Princeton Underground: A researcher’s guide to lesser-known resources

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.

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The DSS Lab in Firestone: literally underground.

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 data@princeton.edu. Continue reading Princeton Underground: A researcher’s guide to lesser-known resources

Building Friendly Teeth: A Three-Fanged Guide to Procrastination-Busting

We all need friendly teeth.

Friendliness debatable, those are some great choppers.
Friendliness aside, those are some great choppers.

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.

Fun fact: tusks are actually specially-adapted canines! These teeth mean business.

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.”

But I’m working on it. And I’m here to report that so far, progress – on my thesis, at least – is going better than expected, thanks to the snapping jaws of three types of friendly teeth. Continue reading Building Friendly Teeth: A Three-Fanged Guide to Procrastination-Busting

This Post is Not About My Thesis

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.

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Look at this room full of seniors who want to talk about their theses!

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.

Continue reading This Post is Not About My Thesis

On Fieldwork

In conversation with Alice Frederick ‘17

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 (left) with her roommate at an Esperanto congress in Japan.
Alice (left) with her roommate at an Esperanto congress in Japan.

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.

Continue reading On Fieldwork

The Essential Thesis Experience Playlist

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.

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It took everything in me *not* to fill this post with Hamilton songs… but one may have slipped in.

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:

Continue reading The Essential Thesis Experience Playlist

How to Pick a Research Topic

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.

As I develop my thesis research, I hope that I continue to be interested in learning more. After all, just this summer, even before stepping foot in Firestone, I accrued this stack of books!
Crossing my fingers that my thesis topic continues to intrigue! After all, just this summer, even before stepping foot in Firestone, I accrued this stack of books!

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.

Continue reading How to Pick a Research Topic

On Fieldwork

In conversation with Yun-Yun Li ‘17

Fieldwork is often – at least in my experience – a perfect storm of challenge. Our time is limited, our advisers are distant, and we are immersed in unfamiliar cultures and experiences. Fieldwork has given me some of my most dramatic and overwhelming challenges – and also my most transformative learning experiences.

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Yun-Yun (center) with her interview enumerator (right) and friend (left) in a Dai temple in Xishuangbanna.

I was one of many rising seniors who spent time in the field this past summer, collecting the data which will (if all goes according to plan) serve as the foundation of my senior thesis. I wanted to understand better how fieldwork shapes other seniors’ personal growth and research paths. This week, I sat down over tea with Yun-Yun Li and Alice Frederick, who each did fieldwork last summer in foreign cultures and outside of their mother tongues. We talked about the experiences and lessons we have brought back to Princeton after spending the summer in the field. 

Yun-Yun is an EEB concentrator researching the social, economic, and environmental factors that affect rubber farmers in southern China. Here, we talk about how she found her research question and worked through self-doubt in the field.

Continue reading On Fieldwork

Where do thesis topics come from, anyway?

Last May, when I finished the last assignment of my junior year, only one thing was on my mind — and it wasn’t summer. I couldn’t help thinking ahead to the assignment that would dominate my next and final year: my senior thesis. But intense brainstorming sessions and frequent “what should I study?” conversations did little to help me find a topic. After all, when you’re looking for a thesis topic, where do you even start?

I’d heard that a fruitful strategy was to start with your recreational interests, and build them into academic pursuits. I’d also heard that it’s best to decide your topic and adviser before summer break so that you can begin research over the summer. These are probably valuable pieces of advice. However, most professors felt I’d taken such advice too seriously when I proposed an early topic about professional sports, Twitter, and President Obama.

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Guess where?

As you might imagine, that topic wasn’t a viable option for a public policy thesis (although it was a legitimately academic question, with heavy roots in sociology). Nevertheless, I resigned the idea to my iPhone notes and left campus with no idea of what my thesis would be about.

Then I started a summer internship in a really cool place.

Continue reading Where do thesis topics come from, anyway?

Reading Your “Script”: What Theater Can Teach You About Research

The more I do theater, the more I understand its parallels to academic research.

Recently, I attended a workshop with John Doyle, the renowned theater director and Princeton professor. He shared two details of how he begins a creative process. First, he reads the script only a few times before beginning rehearsals. Rather than getting mired in the script’s details, he likes to let ideas brew and leave space for his collaborators’ input. Second, he stresses the importance of entering rehearsals with unanswered questions — because if you already know the answers, your questions aren’t rich enough, and there’s little point in bringing people together.

Approaching my first thesis meeting, I’ve been thinking about this advice.

As I have written (both here and here), I spent this summer in Rio de Janeiro, researching the legacy of art-therapy pioneer Nise da Silveira. During that time, I conducted over 15 interviews, attended numerous workshops, and collected various books and documents. Recorded on audio files and scribbled in notebooks, these constitute — in a sense — my “script.” It is a body of research so juicy, varied, and detailed, that it tempts me to dive right in and begin working my way through problems.

Yet, as I prepare for my first meeting, the most helpful thing I can do is not read over all this material. Delving in right away, I would get lost in details before I have a sense of what interests me. For the moment, it is more valuable to step away from my “script” and reflect. To think critically about my two months in Brazil. To ponder what confused me and what seemed contradictory. To come up with questions that I cannot yet answer.

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Snapshot from the Lewis Center’s production of Elektra in February 2016. I’m the possessed-Chorus-maid on the right!

This strategy has worked for me in theater. Last year, in Elektra, I acted in the two-person Greek Chorus. Following our first read-through, we developed some big questions about the Chorus: Who are we? Why are we here? What makes us otherworldly? What grounds us in the physical world?

These questions, for the most part, went unanswered. But asking them from the start gave us time to test out answers every day, playing with different kinds of movement, costume, intonation — and, of course, finding new details in the script.

Continue reading Reading Your “Script”: What Theater Can Teach You About Research

Science, the Absurd

It was Wednesday, the final round of my second day of water sampling, when I hit a bump in the road with the rolling cooler I was pulling behind me. The second cooler of water samples, which had been stacked on top, toppled to the asphalt. Eight ice packs and 54 water sample bottles careened out of the cooler and across the road.

I’m using a PVC stick to photograph the reef from a fixed height, in order to take standardized photos of the reef for ecological analysis. This procedure is otherwise known as The Aquatic Gandalf.

This, I thought to myself, throwing my hands up in the air like a cartoon character, is absurd. I scooped the samples up from the pavement, picking a few out from the grassy verge where they’d fallen, and shoved them back into the cooler (carefully packing ice back over the top). I reminded myself, as I have often these past six weeks: This is science.

I’m in Bermuda for two months this summer, studying how polluted groundwater discharge is affecting near-shore coral reefs. The field season has been exciting, fulfilling, challenging, and full of slightly ridiculous situations. I’ve gone swimming along the reef like an aquatic Gandalf, carrying a camera mounted on a PVC stick. I’ve attached equipment to the reef by looping zip-ties through holes in the rocks, and so have spent hours poking these zip-ties into crevasses and attempting to pull them through on the opposite side. Continue reading Science, the Absurd