How to Pick a Second WWS JP Topic when Your First One Doesn’t Work Out

Woodrow Wilson building
Woodrow Wilson building

If you read my previous post, you’ll remember that I recently went through the process of picking my JP topic. If you’re reading this post, you’ll see that I’m going through this process for a second time after realizing my first topic wasn’t going to work out–my professor told me my topic was too general and not empirical enough. Hearing this was a shock, because I had spent so much time developing my first topic that my enthusiasm and excitement made me blind to the paper’s flaws. However, hearing this negative feedback made me realize I had to take a step back and look at my paper with fresh eyes.

Having to switch gears and change topics for a major research paper is rarely easy. This experience reminded me of my R3 days when I had to change topics and start from scratch less than a week before the deadline. Thankfully, my JP debacle wasn’t exactly like this. I knew what worked for me and what didn’t when I had to fix my R3, and I was able to apply what I had learned to my JP.

One of the hardest parts of choosing a second topic is feeling like all of the research you’ve already done on the first topic was for nothing–I definitely didn’t want to put the pressure on myself of completely starting over. Here’s a pro-tip I followed to avoid that stress before switching gears entirely: try to figure out if you can change your focus just enough so it works within the context of the assignment, but while still retaining some of the original ideas.

For example, my first JP topic dealt with the gap between articulated written policy and actual procedure in women’s prisons in regard to women’s health. It was way too general for a Junior Paper, but instead of changing it completely, I simply had to narrow it down. So, I stress-Googled for about two hours, trying to figure out how to move away from such a general topic, while still being able to keep the original framework of women’s prisons in the United States. I knew there was a women’s prison close to my home in New York, so I started there, Googling cases of shackling in that specific facility. From there, I learned there was an anti-shackling bill passed in New York in 2009, and the wheels started turning in my head. Then, I researched how many women’s prisons there are in New York. Realizing there are only three, I decided to narrow my JP focus to include only the women’s prisons in New York. Now, I’m working with the gap between articulated written policy and actual procedure in women’s prisons in New York in regard to a specific example of women’s health: shackling inmates during labor and delivery. Because of this, a lot of my research from my original topic can still be applied to my current focus.

Another difficult part of choosing a second topic is that, not only is your research affected, but your research plan is affected. For example, I had planned out who I would interview and what my questions would be, but in narrowing my focus I foiled my plan. I had been planning on interviewing prison workers in New Jersey, but I could no longer interview people outside of New York because of my new topic. Again, trying to appropriate the old to fit the new is ideal, whenever possible, so I edited my questions to be New York-specific and started reaching out to prison workers and doctors in New York. I feel much more confident about my JP topic now, and I believe narrowing it down was actually more useful in the long run; I will be able to focus on a tangible problem on a more local, state level instead of looking at it through a federal lens. Plus, I can always revisit my prior research topic in my senior thesis if I’m still interested!

So, no matter how stressful the situation might seem, always remember that most likely, it is still possible to rely on your previous research to fit your new focus.

Andrea Reino, Social Sciences Correspondent