Getting that On-Campus Feeling (and that Research Advice)

With banners raised and schedules posted, it’s safe to say Princeton is ready for another school year. But how do you know when you’re ready – when getting (back) to campus finally feels like being on campus?

This little guy counts as another important sign that you're back in the Orange Bubble.
This little guy counts as another important sign that you’re back in the Orange Bubble.

For returning students and first-timers alike, this transition is hard to verbalize. Maybe it occurs when you hug your family goodbye. Maybe it’s when you empty your last suitcase. Or maybe it’s when you organize everything from that suitcase – pillows neatly thrown on the bed, pictures of summer adventures hung with wall-safe tape. The 2015-2016 school year couldn’t begin without these moments…but I don’t think any of them bring that being-on-campus feeling. I actually think all of them do: Being here is a collection of moments that somehow combine to make sense.

At PCUR, we’re all about making sensible combinations from smaller parts. In our own research, we analyze data from engineering, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences to reach coherent conclusions. In our blogs, we filter through rumors about the research process to share universal truths – and universal pitfalls – that we’ve learned from experience. As students ourselves, we know what you’re feeling. We’ve felt it. We’re currently feeling it as the fall semester gets underway. Our goal is to make research less stressful and more exciting, which is why we hope you’ll to subscribe to our research-related musings (using the box at the top right). If each PCUR post is a moment, then the overall blog is a collection to guide you through independent work. Continue reading Getting that On-Campus Feeling (and that Research Advice)

Draft to Deadline: The Sophomore Experience

2017 is not the first class to be in this position.

Sophomore year is the awkward transitional phase of the Princeton experience. When you arrive on campus in September – propped above the new freshmen – you feel empowered by your first-year revelations: how to divide your time among classes, where to find accurate reviews about said classes, and how to get to said classes in under ten minutes. At the same time, however, you have not yet earned the title of “upperclassman,” which brings with it the junior papers and senior theses you were admitted to write. It is both freeing and confusing to be sandwiched between these two extremes.

It’s also unbelievable (at least for me) that sophomore year can actually come to an end. I entered the 2014-15 school year with expectations — a draft, if you will, of how to balance prerequisites with broader passions. Now we’re approaching the deadline. And besides using a research analogy in the preceding sentence, I found that research was a huge part of sophomore life. It turns out that the awkward phase is the perfect phase to get comfortable with your own research expectations, before you begin to apply them more intensely. Continue reading Draft to Deadline: The Sophomore Experience

Learning from What Isn’t

With May finally here, we’ve reached the home stretch of the 2014-15 school year. Make no mistake: This is an achievement. You deserve to celebrate. Grab an extra fro-yo cone next time you’re in the dining hall, and enjoy knowing the machine has more handles than there are weeks remaining in the semester.

Here’s hoping your fro-yo cone turns out better than mine.

After that *debauchery*, ease back into the research world with a reflexive book – like Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing, which was recommended in my African American Studies class last semester. As the title makes clear, it’s a series of short sentences about how to approach the writing process. Klinkenborg replaces oft-repeated mechanical suggestions with much more useful ideological ones. My favorite appears on page 29: “Every sentence could have been otherwise but isn’t.”

Following Klinkenborg’s words, every sentence in your research papers is a deliberate choice. Every argument could have reached a different conclusion, but did not. As you question, test, and analyze facts in your independent work, a crucial step is to recognize why you chose a particular arrangement of information. This goes beyond mere adherence to a thesis. Why did you pursue one research lead, and not another?   Continue reading Learning from What Isn’t

Join PCUR: Five Reasons to Become a Correspondent

One arch for each reason, courtesy of Whitman College.

As PCUR’s inaugural year comes to a close, we have good news and better news. The good news is we’ll keep blogging next year, to help guide you with our personal research stories.  We’re excited to continue advising you from draft to deadline.

The better news is we’re looking for new members – and since anybody is welcome to apply, you must be excited, too. Why should you submit an application to join us next year?  Here are five of infinity reasons to that effect:

  1. You’re reading this blog

If you clicked on a link about undergraduate research, then research is obviously on your mind. And since you’re still reading, you must have spare time to think about independent work. Interest + time = great PCUR posts.

  1. You’ve had (any) research experience

Whether analyzing specimens in the field, collecting data online, or writing a term paper, you’ve learned from participating in a research project.   Your insights could help someone get to or get through a particular stage of independent work – and we’d love to know how. Continue reading Join PCUR: Five Reasons to Become a Correspondent

Don’t Be Afraid To Try Something Old

As you might remember from my first PCUR post, it can be incredibly rewarding to pursue research outside your comfort zone.  If your time at Princeton doesn’t include at least one “just because” class, then you’re missing a few important experiences: first, the chance to expand your intellectual horizons; and second, the ability to navigate diverse styles of independent work.  I’ve consciously tried to apply this idea by taking one class in a new department every semester.  Yet after shopping six classes this spring, I settled on courses in History, African American studies, Politics, and the Woodrow Wilson School – four departments I’ve definitely been a student in before.

