When you’re about to graduate, you spend a lot of time thinking about the future. But you also spend a lot of time thinking about the past.
Often, this can slip into abstract nostalgia (which I am certainly guilty of). Other times, however, this is focused on something oddly specific. Something you spent a lot of time on. Something like … well, PCUR.
Over the past few days, I’ve thought a lot about the posts I’ve written since my sophomore year. I figured it would be fun to retrace my research journey with the benefit of hindsight.
After sharing some notes from my grad school visit, I’m back to discuss an important precursor to any such visit: The decision to apply to grad school. It seems that many Princeton students – myself included – did not come to campus with the expectation of pursuing an advanced degree. Yet somewhere between junior spring and senior fall, the question “Should I go to grad school?” starts lurking in everyone’s mind.
If you’re a rising senior, you may have already noticed this. If you’re a rising sophomore or junior, you can expect it to happen soon.
There’s no easy way to answer post-grad questions. However, if you’re considering grad school, there are three things you might want to keep in mind:
What’s the first thing you should do after your thesis is done?
More research, of course! The best kind of research. Fun research.
For me, that meant investigating the place where I’ll spend the next two years: Harvard Kennedy School. At HKS, I’ll study policy and political communications as a Master of Public Policy student. I’ll also develop leadership skills as a Sheila C. Johnson Leadership Fellow.
I’m unbelievably excited about these things. I’m also eager to learn who my classmates are, where my classes will be, and what Boston is like. Thus, I figured it was time for some research — at HKS’ New Admit Day, which took place on April 7.
Here are some field notes from my journey there and back:
In the Woodrow Wilson School, theses are always due the first week of April. Many other departments have deadlines in late April or May. Depending on who you ask, having an early thesis deadline is either the best or worst thing. But everyone agrees that it is a real thing – and it makes March pretty hectic for WWS majors like me.
I’ve noticed, however, that March seems to be pretty hectic for all Princeton students. Freshmen, sophomores, and juniors are looking for summer internships. Seniors are figuring out their post-grad plans. And everyone is gearing up for midterms… which seem to arrive faster in the spring than they do in the fall.
At one point or another, we’ve all logged into TigerHub more than we should have in a 24-hour period.
Reasons for this vary. Perhaps you were checking grades. Perhaps you were trying to switch classes. Or perhaps you were checking to see what room your classes were in — something that has surprising power over where and when you’ll grab lunch during the semester. It’s amazing how “Location: TBA” is suspenseful enough to justify repeated trips through the Central Authentication Service.
I can’t say I’m immune to the suspense. As Intersession faded away, and neither of my two classes had room assignments, I kept checking to see if they’d been posted.
The first finally appeared: HIS 361: The United States Since 1974 — McCosh 50
Then the second: SOC 223: Hustles and Hustlers – McCosh 50
And just like that, I became a second semester senior with two classes in the same room, two hours apart. I found this to be an amusing coincidence. But it was also a nostalgic coincidence, because my last two Princeton classes would be in the same room as one of my first –I’d taken Econ 101 in McCosh 50 during my freshman fall.
There are many circumstances in which you should put others’ preferences ahead of your own.
I’m going to go on record and say your senior thesis is not one of them.
As you know, your thesis is a major independent work project with your name on it. You pick the question and you conceptualize the answer. You are the star of the show. So, your thesis – or any research project with you at the helm – requires trust in your own intuition. The process is really all about you: what you know, who you know, and what you like.
Since understanding these aspects of yourself is important for your research (and your sanity), it’s worth thinking about each in detail:
As I sat down to write my post this week, my mind naturally wandered to that big research project I’m completing alongside my fellow seniors. And yet, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find anything novel to say about it. A few hours of trial and error alerted me to a simple fact: It wasn’t necessarily that I couldn’t find something to write about my thesis; it’s that I didn’t want to. I felt like it’d be nice to imagine undergraduate research without the long list of thesis-related tasks clogging up my reminders.
Still, my post needed to be written. So I came up with what I thought was a clever solution: collecting one-sentence descriptions of other seniors’ thesis topics, in order to grasp the variety of research on campus. That might’ve been an interesting post, but it’s not what I’m writing about here. Why? Well, would you be surprised to hear that other seniors are also avoiding thesis-related talk? It seems like many seniors are disillusioned with the whole research process.
In my first few weeks of formal thesis research, I’ve just started to figure out what thesis-ing feels like. I’m not talking about developing a step-by-step plan for data collection and write up (two things that will come later). Instead, I’m talking about the feeling of knowing you have to complete a 75ish page independent project — and wanting it to be great.
While I could describe this feeling with a series of adjectives, I’d much rather capture its essence with a list of songs. Yes, a thesis experience playlist — because all of us can relate to good songs, and most of us have no problem playing them over and over again (which means their message will last as long as it takes to get your work done). So if you want to know what thesis-ing feels like and stay motivated to actually do some of it, create a new playlist with these four jams:
Last May, when I finished the last assignment of my junior year, only one thing was on my mind — and it wasn’t summer. I couldn’t help thinking ahead to the assignment that would dominate my next and final year: my senior thesis. But intense brainstorming sessions and frequent “what should I study?” conversations did little to help me find a topic. After all, when you’re looking for a thesis topic, where do you even start?
I’d heard that a fruitful strategy was to start with your recreational interests, and build them into academic pursuits. I’d also heard that it’s best to decide your topic and adviser before summer break so that you can begin research over the summer. These are probably valuable pieces of advice. However, most professors felt I’d taken such advice too seriously when I proposed an early topic about professional sports, Twitter, and President Obama.
As you might imagine, that topic wasn’t a viable option for a public policy thesis (although it was a legitimately academic question, with heavy roots in sociology). Nevertheless, I resigned the idea to my iPhone notes and left campus with no idea of what my thesis would be about.
Then I started a summer internship in a really cool place.
You’ve probably heard this question more than once since arriving on campus. Your semi-memorized response perfectly celebrates your summer adventures without being boastful. It’s a response you expect to repeat often over the next few days, as you greet old friends and make new ones.
Whether you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior, you knew the summer question was coming, and that’s a big reason why you’re prepared for it. But the 2016-2017 school year will also raise questions you aren’t expecting — and that’s where PCUR comes in. Blogging about our research across class years and divisions, we’re here to demystify the research process and help you get through it. We also work to put research in context, as both a part of the Princeton experience and a contribution to the real world.
We’re thrilled to enter our third year as a for-students-by-students resource. And when it comes to fall semester, we’re in the same position as you are: enriched by our summer adventures and ready to tackle whatever comes next. So let’s stay connected throughout the journey. You can subscribe using the box at the top right of your screen, email us through this form, and visit us at select research-related events around campus.
As I begin my senior year (and all the thesis-related work that comes with it), I’m excited to pass the Chief Correspondent baton to Emma Kaeser ’18. Emma and a cast of new and returning PCURs (including me!) will keep sharing our reflections on the research process. Together, we’ll help make this school year even better than the last — which, by the way, should lay the foundation for a spectacular summer 2017.