Connecting with Scholars beyond Princeton

It’s been almost four years, and the generosity of Princeton faculty continues to surprise me. So many professors here are not just accessible to students, but deeply invested in supporting us in and outside of the classroom. It typically isn’t too hard to find at least one research mentor among our 950 full-time faculty.

Nevertheless, one institution’s faculty cannot possibly cover every sub-field or research topic. This has become especially apparent as I’ve moved towards the specificity required of a thesis project. In my case, no professor on campus studies Vilna, the Eastern European city at the center of my thesis.

A newsboy in Vilna in the early twentieth century. Without guidance from professors at other institutions, I probably wouldn’t have selected this fascinating city as my thesis topic!

Of course, there are ways around this. For one, there is probably a professor on campus whose area of expertise has something in common with your project. My thesis adviser does not work on Eastern Europe, for example, but she is an expert in writing urban histories. So even though Vilna is new to her, she has been invaluable in guiding my methodology and argumentation.

She has also encouraged me to reach out to faculty and graduate students in other departments and at other institutions who might be more familiar with Vilna itself. Connecting with these scholars has turned out to be one of the most valuable aspects of my thesis process thus far. I’ve compiled some tips for accessing the rich academic network beyond your particular department or university.

Ask your adviser or professor for recommendations. In my experience, professors typically recommend particular readings, not scholars themselves. Reading is essential, but actually connecting with scholars can transform your project. Try explicitly asking about scholars whose work overlaps with your topic—not just readings.

Google the scholars behind your readings. Are they still alive and working? What else have they published? Do they work with undergraduates at their home institution? Do they have an email address posted? Ask your adviser or professor if they know them personally. I’ve personally been shocked by the scholars my adviser knows—one of my favorite scholars was her undergraduate thesis adviser and another is her good friend! If your professor knows a scholar, ask if they might introduce you to them over email. It will improve your chances of getting a serious reply and will probably be much easier than a cold email. If your professor agrees but doesn’t follow through, don’t be afraid to send a gentle reminder!

Follow up with former Princeton professors and graduate students. I’ve taken classes at Princeton with at least five professors based at other academic institutions. You won’t bump into these professors around campus, so being proactive is important. At the beginning of the summer, I needed help choosing a specific thesis topic and I didn’t know of any faculty on campus who focused on my intended field (twentieth-century Jewish urbanism). Fortunately, I had taken a course my sophomore fall with a visiting professor from Rutgers on Yiddish history. I sent him a quick email, asking for guidance. We met shortly thereafter for tea in New York and, by the end of that meeting, I had multiple specific topics within my area of interest (and the reading recommendations to help me sort through them).

Know what you’re asking for. Are you looking for help with a very specific question (How can I access X primary source that you referenced in your article?) or something more open-ended (I’m interested in this general topic – do you have reading recommendations or research suggestions?)? And remember: you don’t need to get all the answers at once. You can keep in touch with scholars over the course of your entire project. The scholar whose work forms the foundation of my thesis is a professor at Bard. I initially reached out to her with a brief cold email, but we now communicate fairly regularly about all sorts of questions related to my topic. She recently even sent me the papers and recordings from a relevant conference in Vilna over the summer.

Cold emails can be surprisingly effective. As I was starting my thesis research, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to email the author of the most important secondary sources on my thesis topic. He’s a real titan in the field (and I think he’s officially retired), so I didn’t expect a reply. But he responded within a day with general encouragement, specific reading recommendations, and a copy of all of his digitized primary sources related to the topic. You never know!

Connecting with professors beyond the FitzRandolph gates has not only shaped my thesis, but has helped me engage with real scholarly networks and conversations. It can feel intimidating to send that first email, but (at least in my experience) most professors are thrilled that students are reading their work. Sharing their expertise with students is their literal job—so don’t be afraid to ask!

–Rafi Lehmann, Humanities Correspondent