In the fall of 2021, I worked in the Computational Turbulent Reacting Flow Laboratory under the guidance of Professor Michael Mueller. In the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) department, junior independent research is optional. I enrolled in MAE339: Junior Independent Work in the fall and am currently continuing my research this spring semester. Research was an integral part of my high school experience, and I was excited to start working on independent research in my junior year of college in a different setting. Now, I want to share a few of the lessons I learned from this past semester with you:
Prepare for your independent work before the semester starts!
Do your research on what fields and projects professors are working on. Many professors have multiple projects going on in their lab, so it is a good idea to look at each lab’s web page to see what they are working on. Emailing and chatting with graduate students in the lab is also a good idea, as you get to learn more about what the day-to-day research looks like for them (and you might even be working closely with them in the future). Of course, reach out to the professors. However, remember that they are busy people, so be understanding of their availability.
Explore the field.
Don’t limit yourself; talk to more than one professor. You would want to learn more details about the broad scope of research available before choosing a particular field. It is also practical because each professor has their own availability. For example, some professors might simply not have the bandwidth to take you on. They might be busy advising their graduate students or senior thesis students. Other factors might also come into play that might prevent you from working with a professor. For example, their research might be in its beginning stages where you cannot substantially help yet but might be able to contribute better next year. The key point is to be knowledgeable of the research opportunities available and to express interest early. If possible, take the classes that these professors are teaching to get a leg up on the specialty area of your research.
Keep a research log.
This includes a log of every move you make in the lab: observations you make, decisions made based on those observations (and perhaps relating theory as to why you are making specific decisions), and results you may record. Also, keep careful notes of the literature review you read as you go along. These will be especially helpful when you write your final paper at the end of the semester. My work personally involved a lot of tweaking with codes and several figures and graphs. I kept a log of code tweaks I made so that I could easily retrace my steps, and I not only kept all of the graphs I made but also the MATLAB codes I used to generate them. If you find yourself backtracking to look for a specific result or graph, this makes it easier to find. If you have the energy and time, it would also be a good idea to write your literature review (and maybe even your results and discussion) throughout the semester.
Set weekly goals.
With how busy Princeton is, it is easy to get caught up in problem sets and readings and neglect your independent work. It is important to keep a broad idea of your project timeline and where you are with respect to it to ensure you are keeping on track. Setting weekly goals is important, and a weekly meeting with your adviser can help determine what exactly to accomplish that week. Many find it useful to carve out a specific time each week to work on your independent research.
Establish good relationships with the other folks in your lab.
Even though your work may be “independent,” research, especially in engineering, is often a team effort! If your lab has a weekly meeting, try your best to attend these as well to familiarize yourself with the projects that the graduate students and postdocs in your lab are working on. These might be future areas of interest for you, or you might find that you are tackling similar problems or challenges as them!
Although my experience is specific to an engineering lab in the computational sciences, I believe these tips will also benefit students from other areas of study. Last but not least, if your independent work does not go according to your expectations, don’t worry about it! Many obstacles come up along the way (such is the path of research), and it is part of the learning process we are all together on.
— Agnes Robang, Engineering Correspondent