How to Pick a Research Topic

Struggling to pick a research topic? We’ve all been there. Starting can be one of the hardest parts of research. There’s so much pressure to have a good topic that finding one becomes difficult. With that in mind, I’ve compiled some tips to ease this process.

1. Consider your personal interests. If this is a JP or thesis, you will be spending between a semester and an entire year delving into your topic. Make sure you like it! Finding something that genuinely piques your interest will help keep you engaged months down the road. I am lucky to have found Brazilian art therapy pioneer Nise da Silveira, whose work — after writing a JP about her and conducting my senior thesis research abroad on her — continues to keep me curious.

As I develop my thesis research, I hope that I continue to be interested in learning more. After all, just this summer, even before stepping foot in Firestone, I accrued this stack of books!
Crossing my fingers that my thesis topic continues to intrigue! After all, just this summer, even before stepping foot in Firestone, I accrued this stack of books!

2. Read a little about something that fascinates you. Interested in learning more about Mayan basket-weaving traditions? Find a few books or articles about it and start reading! Afterward, assess your feelings. Are you intrigued to learn more, or did you get bored halfway through? Read these signs — they can help you distinguish between topics that pique your interest at first, and those that will give you the stamina to keep reading months later.


3. Set up a meeting with your professors. I’ve written before about how helpful it can be to tap into what your professors might think. For my thesis, I knew that I was interested in a community project in Rio that used art to foster mental health, but wasn’t sure where to start. So I set up a meeting with a professor to talk about it. He suggested I look into Nise da Silveira, and I haven’t looked back since.

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Reading Your “Script”: What Theater Can Teach You About Research

The more I do theater, the more I understand its parallels to academic research.

Recently, I attended a workshop with John Doyle, the renowned theater director and Princeton professor. He shared two details of how he begins a creative process. First, he reads the script only a few times before beginning rehearsals. Rather than getting mired in the script’s details, he likes to let ideas brew and leave space for his collaborators’ input. Second, he stresses the importance of entering rehearsals with unanswered questions — because if you already know the answers, your questions aren’t rich enough, and there’s little point in bringing people together.

Approaching my first thesis meeting, I’ve been thinking about this advice.

As I have written (both here and here), I spent this summer in Rio de Janeiro, researching the legacy of art-therapy pioneer Nise da Silveira. During that time, I conducted over 15 interviews, attended numerous workshops, and collected various books and documents. Recorded on audio files and scribbled in notebooks, these constitute — in a sense — my “script.” It is a body of research so juicy, varied, and detailed, that it tempts me to dive right in and begin working my way through problems.

Yet, as I prepare for my first meeting, the most helpful thing I can do is not read over all this material. Delving in right away, I would get lost in details before I have a sense of what interests me. For the moment, it is more valuable to step away from my “script” and reflect. To think critically about my two months in Brazil. To ponder what confused me and what seemed contradictory. To come up with questions that I cannot yet answer.

Snapshot from the Lewis Center’s production of Elektra in February 2016. I’m the possessed-Chorus-maid on the right!

This strategy has worked for me in theater. Last year, in Elektra, I acted in the two-person Greek Chorus. Following our first read-through, we developed some big questions about the Chorus: Who are we? Why are we here? What makes us otherworldly? What grounds us in the physical world?

These questions, for the most part, went unanswered. But asking them from the start gave us time to test out answers every day, playing with different kinds of movement, costume, intonation — and, of course, finding new details in the script.

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Post-Fieldwork Blues

The end of fieldwork evokes strange sensations of both pride and loss.

Returning to New York after two months in Rio de Janeiro (studying psychiatrist Nise da Silveira’s life and legacy), I know I accomplished a lot. But I can’t get rid of the nagging feeling that there was so much more I could have done, and so much that I left behind. Just as I was acquiring an understanding of the nature of da Silveira’s impact, just as I was beginning to map the important people and projects she influenced, just as my interviews were becoming particularly poignant — it was time to pack my bags.

At the colorful Casa das Palmeiras, pictured above, I attended a Jungian study group, founded by da Silveira to bring intellectuals together across fields.
At the colorful Casa das Palmeiras, pictured above, I attended a Jungian study group that Nise da Silveira founded to bring together intellectuals from across fields.

It’s one of the most bizarre parts of learning. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t. That idea became clearer the more I conducted my research, as da Silveira’s work spanned many fields. She collaborated not just with psychiatrists, but also with painters, philosophers, writers, astrologers, actors, and people from many other fields. Her influence is wide-reaching. And while I never expected to reach everyone, I sometimes felt inadequate knowing there were so many more interesting people I hadn’t interviewed.

