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:
This semester, each PCUR will interview a Princeton alumnus from their home department about his/her experience writing a senior thesis. In Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Alumni Perspectives, the alumni reveal how conducting independent research at Princeton influenced them academically, professionally and personally. Here, Taylor shares her interview.
Alex V. Barnard ‘09 was a Sociology Major during his time at Princeton. Now a graduate student in Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, he studies the comparative politics of mental health in Europe and the U.S. In addition to attending graduate school, Alex continued to work on his thesis after completing his undergraduate education. He recently published all of his hard work in his new book,Freegans: Diving into the Wealth of Food Waste in America.What is a “freegan,” you may ask? Luckily, I had the opportunity to speak with the author himself. Here’s what Alex had to say in his interview with PCUR about how his thesis impacted his life:
It is Tuesday morning. From the back of the classroom, I squint at the pictures of fish being projected on the board, and scribble in a spiral notebook. Queen angelfish: yellow ring on head, I write as the instructor describes the species’ habitat. She flips to the next slide. Townsend angelfish, I write, less common.
Slipping into the room, with its rows of desks, overhead projector, and professorial monologue – had felt like donning my own old, well-worn clothes. Sixteen years of traditional education have made this role as a student a familiar one.
Yet this time, the circumstances are unusual, and entering the room as a pupil feels suddenly bizarre. It is mid-June, my third week on the island of Bermuda. Just down the hill from this classroom, the turquoise ocean plays against the research station dock. I am at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences to conduct a field research project assessing how polluted groundwater affects the chemistry and ecology of near-shore coral reefs. Over breakfast, someone had mentioned that a summer course instructor would be lecturing her class on fish identification today. I have been planning to conduct fish surveys on the coral reefs I am studying, but (rather critically) first need to learn to identify all the fish. The timing of the lecture couldn’t be more perfect, so here I am: hunched over a table in the very back of the classroom, listening and scribbling notes like my thesis depends on it.
This semester, each PCUR will interview a Princeton alumnus from their home department about his/her experience writing a senior thesis. In Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Alumni Perspectives, the alumni reveal how conducting independent research at Princeton influenced them academically, professionally and personally. Here, Dylanshares his interview.
When I learned that Shayla Reid ’15 was in New Jersey for her winter break, I jumped on the opportunity to interview her for this blog. She currently works as a Fellow through Princeton in Africa at Young 1ove, an organization in Gaborone, Botswana that implements health and education programming for youth. A Spanish and Portuguese concentrator at Princeton, she was one of the people who convinced me to major in the department. And now, as I began to write my own thesis, I was excited to get her insights.
Shayla’s thesis — “Mulher como protagonista”: Women’s Experiences with Parto Humanizado in São Paulo, Brazil — dealt with childbirth in Brazil, particularly the country’s high C-section rate. Though surgical intervention is only necessary when complications arise, in Brazil nearly 60-70% of all births in public hospitals are C-sections, and upwards of 90% in private ones. Though she was interested in the cultural reasons behind the high C-section rates, she also sought more personal experiences. Thus, as a Princeton Brazil Global Fellow, she spent the summer of 2014 in São Paulo. Paired with an adviser at the local university, she began to visit women’s health groups, interviewing women to see how they navigated the health care system in order to achieve fulfilling childbirth experiences.
In middle school, I remember being told that the best way to write an essay is with an outline. We would receive five-paragraph-essay worksheets, complete with a thesis statement, sub-arguments, and important supporting information. It was direct, simple, and structured.
In this post, I hope to advocate for a different sort of writing. Outlines are certainly helpful organizational tools. But as I delve into my thesis, I find myself taking a more free-form approach. As I have previously written, I am writing on the legacy of pioneer Brazilian art therapist Nise da Silveira. Based on two months of ethnographic research, my thesis is about how da Silveira’s image is evoked and utilized by people who continue similar work. I have lots of interesting ideas, but no single, unifying argument. While writing an outline might be useful down the road, right now it would impose a limiting structure on my thought process.
Instead, I have decided to do what my friend Lily calls “Frankensteining.” To her, writing an essay is like creating Frankenstein’s monster: you have to find all the parts before you can sew them together and create a body. Lily explains:
“I think you need to Frankenstein when you’re developing any kind of complex argument because you can’t know what you’re going to say until you start figuring it out and seeing how different insights fit together. It’s writing as a nonlinear process — you don’t brainstorm and then write. They happen at the same time.”
Princeton’s resource network, like Firestone Library under construction, is so big and complex you could spend hours inside it but only see a small part, never knowing what you’re missing. Here are 3½ of campus’ most under-the-radar resources, and a guide to using them.
1a. Data and Statistical Services: Lab edition What: The original inspiration for this post, the DSS Lab is literally underground. A well-lit room of big-screen PC’s, the lab is run by two incredibly friendly statistical consultants who can help you download, format, reshape, or analyze data. Where: The A floor of Firestone – see this map. How: The lab consultants’ schedule is available here. Walk-in hours are available from 2-5 p.m. on weekdays through December 16. Underground tip: For brief, specific questions, send an email to the consultants at firstname.lastname@example.org.Continue reading Princeton Underground: A researcher’s guide to lesser-known resources
This is what Amanda Wilkins, director of the Writing Program, told me at the beginning of this fall: not the kind of teeth that draw blood, but certainly the kind that instill a little fear.
When immediate priorities are vying for our attention and long-term project deadlines are in the faraway future – perhaps a final paper that is weeks away, a JP not due until Reading Period, or a full thesis not due before April of next year, for crying out loud – it’s easy to push the long-term tasks off to another day, and then another.
Friendly teeth: progress deadlines with bite.
Insert friendly teeth: the intermediate accountability standards, made and enforced to keep us on track between now and the distant future. Also known as progress deadlines with bite.
I have a year to write my thesis – I don’t want to be just getting started in March. Heck, I want to be done by March, and spend the last month before my deadline deciding between fonts.
Kidding. The only acceptable font for a thesis is Times New Roman, size 12.
And one other problem: I am almost never early.
Call me a chronic time optimist – I consistently underestimate how long it will take to get from outline to paper, or to walk across campus to meet a friend, or to shower, brush my teeth, do my readings, and teleport to class. Chronic time optimism runs in my family, and was reinforced growing up in Hawaii, home of “island time.”
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.
I sat down last week over tea with Yun-Yun Li and Alice Frederick, who each did fieldwork last summer in foreign cultures and outside of their mother tongues. Last week, I shared Yun-Yun’s insights on finding a meaningful research question and working through self-doubt. This week, Alice takes us to another continent and another research topic. Here, she reflects on conducting fieldwork in a new language, and finding her feet as an autonomous researcher.
Alice is an Anthropology concentrator investigating the past and present of the international community of Esperanto speakers. She spent portions of her summer at – among other places – the central office of the Universal Esperanto Association in the Netherlands, and the Austrian National Library’s Department of Planned Languages in Vienna. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
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: