Last semester, I fell in love with a cemetery. I had been
interested in the processes of death and dying during the height of the AIDS epidemic
in New York City and hoped to write one (or more) of my final papers about the
topic. A quick series of Google searches led me to Hart Island, a public cemetery
where nearly a million unclaimed or indigent people are buried, including many
victims of AIDS. I was fascinated. I read everything I could find about Hart
Island, watched over a dozen YouTube videos, and even scheduled a visit to the
cemetery with a friend.
By the time reading period came along, I had over forty pages of notes about this cemetery. But I had no idea how to write a paper about it. When I met with one of my professors to ask for help, I started to share all of the data I had collected about this site—its history, its design, its present-day controversies. After a few minutes of this, she intervened: “Great, but what’s your question?” I looked at her blankly. “Do you have a question about this site?”
Developing a research question is hardly a new idea. It’s emphasized
in the Writing Seminar curriculum, and professors often require us to articulate
questions at the early stages of our projects. But once we get buried in the work
itself—collecting data, writing, meeting deadlines and assignment requirements—it
can be easy to forget why we’re writing at all.
As regular readers of this blog will know, several other PCURs and I are in the throes of writing our theses. Personally, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing: what makes it effective, what strategies are successful, and what I can do to improve my own. I am by no means an expert writer, but in this post I will share a few tactics that have proven useful as I progress towards a submission-ready senior thesis. While this reflection stems from my own thesis experiences, I hope that writers of all class years and departments might find in it some principles of general applicability.
My most recent post focused on gearing up towards your senior year and finding a thesis adviser. I decided to continue this mini “preparing for your senior thesis” series by providing some tips on funding your research! The infamous senior thesis is such a daunting thing to think about as a junior because it is not always clear how early you should begin to plan for it and what steps you should take. At the beginning of the year, I attended an information session through the Woodrow Wilson School regarding thesis research funding. During that meeting, the speakers told students that they should start working on applications for funding as soon as possible if they wanted to receive money for their endeavors.
Working on my thesis over intercession, I found myself thinking about language. As anyone who has studied a foreign language likely knows, there are few substitutes for immersion. If we really want to learn a new tongue, be it French or German or Turkish or Spanish, we should spend as much time and mental energy as possible thinking about it. In this post, I suggest that there’s a transferrable lesson for thesis writers here.
As I began choosing my courses for next semester, I knew I had to take CBE core lab, as this is a requirement for the concentration during the spring semester of junior year. In addition, I was really excited about conducting independent work in a new bioengineering lab, which I am hoping will be the lab that I stay in for my senior thesis. With both 7 hours of core lab per week and an expectation of 20 hours of independent work per week, I know I will be spending a lot of time in the lab next semester, so I have started to prepare for that. If you are also taking core lab while doing independent work, or if you are enrolled in multiple lab-courses, such as chemistry, molecular biology and physics at the same time, you will likely need to plan ahead. In this post, I will offer tips on how to prepare for a lab-heavy semester:
During finals season, it’s even harder than usual to make time for independent work. So this reading period, I decided to ask a senior, computer science major Sam Arnesen, about the state of his thesis and his plans for spring semester. For his senior thesis, Sam is developing artificial intelligence software that can solve text-based computer games.
What is your thesis about? My thesis is on text-based games–games like Zork where at every step of the game, you’re given a text description of the scene you’re in and you have to enter some text about what the next move is, like “pick up sword” or “open door.” You can imagine that we often teach computers to play games, but there are a few unique challenges associated with text-based games. Part of it is that it is partially observed: you can see what’s around you, but you can’t see the entire state of the game. The other thing is that it’s very difficult to parse the text and translate it into something meaningful, especially when it comes to actions. There’s stuff out there on various methods to do text-based games and be able to play simple versions of them, but they have a couple issues. First, most of the games are quite simple, and more importantly, the kinds of strategies that it would learn translate very poorly between games unless the games are extremely similar, which is bad because you would expect that certain skills (like having a key and a locked door, or remembering orientations) would be understood. The whole reason why we care about text-based games isn’t because it means anything to play the game, but because we want to be able to learn something about language through these games. So it’s bad if the agents are specific to one particular game, because it suggests that they’re learning idiosyncrasies of the game instead of actual language skills.
I’m specifically working on ways to have more transfer of learning between different kinds of text-based games. I am working on building an agent that’s able to parse walk-throughs of games. A walk-through happens in any kind of game, it’s a set of instructions that tell you what you should do at every step. That’s a non-trivial task: you have to parse that text, translate a paragraph into an action, figure out whether the action you took was the correct action, and be able to use the strategies you learn through parsing the walk-through to learn some general strategy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A professor recently offered this advice in class: if writing a paper isn’t going well—if you’re feeling the notorious “writer’s block,” for instance—then try writing a letter instead. In his view, this needn’t be a real letter to an actual person. The main point is to try to explain what you hope to achieve in a different way to a different audience.
Though I’d never tried letter writing of this sort before, I immediately appreciated my professor’s advice because of how it connects to a practice I’ve implemented in my own life for quite a while. That strategy is to “talk it out”—to take a break from a task that’s frustrating me and talk through the problem with a friend. This is the first reason that I think talking about research is helpful for each of us: it helps us clarify our aims and work through challenges. Continue reading Why You Should Talk to Your Friends About Your Research