From Politics to Neuroscience: 5 Princeton Courses I’ll Never Forget

Photograph of Nassau Hall at night. Blueish-Green light is cast over the center of the building. The brick pathway leading up is wet and covered in fall leaves.
Rainy fall leaves will turn to snowy flakes before you know it; it’s never too early to plan some future courses!

“I have to wake up at 6:23 AM for course enrollment?!” Yes. You do. But you got this! It’s true that course enrollment is still a month away, but it is never too early to start drafting your schedule to avoid this “oh no” early-bird moment. Generally, I recommend taking courses that excite you, even if they are outside of your major, because before you know it you’ll be an old senior like me wishing you had time to take more. Everyone has a different taste in classes. I am a SPIA major who is passionate about service, social justice, and law, but I have tried to take unique and expansive research-based classes. Thus, without further ado, here are 5 of my most memorable classes at Princeton, in no particular order, and why they might be of interest to you:

  1. SPI340: The Psychology of Decision Making and Judgment

SPI340 is taught by one of the most legendary Professors at Princeton, Professor Eldar Shafir. The class covers utility theory, perception, poverty and more. Regardless of topic, Professor Shafir applies each unit to a real-world context, providing students with a valuable opportunity to make a difference on campus. For example, my final paper explored how we can convince students to sleep more on campus through the use of nudges. Currently, Professor Shafir is my senior thesis advisor and he is helping me research judgments towards the existing achievement gap and how we may alter these judgments. He has been an incredible Professor and mentor to me.

  1. PSY338: From Animal Learning to Changing People’s Minds

I definitely recommend taking any course taught by Professor Yael Niv (see here for an interview I conducted with Professor Niv on her research during COVID-19). The courses that I took with her were unique in that each class provided the opportunity to complete a creative end of the semester project. For example, in PSY338, I worked with a team of students to design an experiment on social conformity. Specifically, we had participants answer an ambiguous math question from The NY Times (see here to solve the math question yourself) and wanted to see if people would conform and respond in the same way that others did. We had confederates type in a potentially correct answer to the math problem and observed if participants also responded in the same way after viewing this response. We found an increase in this incorrect response with the presence of the experimenter, meaning we were able to observe and create an original pattern of social conformity in Professor Yael Niv’s course.

  1. POL346: Applied Quantitative Analysis

Quantitative social analysis really brings your R game to the next level. I encourage you to learn R because it is an extremely applicable coding language that is often used to predict and analyze political and economic patterns. POL345 is the prerequisite to this course and is also an awesome class. I suggest continuing your R journey into this course because it is extremely helpful in writing any quantitative junior paper or senior thesis. Specifically, students create 5 comprehensive reports on an original research question such as: do video games truly produce violence? These reports were incredibly helpful to me, especially when writing my junior paper, as I was able to load in, clean, and filter data easily, as well as perform any needed analyses.

  1. FRS147: How People Change: Short Stories and Life’s Transitions

If you are a first year, TAKE A FRESH SEM NEXT SEMESTER!!!!! You have a once in a lifetime opportunity to take these specialized courses and I strongly recommend doing so. I loved both of my freshmen semesters (FRS147 and FRS154: Subjective Reality which is also taught by Yael Niv). FRS147 is taught by Sheila Kohler, who is truly amazing. The course does not feel like work; it feels like art as you are able to delve into a new short story each week, whether it’s James Joyce or Katherine Mansfield. Each week you read a short story from a new period of life and you write a story from the perspective of that age. At the end of the semester, we shared our stories and Professor Kohler invited us to her home in NYC to celebrate. It was an unforgettable Princeton experience.

  1. SPI401 & SPI404

Most majors have junior seminars and it is a great way to explore a specific passion and dive deep into one field. I took 2 SPIA seminars, one qualitative seminar on criminal justice, SPI401: Rethinking Criminal Justice: Policy Responses to Mass Incarceration (see here for my post on this experience) and one quantitative research seminar, SPI404: Impatient Politics: Time Horizons in Public Opinion about Public Policy. Both seminars provided me with amazing opportunities, such as a trip to Congress and hands-on coding experience. I recommend taking a seminar that makes writing your junior paper feel like a passion, rather than a school project. There is often fear or stress surrounding the big JP and especially the senior paper which shall not be named, but choosing a topic to be excited about, when there are so many options, can definitely help you ease your nerves.

These courses were some of my favorites at Princeton, but I have taken too many awesome courses to count. Other recommendations that I have are PSY254: Developmental Psychology, SPI333: Law, Institutions, and Public Policy, and POL327: Mass Media, Social Media, and American Politics and PHI352: Philosophy of Bias: Psychology, Epistemology, and Ethics of Stereotypes. I chose to take courses which aligned with my values of trying new things and exploring impact. These courses taught me a variety of skills, from taking care of a baby to using an algorithm to predict the outcome of the midterm election. It is true though that these recommendations are missing some key disciplines, such as math, sociology, and economics. Please keep a lookout for my next post which will cover the course recommendations of seniors in a variety of disciplines. I remember when I was a first year, and maybe possibly even a third year, and I was frantically searching “best Princeton courses” on the internet. I hope that this comes up as a resource when you ask yourself the same question and I hope that this introduces you to a few new courses which may be of interest to you.

— Ryan Champeau, Social Sciences Correspondent