Get to Know your Department Before Concentration Declaration

The spring semester is in full swing, and, for sophomores, concentration declaration is quickly approaching. Obviously, choosing a major is a big decision which will dictate what discipline you study in most of your courses and possibly direct your professional career. However, your department will also define your academic experience as an upperclass student in other ways; each department has different requirements for independent work, different research opportunities for undergraduates, and a different type of community. I found that considering all of these variables helped me to choose my major, but doing so may necessitate a bit of investigating.

So if you are a sophomore about to choose your concentration, what can you do over the next couple months to get to know the department(s) you are interested in?

Here are some tips to get you started, with examples from my beloved home Department of Geosciences:

Members of the geosciences department on a field trip to Iceland in 2016. Undergraduates planned and led this trip which brought together graduate students, post-docs, professors, and administrators. The close-knit community and emphasis on undergraduates are two of the main reasons I declared GEO. Before you declare your major, I encourage you to do some research into the departments you are interested in and find out more about their communities and what kind of opportunities are open to undergraduates.

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A Research Reflection: Discovering Historical Documents in Rare Books

A sample page of the “Catecismo pictórico Otomí,” a rare surviving example of the sort of materials used by Spanish missionaries to attempt to convert Native American populations. A wonderfully digitized version of the catechism can be accessed via the library website.

This semester, I’m taking REL 357/HIS 310: Religion in Colonial America and the New Nation with Professor Seth Perry. Even though we’re only in the fourth week of the semester, we’ve been thinking about the final project for the class already, since it consists of independent research on a primary source from Firestone Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections Division, pertaining to the history of American religion. In this post, I’ll be sharing some of my reflections thus far on this project, which I hope will be of use to anyone engaging in primary source research—especially those feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of materials available to work with! Continue reading A Research Reflection: Discovering Historical Documents in Rare Books

Trust the Qualitative: An interview with Sheila Pontis about Field Research

When we think of academic research, we often think of libraries or labs. We might imagine flipping through books, reading articles, or running lab experiments, but there is a branch of research that looks much different than this. In fact, it looks like the real world.

This branch is field research. Researchers from various fields apply this method of research, but in this post, I’ll be focusing on field research in design. Design is a big field with a wild range of applications. Design spans from information design (think infographics, instructions, maps) all the way to User Interface design (think apps and websites), but what’s at the root of design is a need to communicate effectively with people and facilitate understanding. The goal in design is to create systems that are effective–ones that work for their users. Accordingly, when designers conduct field research, they go out in the world and record qualitative data on people’s needs and experiences: What information are they searching for? What do they want out of a product? What parts of the current product are helpful? Which are frustrating and confusing?

In this interview, Sheila Pontis, a lecturer in the Keller Center, talks about her work and encourages designers and student researchers to embrace field research and trust qualitative data.

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How to Survive Major Declaration Season

As spring semester gradually picks up the pace, there are many things to think about depending on your class year. As a senior, you might be thinking about your thesis deadline that is quickly approaching. Juniors might be focused on their Junior Papers. First-year students are preoccupied with mastering a new semester they’ve never experienced. Sophomores have a whole different challenge to tackle: major declaration (check out related posts here and here).

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The Writing Center as an Independent Work Resource

If you’re caught up on some of my previous posts, you’ll remember that I wrote my fall Junior Paper about shackling pregnant inmates in New York women’s prisons after the 2009 anti-shackling bill. I recently submitted my Junior Paper at the beginning of January, and it’s safe to say that it was a wild ride. To name a few challenges: I had to completely change my topic, I navigated tough interviews, and I spent a LOT of time editing my essay. Although I wrote a post about how to work efficiently during winter break, I pretty much ignored all of my own advice and ended up working on my JP each night, making my winter break anything but carefree and relaxing. However, I came back to school with a paper I was proud of.

The Writing Center is an incredible resource to utilize for independent work

But the challenges did not stop there. This JP was my first encounter with a substantial piece of independent work, and it included a whole lot of revisions after I had completed my first full draft. After reading through the paper, I scheduled a phone conference with my professor that left me with a plethora of edits to make in a very short amount of time. I made the changes, going through the paper with a fine-toothed comb, and the day after I got back to Princeton, I went to my first-ever appointment at the Writing Center.

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Asking Your Professors for Feedback

After late hours on the B-floor and that last-minute citation dash, you never want to see that Dean’s Date paper again. I know the feeling. Over the past few years, I’ve developed the terrible habit of sending in my papers before reading them over – in a short-sighted attempt to avoid confronting my mistakes. But sometimes, as I’ve learned, the final draft can offer the most important learning opportunities.

