Thesis Immersion and the Benefits of Freewriting

Photo by P.U. Office of Communications
A Senior Thesis boot camp held in Rocky Dining Hall over spring break, 2016. The author participated in a similar boot camp, organized by Mathey College, during Intercession 2020.

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.

Continue reading Thesis Immersion and the Benefits of Freewriting

Preparing for a Lab-Heavy Semester

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: 

Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2013)
Lab hours can quickly add up, especially if you are not organized with your time. Begin planning your schedule for a lab-heavy semester early in order to set your own expectations for you project.
Continue reading Preparing for a Lab-Heavy Semester

Senior Thesis Spotlight: An Interview with Sam Arnesen ’20

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.

Sam, hard at work on his thesis.

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.

Continue reading Senior Thesis Spotlight: An Interview with Sam Arnesen ’20

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!
Continue reading Research: Have Fun With It!

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.

Continue reading The Search for the Perfect Writing Space

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.

Continue reading Connecting with Scholars beyond Princeton

Why You Should Talk to Your Friends About Your Research

While advising and formal research mentorship have been highly rewarding at Princeton, I have found more informal discussions with friends and classmates here to be invaluable in the development of my own ideas.

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

Beyond Religion: Reimagining Scholarship in the Humanities

The Syrian town of Tal Abyad, which has recently been conquered by Turkey. Below, I consider the role of “imagined” or Andersonian nationalism in this move, and how the study of religion can shed additional light on certain drivers of conflict. 

I’m often asked why I study religion. To those asking, my decision usually registers as vaguely interesting, if a bit niche, but certainly not as very “practical.” Often such conversations prompt inquiry into my own religious life—as if one could only study religion out of personal piety or an ascetic willingness to forego the earning potential of an economics or computer science degree. Temperamentally inclined to charitable conversation as I am, I try not to take misunderstandings or dismissals of what I do too seriously. As other humanities students likely know, being on the receiving end of such attitudes come with the disciplinary territory. Continue reading Beyond Religion: Reimagining Scholarship in the Humanities

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:

Continue reading Training for the Thesis Marathon

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.

Continue reading Write While You Read