, or because they knew Princeton wouldn’t be the same. Regardless of the decision, I know that many students, myself included, feel FOMO and like we are missing out on what our four years should have been, both intellectually and socially. However, there is a silver lining. There are ways to stay engaged academically wherever you are, conduct research, and make new connections. So without further ado, here are 6 ways to reduce your Princeton FOMO and make the most of this semester:

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Why Zoom Office Hours Are Better (and tips for making the best use of them)

A picture of students in one of the first classes held on Zoom in spring 2020

If there is one thing we as students have mastered in the COVID-19 pandemic, it is Zoom and the Zoom environment. Looking back to last spring, it is admirable how educational institutions and students adapted to an unprecedented global crisis and continued with their academic and non-academic roles. Here at Princeton, the transition to Zoom was relatively smooth given the uncertainty and fear at the time. Although the initial stages of scheduling an online semester were difficult, there was a strong desire to sustain many of Princeton’s activities for the virtual campus community. The concerted efforts of students, faculty and staff have paid off. The three semesters of virtual learning I’ve had so far mimicked almost all the characteristics of the usual in-person experience I’ve come to expect at Princeton, including access to office hours.

The main medium for virtual interaction is Zoom, and it has been adapted for almost every facet of university activity, from school clubs and organizations to school hosted events and webinars. In this post, I will take a closer look at the Zoom office hours, their many advantages and in some cases, how they are actually better than in-person ones. I will then offer some suggestions for making the best use of Zoom office hours this spring.

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Apply to Write for PCUR During the 2021-2022 Academic Year!

This academic year has certainly been atypical.  For many, the process of doing research itself has been impacted by COVID-19: indeed, in our upcoming Seasonal Series, correspondents will interview research faculty and graduate students about their research experiences in the wake of COVID-19. Additionally, many of our favorite activities have been cancelled, while others march forward virtually. PCUR has continued to publish blog posts during this time.

In fact, we are happy to announce that PCUR is hiring new correspondents for the 2021-2022 academic year!

PCUR’s 2020-2021 Correspondents

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