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Four Tips for Summer Research

Greetings from Rio de Janeiro!

Back in April, I shared some tips about how to prepare for summer research. Now we’re well into summer, and I’m on the ground in Brazil — conducting my thesis research on psychiatrist Nise da Silveira (1905-1999) and her legacy in Rio. I have made several trips to da Silveira’s psychiatric institute, particularly to visit the Hotel da Loucura — a creative space where artists and the institute’s clients come together to make theater. With two weeks of research completed, I thought I would share some summer research tips that have helped me so far.

Mural of Nise da Silveira in the Hotel da Loucura

1 – Plan in increments. For me, the most daunting — and most exciting — part of tackling a long-term project is the need for flexible and evolving goals. Especially for an ethnographic and interview-based project like mine, I cannot predict what will come up. So far, I have found it most useful to take things a week at a time. I make weekly objectives: attend one theater workshop, conduct two interviews, make a visit to da Silveira’s archives, etc. This allows me to break down the immensity of a two month long research project into smaller, reachable goals.

2 – Write something everyday. I am discovering something new everyday: about Rio, about the people I meet, about art’s ability to heal — and, of course, about Nise da Silveira. I keep a notebook with me everywhere I go, jotting down notes, observations, and questions as I sit on my daily bus home from the psychiatric institute. Back in my apartment, I use these notes to write a short journal entry on my computer: a 15-minute exercise that not only gets me thinking critically about my research experiences, but also produces material that may be used months down the road in my thesis.

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Princeton Research Day: Something for Everyone

Looking through the recently released program for Princeton Research Day, I am reminded that research is not just conducted by people in lab coats. It is conducted by everyone.

The 162 projects represent over 50 departments and programs. Nearly 200 dfr_pfd_newsletter_masthead_4x6undergrads, grad students, and postdocs will present — everyone from artists to biologists to computer scientists to sociologists to policy makers. And that’s not to mention all the interdisciplinary overlap!

I know that we are all busy this Reading Period, writing papers and studying for exams. But give Research Day a chance! There is such value in stepping away from our own work to appreciate the passion and dedication that these students are putting into theirs. I’m not going to push any one project on you. But, why not take a look for yourself? Skim the program and see if any presentations spark your interest. Come see a few of them as a well-deserved study break on May 5th. Who knows? Maybe you’ll discover a topic you never knew you liked. I can promise you that, at the very least, you’ll learn something new by attending #PRD16.

— Dylan Blau Edelstein, Humanities Correspondent

Mentorship in Research: Overcoming Originality

Over the course of the semester, PCURs will reflect on the professors, advisers, and friends who shaped their research experiences. We present these to you as a series called Mentorship in Research. Most undergraduates have met, or will meet, an individual who motivates and supports their independent work. Here, Dylan shares his story.


“Everything you might write has been written before,” said Professor Pedro Meira Monteiro, my adviser, leaning back into his chair.

I was in a JP meeting in his cozy, naturally lit East Pyne office. The paper had me in high-stress mode, but I was in good hands. Somehow, hearing that all work is derivative and unoriginal did wonders to immediately calm me down.

Let me explain.

I first met my advisor when he co-taught the Princeton in Brazil program in June 2013.
I met Professor Meira Monteiro when he co-taught Princeton in Brazil in June 2013.

I am writing my JP about Nise da Silveira, a Brazilian psychoanalyst who taught painting and sculpture to schizophrenic patients as a means of treatment. This paper is meant to prepare me for my summer research in Rio de Janeiro, where I’ll look at current artists who use da Silveira’s teachings as creative inspiration. My JP is, to a certain degree, an appetizer — the background knowledge I need to enrich my summer work.

And yet, the deeper I got into my topic, the more I faced the sinking feeling that I couldn’t contribute much to the scholarly discussion — at least not until I got to Brazil and did my interviews.

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Five Steps to Prepare for Summer Research

I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s spring again, and we only have a month to go before finals. As summer approaches, many Princetonians are getting ready for jobs, internships, and — if they’re lucky — vacation. Others, like me, are prepping to do research.

This has been on my mind a lot recently. I am a PIIRS Undergraduate Fellow, which means I am receiving funding and guidance to conduct my thesis research abroad this summer. Recently, I submitted my final proposal. I hope to explore Brazilian psychoanalyst Nise da Silveira’s legacy outside of the realm of psychology. Known for using artistic expression as a means of treatment for schizophrenic patients, da Silveira’s teachings serve as a source of inspiration for some artists in Brazil. Finishing my proposal forced me to prepare for my time in Rio. Here, I thought I would share the five steps I found most helpful.

A plus about doing my summer research in Rio? Seeing this view from the plane!

1) Think about your personal goals and interests. Reflect a little. What do you want to get out of your independent work? For me, I know I want to become a better ethnographer, improve my fluency in Portuguese, and immerse myself in Rio’s art world. My project is designed to address these goals by placing me in constant contact with artists. Locating your areas of interest and desired growth is important if you haven’t picked a topic yet, too; find something that excites you! After all, independent work is more than a torturous graduation requirement—it’s your time to grow intellectually and hone in on something enthralling!

2) Talk to professors. I know this is something we write about a lot on PCUR, but that’s because professors are such valuable resources. Once I had my initial ideas to explore art and mental stigma, I spoke to two professors about the topic. I left these meetings not only with ten books to take out of the library and myriad themes to begin exploring, but also with the confidence that this project was a good one. Continue reading Five Steps to Prepare for Summer Research

Dredging the River: Why We Enter the Field

This spring break, I remembered why I love going to the field.

I am currently taking Latino Global Cities, a Spanish class about how Puerto Ricans — both on the island and in diaspora communities — form and maintain identity in an increasingly globalized world. Over Spring Break we travelled to Puerto Rico to begin to understand the Caribbean island beyond the palm trees and hotels. We visited communities and attended discussions about the lived complexities of an American colony in a “post-colonial” age. These issues can only be fully understood with first-hand experience that can both complicate and concretize concepts that seem so distant in books.

Practicing what my professor calls “anti-tourism” — a more critical kind of travel — we visited Fanguito, a conglomerate of eight poor urban communities in San Turce, outside of San Juan. There, Melba, a local activist, guided us around the community with her 6-week old baby in tow, who represents the 5th generation in her family to live in the community.

Photo taken on a boat ride on a nearby, navegable waterway that feeds into Fanguito’s river.

Melba told us about her community’s most severe problem: water. Located on the Caño Martín Peña, far from the island’s tourist-filled beaches, Fanguito sits on one of Puerto Rico’s most important, and most polluted, waterways. Melba took us to the river to see the bags and water bottles strewn everywhere. It reeked of sewage, and she explained how toilets and sinks run directly into the water. This is a health hazard for everyone — plants, animals, and humans. Furthermore, the pollution has caused parts of the river to dry up, so that it is no longer navigable by boat.

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A Major Decision: Choosing Your Concentration

If you’re a sophomore at Princeton, this is an important semester. In April, you will finally declare your concentration, which may seem like one of the most daunting decisions you’ve had to make here. Will you lose out on opportunities by choosing one major over another? Will one department make you happier? Will another stimulate you more intellectually?

Today, I’m a junior happily enrolled in Spanish and Portuguese (SPO). But last year at this time, I was struggling with these same questions, and almost declared myself a Sociology (SOC) major. Ultimately, making the choice came down to seeking out advice and reflecting on what was best for me.

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One great part of being a Spanish and Portuguese concentrator is how much time you spend in the most beautiful building on campus, East Pyne!

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Sorcery or Science? The Value of Subjective Research

In an ideal world, research is pretty straightforward. Evidence is collected, synthesized, and analyzed. Meaning emerges. Results point to objective truth.

But if there’s anything I’ve learned from the first two weeks of ANT 301 (The Ethnographer’s Craft), it’s that research is often far from this ideal. Ethnography, at its core, is a subjective science. But that does not discount its intellectual value.


We recently read Harry G. West’s Ethnographic Sorcery, an account of West’s research in Mueda, Mozambique, where he studied sorcery as a prominent belief system. In short, Muedans believe that there are sorcerers among them who turn into lions and claim innocent lives. Early in the book, West recounts a conference he held to bounce his ideas off of community members. There, he presented a theory: we may understand these lion-people as metaphors for power play in society. An awkward hush took over the room before a schoolteacher spoke up. “I think you misunderstand,” he said. “These lions that you talk about … they aren’t symbols — they’re real.”

The case of the lion-people as metaphors reveals a problem of subjectivity: interpretations are often based on vastly distinct epistemologies, or ways of understanding the world. West acknowledges that calling lion-people metaphors is a fallacy because it dismisses local belief systems. In other words, viewing aspects of other cultures as metaphors rather than truth is a way of holding Western values above others.

Continue reading Sorcery or Science? The Value of Subjective Research