We all know that trying to find a topic for a Junior Paper can feel like dragging your feet through quicksand. So when you eventually settle on the right topic, you feel like running to the top of a hill and shouting, “I’m unstoppable!”
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.
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.
Most Princeton students have been done with school for a while, but I just wrapped things up in New Zealand. Two weeks ago, I was packing up to leave my flat in Dunedin. I finished my last final on that Tuesday, submitted my JP on Thursday, and then flew out of Dunedin on Saturday. This week, I’ve been spending time with family before I start my job at PRINCO, Princeton’s endowment fund. At PRINCO, I’ll shadow and help different teams that manage Princeton’s endowment investments in different areas, like fixed income/cash, private equity, real assets, etc.
Since my summer job hasn’t yet started, I thought I’d write about my experience doing JP research abroad. My advice here is relevant and easily applicable to any student researching abroad. Many of my thoughts in this earlier post have held true throughout the research process, but my topic and experiences changed significantly throughout the semester. As a bit of background, I focused most of my JP on the following asymmetry between aesthetic and moral admiration:
Aesthetic: Henry knows nothing about Velazquez’s Las Meninas. Jill tells him that Las Meninas is an aesthetically praiseworthy painting and lists its qualities, providing evidence for by citing its physical characteristics. Henry comes to admire Las Meninas.
Moral: Henry knows nothing about Mahatma Gandhi. Jill tells him that Gandhi was a morally praiseworthy man and lists his qualities, providing evidence by citing stories about his deeds. Henry comes to admire Gandhi.
My intuition dictated that, in the above example, Henry’s moral admiration seems warranted — but his aesthetic admiration based on testimony does not. The moral qualities relevant to admirability seem communicable by testimony, whereas the aesthetic qualities relevant to admirability do not. Why?
For AB Princeton sophomores, April 19, 2016 was (and still is) a date engraved in our brains. It marked the deadline for declaring our concentration. By extension, it also symbolized a major transition in our academic careers. April 19 signaled the end of days, weeks and even months of uncertainty mixed with internal debates and (many) last-minute mind changes. Theoretically, the passing of April 19 should have put us sophomores at ease. No more doubt and anxiety …right?
On the contrary, I personally have experienced some uncertainty since declaring my major (Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, also known as “Woody Woo”). Given that many of my friends have had similar feelings, I’ve decided to address two questions that my fellow not-so-anxiety-free sophomores might have post-concentration declaration.
I’m sure part of it is because I just turned in my thesis, the longest written work I’ve ever completed. Another part, I’m sure, is my recent decision to go to grad school for science writing. While I’ve always enjoyed writing, I still find it difficult enough that it’s strange and terrifying to think I may soon do it for a living.
But even if you’re not taking that crazy leap like me, writing is a necessary part of research (among many, many other things). And like every other skill, writing only gets better through practice. But how you practice matters, and so — while much of the advice below can be summed up as “just keep writing, all the time” — here are three particular strategies that have worked for me.
If you’re stuck, just keep writing. There’s a lot of advice out there about how to make sure you have the best outline (and writing really is easier when you’re fleshing out an outline instead of pushing ahead blindly without any guidance). But even an outline can sometimes feel like too big of a step when you’re faced with the blank page.
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 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.
Abroad this semester at the University of Otago, my independent work has felt far from home.
Before leaving Princeton, I talked to my fall JP adviser about how to expand my fall paper, and had a few meetings with my spring adviser. Once I arrived in New Zealand, however, life became a whirlwind of flight transfers, international orientation, and a packed introduction to my new home.
In the midst of all this, I had underestimated how much harder it would be to coordinate with professors at Princeton from a timezone sixteen hours away. Communication suddenly slowed down to a snail’s pace–instead of walking into someone’s office, I found that it could take anywhere from days to weeks to go from one email to the next.
It was discouraging and unexpected. My fall JP had gone as well as I could have hoped. My topic was new and exciting, and my semester was full of stimulating conversations with professors and graduate students (during office hours and even over email from overseas). By the end of the writing process, I felt that I had made a non-trivial contribution to philosophical literature, even as a third-year university student. Abroad, however, I found myself torn between exploring a new place and having to piece together advice from various emails to create a plan for my JP.
This week, I tackle inner despair: How can you push forward when in your work you see no hope?
My thesis project holds no immediate promise of hope for the reefs, or of curing some plague, or of fantastic future technology. The motivation for basic biochemical research comes from its intrinsic beauty, and the hope of applications long in the future. I was incredibly excited about my thesis project at the beginning – I was asking fundamental questions about the origin of life; I had the potential to create something genuinely new. Inevitably, though, my project hit obstacles – both technical problems and scientific difficulties indicating misconceptions in my original idea.
With JP and thesis deadlines quickly approaching, many students have moved from the writing stage to what seems like a never-ending cycle of editing and revising. Editing and revising independent work (or any long paper) can be daunting, mainly because there’s a lot of content and there’s always some way to improve your writing. While there is no “perfection test” to let you know when your independent work is immaculate, here are some telltale signs that you should probably just hit submit:Continue reading Editing Independent Work: How to Know When You’re Done
If you’ve never completed an independent work project, you probably have questions about how the process works. As usual, if you’ve got questions, PCUR has answers. Join me, Zoe, and others for an informal discussion about independent work tomorrow night (Tuesday, April 5) from 9-10pm in Butler College (1915 room). Check out the flyer below: