Research: Have Fun With It!

The second time I met with my independent Junior Paper adviser this semester, I was nervous. I had decided following our first meeting that I wanted this JP to be the continuation of research I had, at that point, started nearly two years before (that project on the 1848 revolutions that keeps popping up in my posts), and I was apprehensive to present ideas that I felt might be stale; at the time, I struggled to think of ways to expand the project to something more mature than what I had begun as a first year student. Plus, I was feeling reluctant to be finishing up a project I had been working on for most of my college career.

My adviser and I discussed some of these concerns of mine, and right before I left, he smiled and said, “Alec, have fun with it.” He repeated this phrase at many of our weekly meetings, especially if I came feeling overwhelmed by often self-imposed worries. It was usually paired with a reassuring statement: “You know more than you think you know.” I knew more than I think I knew, and I was going to have fun. 

Me “having fun” with my research, back in the summer of 2018!
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The Search for the Perfect Writing Space

It can be difficult to find the perfect place to write. When I leave my afternoon classes, I often find myself standing on the sidewalk, unsure of where to go next. There are so many study spaces on this campus, but some days nothing feels right. (For some ideas, check out Nanako’s post about finding the perfect space for you)

The space where I work matters. And frustratingly, what I need in a study space is in constant flux, depending both on my mood and the type of work I need to get done: energetic spaces for sleepy mornings, quiet spaces for more focused work, and so on. Over my few years at Princeton, I’ve learned how different study spaces affect me: campus cafes are energizing, but distracting; Firestone carrels are productive, but isolating; and my dorm room puts me to sleep within fifteen minutes—no matter the time of day.

With larger projects like a thesis or final paper, though, it can be even harder to find the right space to write. In my experience, larger projects require more focus and endurance, making it hard to be productive in a loud, busy space. On the other hand, the prospect of extended hours in library isolation is almost always unappealing to me.

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Tips for Planning a Research Trip

As I have written on this blog before, you unfortunately may not find all the material you need for a research project in Princeton’s own library system. Borrow Direct and Interlibrary Loan may  help bring items from elsewhere to Princeton, but often with primary historical sources, you may find that you need to travel to an archive to view them. This is especially the case if the source you need is only available in its original form (and thus may be difficult for a peer institution to duplicate or send directly to Princeton), or if you are unsure of precisely what sources are available, and need to browse a collection in full.

I found myself in this position just a few weeks before fall break. As I explained here, I had just expanded my JP topic to consider a broad range of American antislavery responses to the Paris June Days rebellion of 1848. My adviser suggested I look through the manuscript collections of a number of prominent activists of the time. Many of them— such as Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, and Theodore Parker— worked out of Boston, and, as I discovered, a number of institutions there now hold their papers. I soon realized I would have to make a trip over fall break if I wanted to view all of these collections.

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Connecting with Scholars beyond Princeton

It’s been almost four years, and the generosity of Princeton faculty continues to surprise me. So many professors here are not just accessible to students, but deeply invested in supporting us in and outside of the classroom. It typically isn’t too hard to find at least one research mentor among our 950 full-time faculty.

Nevertheless, one institution’s faculty cannot possibly cover every sub-field or research topic. This has become especially apparent as I’ve moved towards the specificity required of a thesis project. In my case, no professor on campus studies Vilna, the Eastern European city at the center of my thesis.

A newsboy in Vilna in the early twentieth century. Without guidance from professors at other institutions, I probably wouldn’t have selected this fascinating city as my thesis topic!

Of course, there are ways around this. For one, there is probably a professor on campus whose area of expertise has something in common with your project. My thesis adviser does not work on Eastern Europe, for example, but she is an expert in writing urban histories. So even though Vilna is new to her, she has been invaluable in guiding my methodology and argumentation.

She has also encouraged me to reach out to faculty and graduate students in other departments and at other institutions who might be more familiar with Vilna itself. Connecting with these scholars has turned out to be one of the most valuable aspects of my thesis process thus far. I’ve compiled some tips for accessing the rich academic network beyond your particular department or university.

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Coursework and Independent Work: Using One to Guide the Other

Choosing a topic for independent work can be a challenging task. It can be difficult to narrow down the seemingly infinite research topics to one that you find compelling (see my post here with tips on how to do that), and on top of that, you have to juggle your research with coursework that may be unrelated. It isn’t always easy to switch gears between, say, literary criticism and your STL. That said, your coursework need not be totally separate from your independent work, and need not even parallel your independent work at the exact time you are conducting it. With courses for the spring semester just released, I want to suggest ways that you can structure your selections to complement (and even supplement!) your own research. This way, next semester, your own independent work may not actually be so “independent” after all. Continue reading Coursework and Independent Work: Using One to Guide the Other

How to Schedule a One-on-One with a Professor

As a sophomore planning on declaring in neuroscience, I’ve been wondering a lot about the types of research projects neuroscience majors do for their independent work and senior thesis. To get a better feel for these projects, I’ve been reaching out to neuroscience faculty, sometimes via cold emails – a task made easier with the help of this post. However, I recently wanted to reach out to one of my current neuroscience professors in particular, both to hear more about his undergraduates’ research projects and to develop a better relationship with him.

Building positive relationships with your professors is important and rewarding. It’s easy to regard getting to know professors as a purely professional opportunity: that is, for the purposes of soliciting a recommendation or finding a lab position. However, this process is rewarding in other equally important ways: for example, I enjoy when professors explain the trajectory of their own careers, since it has helped me clarify my own academic and extracurricular interests. Often times my meetings with professors have developed into personally meaningful friendships that I hope will extend beyond my time at Princeton.

A Coffee Chat at Prospect House

Although most of us would agree its important to build relationships with professors, it can be more difficult to know how to accomplish that. How do you approach a professor? Where and when do you meet? And what do you actually say to them? All of these questions ran through my head as I wondered how I would go about meeting the neuroscience professor I mentioned above. Meeting professors can be nerve-wracking – that’s why I’ve put together the eight tips I used that streamlined the process.

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Training for the Thesis Marathon

A long-term project like a thesis is a marathon, not a sprint. This has been a difficult adjustment for me. In almost every other research project I’ve done at Princeton, I’ve chosen the last-minute sprint model, rather than a more organized long-term approach. Sprinting hasn’t worked well in the past, but it won’t work at all for a thesis. There’s simply too much involved in a thesis to cram it into the few weeks before the deadline.

My thesis buddy and me cheesing at the finish line of a 5K last spring. It’s never too early to start training for the thesis marathon!

The marathon approach is new to me, so I looked up some tips for how to train for an actual marathon. I was surprised how many were relevant for a long-term project like a thesis or a final paper. I’ve collected my ten favorites here:

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Research Refreshment: Changing Your Topic at a Dead End

For quite a few months now, I have been sharing my experience on PCUR about a project I began last summer on New York City press reporting on a June 1848 workers’ rebellion in Paris, which I am now turning into my second Junior Paper (see my posts here, here, and here). Typing that descriptive phrase of my research indeed feels all too familiar. It seems, however, that this post may be the last time that I repeat it. As of last week, I am changing the focus of my JP: I am now moving on from New York newspapers, and instead examining the broader national antislavery movement’s response to the very same rebellion. Though this seemingly small change is pretty specific to both my discipline and my project, research in any field can benefit from critical examination and reframing. Continue reading Research Refreshment: Changing Your Topic at a Dead End

Finding Your Space in the “Scholarly Conversation”

As I have written for the PCUR blog before, choosing a topic for an open-ended research project can be challenging. Even once you have narrowed your search and settled on an idea you would like to pursue, you may find that other scholars have already written about it. There is indeed a finite number of possible research subjects (even if it seems, as I suggested in my earlier post, that there is infinite possibility), and as undergraduates many of us have yet to find our research niche. This by no means should discourage you! Just because there is existing literature does not disqualify you from making your own contribution. Of course, we are told this in our first-year writing seminars, where we discuss the different “scholarly moves” one can make (“piggybacking” on another scholar’s work, “picking a fight” with a scholar, and many others, as helpfully delineated in this paper).

In this post, however, I do not merely want to rehash what these “moves” are, but rather suggest how one goes about making any intervention, especially in determining what kind of intervention one wants to make. The following are some methods I have found useful in my research: Continue reading Finding Your Space in the “Scholarly Conversation”

Write While You Read

Last spring, my JP adviser passed on a piece of wisdom from his graduate adviser: for a research project, you should spend one third of your time reading, one third of your time writing, and one third of your time editing.

This was new to me. Historically, I’d spent 80% of my time reading, 19% of my time writing, and 1% (at best) of my time editing. I had always told myself that it didn’t make sense to start writing until I’d read everything and figured out what I wanted to say. Also, reading almost always felt easier and safer than writing. Instead of constructing my own ideas, I could sit back and receive other people’s finished products.

The research cycle: read, write, edit.

The problem was: I never ran out of things to read. Most of the time, I would only start writing once the deadline was in sight and I had no more time to waste. Rarely would I have enough time to edit my work.

For my thesis, though, I’m trying to follow my JP adviser’s system, spending equal amounts of time reading, writing, and editing. It took me until this week to realize that I need to treat these three elements as parts of a cycle, rather than macro chronological steps. In other words, I realized that I shouldn’t spend the first half of my fall semester just reading, the next few months writing, and the next few months editing. I need to be doing all three simultaneously. My reading, writing, and editing should be working in tandem with each other.

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