The spring semester is in full swing, and, for sophomores, concentration declaration is quickly approaching. Obviously, choosing a major is a big decision which will dictate what discipline you study in most of your courses and possibly direct your professional career. However, your department will also define your academic experience as an upperclass student in other ways; each department has different requirements for independent work, different research opportunities for undergraduates, and a different type of community. I found that considering all of these variables helped me to choose my major, but doing so may necessitate a bit of investigating.
So if you are a sophomore about to choose your concentration, what can you do over the next couple months to get to know the department(s) you are interested in?
Here are some tips to get you started, with examples from my beloved home Department of Geosciences:
This winter, for our seasonal series entitled “Professorship and Mentorship,” PCURs interview a professor from their home department. In these interviews, professors shed light on the role that mentorship has played in their academic trajectory, including their previous experiences as undergraduate and graduate students as well as their current involvement with mentorship as independent work advisers for current Princeton undergraduates. Here, Alec shares his interview.
Princeton takes great pride in its focus on undergraduate independent work, and the expectations of original research and mentorship define the academic experience of juniors and seniors. However, everyone has their own model for mentoring and their own ideas of what undergraduate research should focus on. As part of our Winter Seasonal Series, I interviewed Geosciences Professor Frederik Simons to understand the role of mentorship in his life and share his perspective on undergraduate research at Princeton. I know Frederik from our many conversations in the GEO department and I took his class GEO 422: Data Models and Uncertainty in the Natural Sciences. He is the second reader for my independent work.
Mentorship is a state of mind… You need to get into someone’s mind and understand their perspective. If you see someone who is distressed or struggling, help out a little bit.
What role has mentorship played in your career, and what role does it play in your life now?
I was blessed with mentors throughout my career, a willingness to listen to advice, and the audacity to ignore it. I experienced mentorship in the form of many people looking out for me; it’s essentially about providing opportunity. Mentorship is lifelong; you are still being taken care of by other people whatever you achieve. Now I try to teach undergraduates what I think they should know and connect graduate students with opportunities.
Mentorship is a state of mind. ‘Mentor’ is from the Latin ‘mens’ for mind. You need to get into someone’s mind and understand their perspective. If you see someone who is distressed or struggling, help out a little bit. I have always enjoyed explaining stuff and helping out; it makes me feel good.
Turning a research paper into a visual presentation is difficult; there are pitfalls, and navigating the path to a brief, informative presentation takes time and practice. As a TA for GEO/WRI 201: Methods in Data Analysis & Scientific Writing this past fall, I saw how this process works from an instructor’s standpoint. I’ve presented my own research before, but helping others present theirs taught me a bit more about the process. Here are some tips I learned that may help you with your next research presentation:
More is more
In general, your presentation will always benefit from more practice, more feedback, and more revision. By practicing in front of friends, you can get comfortable with presenting your work while receiving feedback. It is hard to know how to revise your presentation if you never practice. If you are presenting to a general audience, getting feedback from someone outside of your discipline is crucial. Terms and ideas that seem intuitive to you may be completely foreign to someone else, and your well-crafted presentation could fall flat.
Less is more
Limit the scope of your presentation, the number of slides, and the text on each slide. In my experience, text works well for organizing slides, orienting the audience to key terms, and annotating important figures–not for explaining complex ideas. Having fewer slides is usually better as well. In general, about one slide per minute of presentation is an appropriate budget. Too many slides is usually a sign that your topic is too broad.
Learning about independent work in different disciplines can widen your understanding of research and provide insight into the diversity of work being done by the undergraduate research community. This may be especially important if you are a first-year or sophomore student deciding on what concentration to declare. As a GEO major, I am very familiar with the type of research that goes into scientific independent work, but less familiar with research in other disciplines.
To learn more about other types of student research on campus, I interviewed Rae Perez ‘19 about her independent work in the architecture department. Rae is researching the closing of 50 public schools in black neighborhoods in Chicago. Her thesis will analyze these buildings in the context of the city’s racial and political landscape. If you are curious about what research for an architecture thesis might look like, here is what Rae shared about her independent work:
What is your thesis about?
It is an architecture thesis challenging the borders of architecture by dipping into social sciences, urbanism, racial and political dynamics of a city. [I am] trying to understand how individual buildings reflect political ideologies. Chicago shut down 50 public schools in predominantly black neighborhoods and is doing nothing to help a struggling demographic they have historically injured. I want to look at how these buildings have embodied different meanings over time.
At Princeton I often find myself overwhelmed by my workload, behind on assignments and readings, and struggling to prepare for exams. When work piles up, it is necessary to work as efficiently as possible to meet deadlines, but it can be really challenging to work productively when you are feeling overworked. Princeton’s heavy workloads are often a source of stress–here are a few strategies that help me when I am struggling:
Conducting good research requires many skills which we learn throughout our Princeton careers. Self care is one of the most important skills, but it is easy to overlook with so many other academic demands.
Go outside and exercise:
If you can’t concentrate on your work or feel low energy, taking a half hour break from working to go for a walk or a jog can help clear your head while also jump-starting your blood flow. Being outside gets me back in contact with the rest of the world and helps me escape coursework induced myopia. I like to go to Mountain Lakes nature preserve, which has a small network of hiking trails and a few picturesque ponds. The ponds are great for a (very) cold swim, and the forest has beautiful foliage in the fall.
Last year, Princeton announced a plan to expand the University by 2026, adding another residential college and building new athletic facilities on the south side of Lake Carnegie. In what ways will this latest expansion transform our campus, and how does that change fit with the university’s historic land use? These are the questions that my twin brother, GEO senior Benjy Getraer, set out to answer last year in a class project for GEO 90 “Analyzing Ecological Integrity: An Assessment of Princeton’s Natural Areas.”