It can be hard to revisit your final work. Sometimes I even avoid my Dean’s Date Firestone carrel for a few weeks after Dean’s Date.

In my experience, very few professors share feedback on final papers beyond the letter grade. And there is something satisfyingly simple about the “grading machine” – send a paper in one end and receive a letter grade on the other. However, this process obscures some of the more personal and pedagogical elements of an instructor’s grading.

Professors dedicate a significant chunk of their time each semester to reviewing and grading students’ work. They’re expert readers, writers, and researchers – you don’t want to miss this opportunity to receive their feedback. Each professor’s approach to feedback is different, but I can almost guarantee that they’ll have something insightful to say about your final project.

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How to Make a Successful Research Presentation

Turning a research paper into a visual presentation is difficult; there are pitfalls, and navigating the path to a brief, informative presentation takes time and practice. As a TA for GEO/WRI 201: Methods in Data Analysis & Scientific Writing this past fall, I saw how this process works from an instructor’s standpoint. I’ve presented my own research before, but helping others present theirs taught me a bit more about the process. Here are some tips I learned that may help you with your next research presentation:

More is more

In general, your presentation will always benefit from more practice, more feedback, and more revision. By practicing in front of friends, you can get comfortable with presenting your work while receiving feedback. It is hard to know how to revise your presentation if you never practice. If you are presenting to a general audience, getting feedback from someone outside of your discipline is crucial. Terms and ideas that seem intuitive to you may be completely foreign to someone else, and your well-crafted presentation could fall flat.

Less is more

Limit the scope of your presentation, the number of slides, and the text on each slide. In my experience, text works well for organizing slides, orienting the audience to key terms, and annotating important figures–not for explaining complex ideas. Having fewer slides is usually better as well. In general, about one slide per minute of presentation is an appropriate budget. Too many slides is usually a sign that your topic is too broad.

GEO/WRI 201 teacher Amanda Irwin Wilkins introduced me to the iceberg analogy: like the iceberg, the vast majority of research stays ‘beneath the water’; only a select portion is visible to audiences. Achieving this balance is not easy. It can be frustrating to present only a fraction of your work and difficult to identify which aspects belong above water. But in the end, you want to be presenting with the happy penguins on top of the ice, not flailing in the water.

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Working With Books in Preparation for Finals

Our friend, the humble bookshelf. I find that browsing shelves sparks my curiosity, causing me to pick up books that I might not even find in a standard keyword search.

Books are, in many ways, at the center of the college experience—particularly for my fellow students of the humanities and social sciences. At Princeton in particular, books are both the subject of many conversations and the object of much loathing (“Can you believe Professor X assigned us a whole book on top of next week’s reading?”). So, inspired by my own recent work with books in preparation for reading period and finals, I thought I’d use my post this week to discuss some ways to digest and analyze these valuable sources of information.  Continue reading Working With Books in Preparation for Finals

How to Incorporate an Interview into a Class Project

You might not have a fancy podcast studio such as this at your disposal, but don’t let that hold you back from conducting an interview! All you really need is a willing interviewee, a phone (to record), and a flexible list of thoughtful questions.

When we think of research, we tend to picture someone sitting in the library surrounded by stacks of books. While it’s true that books (and textual materials accessed via the web) remain incredibly important to the research process, not everything research-worthy comes in book form. Indeed, for certain types of research, such as ethnography, journalism, and oral history, going out into the broader world outside the library doors is essential. This was the case for me recently as I worked on a podcast for a History of Science class; an interview with a molecular biology professor about their work on the Human Genome Project was central to my endeavor. So, in light of this recent experience and in the spirit of diversifying the types of sources we use as researchers, I will share in this post some thoughts on how to incorporate an interview into a class project or research paper. Continue reading How to Incorporate an Interview into a Class Project

Qualitative Research: The Interview

If you are caught up on my latest posts, you will remember that I have had some ups and downs in my research process for my Junior Paper. I think it is safe to assume that most students experience difficulties with their JPs. However, the difficulties differ from student to student.

Interviewing experts is a great source of information, but sometimes it can be challenging!

In the Woodrow Wilson School, you choose–or, sometimes, it is chosen for you if you are enrolled in a seminar that specifically focuses on quantitative or qualitative research–whether you would like to do a quantitative or qualitative analysis of your JP topic. While most of the quantitative students are focusing on coding and analyzing existing datasets, the qualitative researchers analyze literature, conduct interviews, and gather information on their own. My biggest challenge so far has been the interviews.

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