Finding the Department that Fits

Last year, around this time, I felt extremely unsure about my academic path at Princeton. I had always known I wanted to study something interdisciplinary, preferably combining my interests in science and the humanities. Cognitive science, which combines neuroscience with philosophy, seemed like the perfect fit. However, as Princeton had no neuroscience major and no cognitive science program, I wasn’t sure which department or program would allow me the appropriate amount of support and flexibility to do interdisciplinary research that bridged science and the humanities.

During the spring of last year, I started to think about how to make Princeton a better academic home for myself!

For a while, my go-to departmental options had been computer science or economics. After talking to students and attempting to contact department representatives, I became worried about whether these departments would offer me the interdisciplinary flexibility to do the research I wanted. I thought about other university programs, like Stanford’s Symbolic Systems, which “focuses on computers and minds: artificial and natural systems that use symbols to communicate, and to represent information” (see more here:!) Sometimes, I wondered if I should consider transferring to another school.

One simple step at the end of spring semester of my freshman year reassured me about my options at Princeton and has kept me on the right track ever since. I Googled something crude like “Princeton graduate student professor Symbolic Systems” and came across the contact information of a graduate student in Professor Ken Norman’s neuroscience lab. Both the student and Professor Norman had graduated from Stanford, studying Symbolic Systems. I emailed them with a general introduction and described my concerns. I told them what I was looking for, and asked how Princeton could facilitate my interests.

This might seem like a bit of a leap of faith, but I never questioned whether I would get a response. I had the utmost faith in every Princeton professor and student I met to provide help if I needed it. My faith was well-founded—the student and Professor Norman spent some time talking to me and gave me honest and clear advice given my goals. While talking to them, I realized that I wanted a department that was flexible, had professors interested in interdisciplinary learning, and had prerequisites that I found interesting. I realized that Philosophy fit the bill perfectly.

Since then, I have been a happy and motivated prospective Philosophy major. I started working in Professor Norman’s Computational Memory lab and attending lab meetings to understand what work in neuroscience is like. I am in two neuroscience classes and a philosophy class now, and recently met with some professors spanning both disciplines about the questions I can start asking to lead into my independent research work next year as a junior–from linguistics and language acquisition to consciousness and memory.

Working in a lab and being proactive about contacting professors and graduate students completely transformed my Princeton experience from one fraught with tension and uncertainty to one with clarity, confidence, and vision in terms of my academic goals. From the start, I knew that I wanted to do interesting, interdisciplinary research spanning science and the humanities. With some guidance, I was able to find the mentors and the departmental structure that will allow my research to flourish. Stay tuned!

Vidushi Sharma, Humanities Correspondent