To address these types of large-scale research objectives or answer smaller questions such as Benjy’s, you can use Geographic Information System (GIS) software to display, edit, and analyze geospatial data. Spatial analysis provides a unique way to study data and add diversity to figures and data visualization. In this post I will introduce basic concepts of geospatial data and one application of GIS analysis by walking through Benjy’s project, mapping land use change on Princeton’s campus.
For over 70 years the Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP) has run an eight-week field research expedition on the glaciers spanning Juneau, Alaska and Atlin, British Columbia. JIRP is the longest continuous glacial monitoring program in North America. But what truly sets the program apart is its commitment to active student participation and mentorship: all of the summer research is carried out by students, ranging from high schoolers to Ph.D. candidates, and mentored by field staff and faculty from around the world.
Active participation and mentorship are vital aspects of all student research. In my experience, I learn way more from engaging with research in the real world than from reading, listening to lectures, or completing recipe-type lab exercises. So, when I got the opportunity to join JIRP this summer, I jumped at the chance.
With Dean’s date looming, it is likely that many of you (like me) are about to get a late start on your term papers. In my experience, the success of a project and the effectiveness of my thesis rests largely on my understanding of past research and the foundational theories concerning the topic. The first steps I take in a research project are to explore the literature surrounding a topic and to begin to put together a library of sources. However, when searching for online sources, it can be hard to know where to start looking, how to identify important and reputable sources, and how to keep your searches organized. Luckily, there are many tools that can help you streamline your search and get writing faster! If you are struggling, here is a basic framework you can use to search better:
Use Web of Science to Guide your Search
Web of Science is a human-curated database, which generally includes only reputable journal articles. It links every article to those that it cited and those that cited it, creating the eponymous ‘web’ that you can easily traverse in search of important or fundamental sources. Web of Science’s detailed statistics on article citations and journal impact allow you to more easily ascertain the relative importance of an article. It has highly customizable search options and even provides links to the full-text through Princeton University Library and Google Scholar.
While Web of Science is a powerful tool, it has some draw-backs. You need to be connected through the Princeton network to access the site, it doesn’t include all journals from every discipline, and cannot search within the main text of articles for keywords. For that reason, I usually supplement my search with Google Scholar after forming a basis of reputable articles from Web of Science. Google Scholar allows for in-text keyword search and includes many mediums in addition to journal articles, but it is not a human-curated database, and search results will include many sources that are unreputable or low quality.
Build a Library of Sources With Google Scholar:
I have often found myself lost in a sea of open tabs or forgetting where I found a promising article. Keeping my search organized is always a struggle, but with Google Scholar’s library feature, it is extremely simple. If you find an interesting article, simply click the star on the lower left hand side of the search result. The article link will be saved to your personal library along with its citation information. You can easily organize your library by assigning labels to different topics or projects and editing citation information. As your topic narrows and you begin to form a thesis, your library will evolve. Using Google Scholar Library is great because you can easily add, delete, and organize your library without having to download PDF documents or external apps. When you’re ready to cite your sources, Google Scholar creates citations for you and allows you to export citation files in many different formats.
Using this basic framework for online source searching can help you find useful and reputable articles while saving you time and keeping your sources organized. If you are struggling to find articles for your discipline on Web of Science, Scopus is an awesome alternative which is very similar but has a different format and has a slightly different selection of articles. For even more specialized databases, you can always check out the Library’s website. In addition, for those who prefer to save their library on their computer and not store it online, applications like Mendeley or Zotero have great tools for downloading and organizing PDF sources and automating citations.
“Any science major should consider this course…it is basically independent work guided by two top notch professors and supported by an entire seminar class.” – Anonymous Student Review
Every undergraduate studying the natural sciences at Princeton undertakes significant independent research projects in their Junior and Senior years. GEO/WRI 201: Methods in Data Analysis & Scientific Writing is a unique course designed specifically to teach students how to write an independent scientific paper. If you are a Sophomore or Junior looking to attain the concrete skills and confidence to tackle independent research, there is no better class to take.
In 201, you will learn how to design, research, write, and present original scientific research, all through the lens of measuring changing landscapes using satellite and drone-derived aerial imagery. Under the mentorship of Adam Maloof (GEO) and Amanda Irwin Wilkins (WRI), and with the support of your peers, you will: develop an original, well motivated scientific question; design effective field methods to test a specific hypothesis; quantitatively analyze data and imagery; and learn how to effectively communicate the results in a scientific paper and slideshow presentation. The highlight of the class is a nine day field trip across Utah, where students work collaboratively to implement their own field methods, piloting drones and collecting climatological data.
Few students enter Princeton planning to study Geosciences–I certainly didn’t.
Fascinated by the natural world and enticed by the prospect of a field semester in Kenya, I confidently chose “Ecology and Evolutionary Biology” as my intended concentration every semester on Tigerhub’s Academic Planning Form. My backup plan, if the sciences weren’t the right fit, was to study History and get a certificate in American Studies.
So why, when it came time to declare my concentration, did I end up choosing Geosciences? There were three factors that I felt set GEO apart from the other departments I considered:
When I was considering which department to join, it was important to me that the department had a strong community with a space for undergraduate participation.
GEO has a vibrant department community that places a high value on undergraduates. Undergraduate participation is encouraged in weekly department wide events such as lunchtime lectures and snack breaks, as well as celebratory events such as annual department picnics. Even before I declared my concentration, faculty and staff in the department made it clear that there was a place for me in GEO.
The department even has its own undergraduate society, Princeton University Geosciences Society (PUGS), run entirely by students, which plans regular social events and field trips centered around building a close-knit community of engaged undergraduates. PUGS organized a department field trip to Iceland in 2015 and is planning a weeklong trip to the United Kingdom this year.