Yeah, I *have* seen those quotes a lot. That doesn't mean I'm any less excited about living up to their challenge
Yeah, I *have* seen those quotes a lot. That doesn’t mean I’m any less excited about living up to their challenge.

What happened? Well, it’s somewhat obvious: I chose the classes I expected to enjoy.  It didn’t hurt that they were all related to, or required by, my major and certificate interests. It also didn’t hurt to read their syllabi and recognize texts and ideas from previous classes.  In short, I felt comfortable with my schedule at the end of add/drop period… and it was a strange feeling.  As Princeton students, we have access to so many amazing opportunities that it seems wrong to get comfortable in particular academic areas, rather than challenge ourselves in other ways.

I missed something important, though, by framing a conflict between comfortable and challenging classes: there’s no dichotomy between the two. Continue reading Don’t Be Afraid To Try Something Old

Page Limits: Balancing Quantity and Quality

A different kind of page limit, but still relevant: the number of pages you write determines the number of sheets you print. (Photo by Melissa Parnagian)
A different kind of page limit, but still relevant: the number of pages you write determines the number of sheets you print.

At times, the phrase “between x and y pages” seems tedious or even unnecessary, but there’s something inherently different about 5-7 pages of research versus 12-15.  And if we recognize that difference, it means page limits serve a purpose.  Think about how you react at either extreme of a page range: when your paper hasn’t met the minimum requirements, it’s easy to tell that you need more research; conversely, passing the maximum is an indication to scale back.

But not every issue is so easy to resolve.  What about finishing just below the maximum?  On a recent policy paper, I found myself barely squeaking below the maximum page limit… or, more accurately, using shorter synonyms to avoid hitting page z on an x-to-y assignment.

That remedy didn’t last long.

Continue reading Page Limits: Balancing Quantity and Quality

Major choices: Choosing the Right Research Direction

“Choosing your major at the end of sophomore year is one of the most important decisions that you will make at Princeton.”

Street signs can help you make good decisions, but departmental research guides might be slightly more plausible.

That sentence opens Princeton’s website on major choices, and it feels slightly intimidating as I enter the second semester of sophomore year. Why? As I approach upperclassman status, my major will influence how I experience independent work, and I want to be sure I enjoy it. I’ve previously used fate to guide my decisions (ex: growing up on Princeton Road might have played a role in my choice of college), but there’s no street sign to decide my concentration – and probably not one to decide yours, either. Something else has to point us in the right direction.

Departmental guides for independent work might be a good place to start. I’ve read through the Woodrow Wilson School’s guide to get a feel for the terms, timelines, and page limits expected of my prospective major. If you’re seriously considering a department, it’s important to know how your junior and senior research might be structured — and to see if that structure aligns with your interests.  Continue reading Major choices: Choosing the Right Research Direction

Keep Calm and Write Outlines

The last time you heard from me, it was 2014.  Holiday lights were on and deadlines were far off. Now that reading period is upon us, it’s time to start your research assignments if you haven’t already.  To find materials, organize, and finally write can be a time-consuming process – but a strong outline can both save time and prevent stress.  Outlines undoubtedly vary by discipline, but I use the same general strategy for all my classes: keep things concise.  As you can see, the strategy itself is concise.  And concision is effective.

It’s temping to write a stream of thoughts about your subject, but not always useful; so start by limiting yourself to a single sheet of a small piece of paper.  I use a lovely little clipboard that my sister gave me when I graduated from high school:

Thanks, Jennifer!

Continue reading Keep Calm and Write Outlines

Holiday research? Try topic lists

As we approach the final weeks of Fall semester, we also approach the charming, challenging world of research papers and deadlines. Remember reading about those 10-12 page essays on the syllabus in September? They’re real, and they’re coming home for the holidays. You might want to make room at the dinner table.

Like end-of-semester research papers, the Woodrow Wilson School fountain can be a good clue that the holidays are near. Especially when it’s frozen.

Of course, we haven’t hit December yet, so maybe it’s too early for holiday plans. But it’s not too early to start thinking about those final essays – even if the topics haven’t been assigned. Based on your engagement with a particular course during the semester, you can probably guess which themes might appear in the professor’s prompt. You can also easily notice where these themes intersect with your interests, and begin considering arguments without the pressure to immediately develop them. This might seem unrealistic, but it works: the questions you naturally raise about your day-to-day experiences make a great list of potential topics for future research papers.

I’ve always been guilty of raising a lot of questions, but it wasn’t until recently that I began keeping them in lists. Continue reading Holiday research? Try topic lists