Stuff Happens: Moving Beyond Initial Thesis Challenges

Don’t panic; things will go wrong.

For me, and for most other Princeton students, a thesis is the longest thing you’ll have written at this point in your life, a particularly daunting task. No matter what happens, there’s no reason to panic or despair about the task at hand. Take a deep breath — everything will turn out fine.

I started my thesis research process this fall by stumbling out of the gate. I had my first meeting with my thesis adviser, Professor Marta Tienda, last week. It could be charitably described as a “rough meeting” for me. I had changed my thesis topic over the summer from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to a broader topic of child migration.

I simply wasn’t able to find enough publicly available data on DACA, and President Trump’s decision to end the program entirely changed the political landscape surrounding it. As interesting as I found the topic, I didn’t think that it was a viable research topic for my thesis any longer.

As a result, I was still searching for a research question by the time I got back to Princeton, which made it particularly difficult for my adviser to give me advice. She wouldn’t be able to advise me on anything if I didn’t know what I was asking, she said. Fair enough.

The meeting ended with my resolving to figure out my research question and problem statement as quickly as possible. I felt optimistic about it all, albeit a little nervous about the whole undertaking. My adviser had given me a big stack of reading to go through, and the idea of churning out a small book by the end of the year is no small feat.

Then, I got an email from the WWS Undergraduate Program Office. It was a reminder to find a thesis adviser before the departmental deadline on September 29. I had previously turned in the thesis advising form last spring, so I emailed to confirm that the Program Office had received the documents. The response was ominous:

“I do not have your form.  Please follow up with her to confirm that she is indeed your adviser.”

Panic set in. Uh oh, I thought. Had my meeting with my adviser been so disastrous that she’d decided to drop me as an advisee? I didn’t think that our meeting had been THAT bad, but well, professors are busy. This was scary. What had I done wrong? What came next? Would I need to find a new adviser?

I sent a flurry of follow-up emails, hoping to get some clarity as to what happened. As it turned out, somewhere along the way, there’d been a small clerical error, and my form went missing. In no way at all had I been dropped by my thesis adviser, thankfully.

In the end, my adviser was kind enough to hand-deliver a new thesis advising form over to the Program Office to ensure that all of the paperwork made its way in on time.

So, having cleared this first hurdle, I can confidently say that I am not capable of losing a thesis adviser. Unexpected obstacles in the research process are inevitable. Ask any senior, and these disasters will run the gamut from hard drive failures (worst case scenario) to actually losing an adviser (unlike me). Simply put, stuff happens, but we have to keep on moving forward in the research process. As with any other work at Princeton, we have to learn to buckle down and finish the task at hand.

What got me through this small-scale crisis was just getting a cup of coffee, sitting down for a minute, figuring out who I needed to email, and deciding what I needed to ask to figure out what was going on. In the moment, these small crises can feel like larger disasters, but it’s worth thinking about the bigger picture and the goal at hand.

People here at Princeton want you to succeed, even on something as daunting as the thesis. It was heartening to see how much the WWS administrators, as well as my thesis adviser, cared. And at the end of the day, everything turned out just fine for me. Now it’s time to actually start researching and writing my thesis.

Nicholas Wu, Social Sciences Correspondent