Finding a JP Topic (On Your Own)

Personally examining the items around a book you’ve found is a great way to find related works on a given subject.

For many first year and sophomore students, fall break is a true respite from the academic demands of college life. For many juniors and seniors, however, it is a time of simultaneous relief and moderated despair as Princeton’s independent work requirements loom large. This is the position I find myself in. So gather round, friends, it’s time to talk independent work—specifically, how I found a general research area for my first JP. New to the JP game as I am, I feel rather unqualified to offer advice on how to “conquer” it or plan a totally coherent project right from the start. This will not be that kind of post. Rather, I’ll share some thoughts on beginning my own JP research process, which should illuminate some of the methods I used to cut down the uncertainty around my project and to find something like a workable topic. While I hope this is a useful guide for anyone facing the JP, I should note that it will probably be the most applicable to those in departments where fall independent work is not structured around a research seminar.

If your department is anything like mine (Religion), then you probably received some, but not much, guidance on picking a research topic. Some common advice I heard was to think back to previous classes taken in the department and use those as a starting point for one’s research. This didn’t help me a great deal, however, because I had taken only one course in my major before declaring. So, I was more or less on my own to survey the discipline and come up with a suitable independent work topic.

Even without a lot of departmental coursework under my belt, I still had interests. Indeed, I knew I was interested in the intersection of religion and politics in the United States. Broad as that may sound, it was enough to start researching (i.e., reading). Research tip: once you find a helpful book, look at its library shelf-mates—because of the organizational system used by the Princeton librarians, books on similar topics will be stored together. You can do this digitally, too, but rumor has it that certain discipline-specific librarians will hand-pick important and/or recent works for storage in the library itself, as opposed to Princeton’s massive off-site storage location.  In other words, showing up in person has its benefits.

While I’m still hesitant to say that I’ve “found” my final topic, I have narrowed it down further to the role of religion in the politics surrounding the US Supreme Court. Perhaps the main piece of “advice” I can offer here is to reflect on your durable interests—that is, those that won’t disappear halfway through your project—and to read as much as you can in that area.

Piggybacking off of this main idea, I also suggest talking to preceptors, professors, mentors, and friends about your emergent topic. Sometimes I find that a seemingly solid idea doesn’t hold up when I try to talk through it with someone else, but other times, it’s the inverse: I actually have something to say that I didn’t even realize. In short, talking is a great way to get the gears of your brain going, which is always helpful when trying to plan the biggest research project of your life—so far!

I hope that these points of reflection are helpful for any of my fellow juniors out there wrestling with the JP. For further reading on the JP, I recommend taking a look at my fellow PCUR Andrea’s post on choosing a topic, which is geared toward those in departments with research seminars. It seems to me that the earliest stages of a research project can be the most stressful or worrisome to think about, when everything is very much abstract and little is committed to paper. Let us conquer the fear, friends. Reflect, read, take notes, talk it out, rinse, and repeat. Such is the basic outline of the research cycle, and if we put in the work, I trust that we’ll each find our reward.

–Shanon FitzGerald, Social Sciences Correspondent