3 Steps to a Fulfilling Summer Research Experience

The weather might make you feel like summer is impossibly far off (as I’m writing this, it’s a depressingly chilly 37 degrees), but move-out day is less than two months away! Given June’s swift approach, now is an excellent time to start thinking about how you can get the most out of your summer experiences.

Whether your summer plans involve flying to another continent or staying on campus to do research, some introspective preparation can truly ~elevate~ your experience.

This summer, I will be doing an IIP internship at a public interest law organization in Budapest, Hungary. I’m currently in the process of solidifying travel and housing details, but logistics aren’t the only thing to plan for. Last week, for example, all summer IIP students attended a meeting to get advice on how to make the most of our internships. Many of the speakers’ suggestions involved logistical preparation, echoing the tips Dylan wrote about a few weeks back. But they also focused on introspective preparation and encouraged us to reflect on where our research fits into our lives — and on what kinds of researchers we aim to be. Here are three of the tips that we discussed:

  1. Treat your whole experience as field research

Not all of us will be doing conventional “research” this summer. I, for one, will be working in an office rather than in a lab or out in the field. But if I’ve learned anything from PCUR, it’s that “research” encompasses a broad range of practices central to our everyday lives. In this spirit, think about how your summer experience can constitute a form of field research. Ask yourself what you are learning about your work environment. What kinds of people work in your field? How do they interact with one another? Treating your summer work as a means of researching your field can be especially engaging if you’re working abroad. In my case, for instance, I hope to learn about Hungarian culture and customs over the course of my stay in Budapest

2. Frame your summer

Now is a great time to ask yourself how your summer experience will fit into your current and future academic work, your long-term plans, and the field that you’re working toward. One way to go about this is to start formulating your research questions. Consider using scholarly databases (Google Scholar, Princeton’s library catalogue, etc.) to find out more about your area of study. What is currently being investigated in your field? What perspectives are missing? Where can you fit in?

Framing your summer experience involves not only preparation, but also follow through. According to the speakers at my meeting, students almost invariably have incredible summer experiences abroad, but often have trouble integrating their experiences into their everyday lives upon returning in September. One way to avoid this pattern is to enroll in courses or consider pursuing independent projects (junior papers or a senior thesis) related to your summer work.

  1. Approach summer research mindfully

One of the meeting’s main takeaways was about how to conduct ethical research. Particularly for those of us working abroad, it is important to be more than just “parachute researchers”—people who swoop in with little knowledge of the experiences or customs of the locals, conduct research without coordinating with resident experts, and then head home with nothing but our results. As outsiders, we should listen to locals’ perspectives, ask open-ended questions and communicate our findings using their terms.

For interviews, using direct quotations is often the most effective means of respecting subjects’ perspectives and not imposing your own vocabulary. Aim to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar. In other words, get to know what is foreign to you well enough that you reassess what you’ve assumed to be the norm. Maintaining an open mind will surely enhance your research findings as well as your summer experience.

Emma Kaeser, Social Sciences Correspondent