Researching Abroad? Here’s some advice!

Most Princeton students have been done with school for a while, but I just wrapped things up in New Zealand.  Two weeks ago, I was packing up to leave my flat in Dunedin. I finished my last final on that Tuesday, submitted my JP on Thursday, and then flew out of Dunedin on Saturday.  This week, I’ve been spending time with family before I start my job at PRINCO, Princeton’s endowment fund. At PRINCO, I’ll shadow and help different teams that manage Princeton’s endowment investments in different areas, like fixed income/cash, private equity, real assets, etc.

My favorite hike in NZ-- French Ridge Hut in Mt. Aspiring National Park!
My favorite hike in NZ– French Ridge Hut in Mt. Aspiring National Park!

Since my summer job hasn’t yet started, I thought I’d write about my experience doing JP research abroad.  My advice here is relevant and easily applicable to any student researching abroad. Many of my thoughts in this earlier post have held true throughout the research process, but my topic and experiences changed significantly throughout the semester. As a bit of background, I focused most of my JP on the following asymmetry between aesthetic and moral admiration:

Aesthetic: Henry knows nothing about Velazquez’s Las Meninas. Jill tells him that Las Meninas is an aesthetically praiseworthy painting and lists its qualities, providing evidence for by citing its physical characteristics. Henry comes to admire Las Meninas.

Moral: Henry knows nothing about Mahatma Gandhi. Jill tells him that Gandhi was a morally praiseworthy man and lists his qualities, providing evidence by citing stories about his deeds. Henry comes to admire Gandhi.

My intuition dictated that, in the above example, Henry’s moral admiration seems warranted — but his aesthetic admiration based on testimony does not. The moral qualities relevant to admirability seem communicable by testimony, whereas the aesthetic qualities relevant to admirability do not. Why?

In tackling my research on this topic in New Zealand, I found the following tips useful:

1- Agree upon a weekly check-in schedule with advisors or mentors before leaving the country. I failed to do this and thus found it hard to coordinate with my advisor for the first few weeks of the semester.  My research felt stunted: without regular feedback I didn’t know if I was on the right track, and felt increasingly uncertain about whether I was managing my time correctly. I only felt like I settled into a routine after establishing a schedule with my advisor later on. If you are researching with professors or students at home or in a different location, be sure to set a meeting schedule before you head abroad. Even if you’re planning to work with advisors who will be abroad with you, having a rough idea of availability and scheduling in advance will save time and frustration.

2- Make Skype/meeting sessions productive. My advisor and I agreed to aim for 30 minute meetings each week. I thought about what I wanted to discuss before each session, and sent him the latest version of an outline or paper with a few sections highlighted, and questions relevant to these sections (typed in blue font). Even if he didn’t have time to read these materials beforehand, we could reference the document I’d prepare to zone in on problem areas. When you meet with mentors about research, whether in person or via Skype, have a clear outline of what you’ll be discussing. It’ll streamline meetings and leave you with extra time to talk about your other interests!

3- Talk to as many people as possible throughout the process of your research. Before I narrowed in on my JP research topic, I talked to graduate students and professors at the University of Otago and got reading suggestions from Prof. Errol Lord, a philosopher with interests in aesthetic testimony at the University of Pennsylvania. As I wrote the paper, I checked in with friends often about my ideas–explaining my paper to students who were not necessarily well-versed in philosophy was a productive exercise in streamlining my thoughts. After I had a full draft done, near the end of the process, I sent it to a fellow philosophy major back home, a graduate student in philosophy, and a few professors in the area of aesthetics. Not all of them replied, but the ones that did were extremely helpful. For example, it felt incredible when Prof. Robert Hopkins (NYU), whose work I cited often in my paper, wrote back with enthusiasm and helpful suggestions.

When you’re abroad, take advantage of the place you’re in and the people you’re around to get new perspectives on your research. Introduce yourself to department faculty and students at your local university or organization. You’ll make like-minded friends who’ll introduce you to others whose input will help you find new ideas for your work.

4- Separate “work” and “play”!  I was more creative with my work this semester because I clearly demarcated downtime from study time in my schedule abroad. During the times I set aside for my research writing, I focused all my energy on it. When I consciously decided to take a weekend hiking trip or spend an afternoon cooking or playing guitar with friends, I removed the research from my mind. At Princeton, I often notice myself letting work bleed into other parts of my life, which can leave me tired and less innovative.

Being able to research abroad is a remarkable opportunity that scores of Princeton students take advantage of over the summer. However, it can be hard to balance work with adjusting to life in a new country, perhaps even with a new language! If you’re working on research abroad this summer, try the four tips above to keep yourself inspired and on-track as you learn from both your study and non-study experiences.

Vidushi Sharma, Humanities Correspondent