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

Swamped With Sources? Tips for Synthesis

paperstack-292x300
Accurate representation of me drowning in sources

After looking at the midterm essay prompt for my French class, I was immediately overwhelmed by the amount of readings I would have to review and analyze. Dozens of articles, books, and excerpts loomed on the syllabus, and I had no idea where to begin. I often run into this problem. Synthesis is a meaningful combination of several sources, and can be difficult to do when everything seems important. The pressure to come up with a unifying and relevant thesis makes these initial stages of finding information even more stressful. Having experienced this struggle several times, I’ve come up with a few ways to organize sources that will hopefully be useful in the writing process!

Writing begins with a research question. That question might come from a given prompt, or from a personal interest. Either way, it provides a loose focus that will help eliminate irrelevant information when you’re reviewing and searching for sources. To speed up this process, make sure that if you’re reviewing sources you’ve already read in the semester, you’re just reviewing and not re-reading! You’ve already done the brunt of the work: simply skim through the readings to select ideas and passages that relate to your research question. Also, don’t feel pressured to use every source you’ve skimmed. Ultimately sources should function to bolster your own conclusions, so instead of crowding your paper with them, further analyze the ones most relevant to your research focus.

Continue reading Swamped With Sources? Tips for Synthesis

Allowing for Incompleteness in Research

Research does not provide definitive answers.

It’s a lesson I learned recently in Anthropology 300. Just as Hamlet can be interpreted and reinterpreted by scholars without ever coming to a single definitive reading of the play, research should not set up ultimate truth as a goal.

We read Glifford Geertz’s classic The Interpretation of Cultures, in which he uses his varied fieldwork experiences in Northern Africa and Southeast Asia as jumping-off points for building theory about the nature of anthropology. He pushes us to consider culture not as a laboratory specimen to be dissected and understood in set ways, but as a piece of literature with infinite interpretative possibilities.

800px-ias_princeton
Geertz worked at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, pictured above, and located just beyond the Graduate College. His wife, Hildred, taught in Princeton’s Anthropology Department.

Regarding the notion of definitive answers, he writes, “I do not know how long it would be profitable to meditate on [a fieldwork] encounter…but I do know that however long I did so I would not get anywhere near to the bottom of it. Nor have I ever gotten anywhere near to the bottom of anything I have ever written about … Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes, the less complete it gets.”

“Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete.”

In other words, a researcher must learn to be satisfied with imperfection. The best you can hope for is shades and colors of truth. Ironically, the more you know, the more you realize you know very little.

This spoke to me. It’s not that I ever fooled myself into believing my research could solve everything, but I have at times felt the pressure to account for all things related to my topics.

Continue reading Allowing for Incompleteness in Research

Balance in the Bubble- And Outside of it, too

This fall has been my most enjoyable semester at Princeton thus far by an incontestable margin. My days seem rich and balanced. In the span of just a few weeks, I have made meaningful new friendships and picked up a few new hobbies–swing dancing, playing guitar, and longboarding, among others. I’m happy.

In stark contrast, a year ago, I was perhaps the most stressed I’ve ever been at Princeton. I felt like I was running from one assignment to the next. Often, when people asked what I did during a certain week, I’d be at a loss. I don’t have less work now than before—fellowship applications, a thesis, and four courses keep my plate full. So what changed?

My view this weekend, rock climbing in Vermont with friends I met in New Zealand!
My view this weekend, rock climbing in Vermont with friends I met in New Zealand!

Continue reading Balance in the Bubble- And Outside of it, too

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.

img_1896
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

The Imp Walks in the Door: Creativity in the Research Process

Staring at my computer screen, I blink. The black cursor, a vertical slit of a pupil, blinks back.

The Romans thought of genius as a winged spirit, not a mortal artist. Here, Augustin Dumont’s 1833 rendering of the Genius of Liberty.

Uh-oh. I am trying to write the first essay for my environmental nonfiction class. But, sitting down to write, I can already feel the despondent haze of writer’s block descending. I swivel in my chair. I check my email but have no new messages. I type fdsajkl; on the first line of the page, and then delete it. What’s wrong with me? I think. Am I a writer or not?

Continue reading The Imp Walks in the Door: Creativity in the Research Process

Moving Out: A Nostalgic Reminder of the Power of Research Stories

Although I was very excited to be done with finals, I was definitely not-so-thrilled about packing and storing my things before summer. After discovering that we lose access to our rooms two days earlier than expected, I’ve had to ‘prepone’ my packing plans (aka I realized that I needed to start packing early). So, in the midst of finals, I decided to take a study break and start cleaning out my desk so that I didn’t have to pull an all-nighter after my last final (which would be dreadfully ironic).

While going through my drawers I found something that I hadn’t actually seen since move-in day of freshman year: a hand-made lidden mini-basket. It took me a few seconds to remember how I had obtained it, but when it came to me, I felt a sudden pang of nostalgia.

The Rwandan hand-made basket that reminded me of an incredibly moving story I heard two summers ago.

Continue reading Moving Out: A Nostalgic Reminder of the Power of Research Stories

Five Reasons to Download Mendeley Desktop!

As thesis season draws to a close, the last group of seniors are proofreading their final drafts and preparing for the moment they become #PTL forever! Often, the very last thing seniors review is their very, very long bibliography. Bibliographic sources are primarily used in literature reviews, which summarize the relevant work and background in a field. While bibliographies may serve as the last page of theses and research papers, they can also prove to be a huge headache for the researcher who has neglected them. Among several other potential issues, missing in-text citations and/or incorrectly citing sources can negatively impact the credibility of a research paper. Keeping an organized bibliography throughout the whole research process can work wonders to prevent this kind of confusion.

Two summers ago, I learned this lesson firsthand when I spent hours trying to find and cite sources for the intro section of a chemistry research paper. My lab supervisor suggested I download an application called Mendeley Desktop, and it has probably ended up saving me hundreds of hours since then.

13120774_10154207651538804_1152846791_o
Imagine trying to cite all of these sources by hand! With the help of Mendeley, you won’t have to!

Mendeley is an online and desktop program that lets users upload research papers, publications, journals, etc. and manage them in an organized library. It is probably best known for its referencing features, which help users generate citations by simply uploading the relevant research papers. In high school, that’s what I primarily used Mendeley for; my research partners and I created our own account where we stored all of the relevant literature in one library. But just last week, I re-downloaded the latest version of Mendeley and was pleased to see some awesome new features. Below, I’ve detailed the top 5 features that I find most useful:

Continue reading Five Reasons to Download Mendeley Desktop!

Write something, write something awful, write everything

Unfortunately, writing isn't just the process of typing, or stamping words on paper. How do we get the words flowing in the first place?
Unfortunately, writing isn’t just stamping words on paper like this printing press does. How do we get the words flowing in the first place?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing.

I’m sure part of it is because I just turned in my thesis, the longest written work I’ve ever completed. Another part, I’m sure, is my recent decision to go to grad school for science writing. While I’ve always enjoyed writing, I still find it difficult enough that it’s strange and terrifying to think I may soon do it for a living.

But even if you’re not taking that crazy leap like me, writing is a necessary part of research (among many, many other things). And like every other skill, writing only gets better through practice. But how you practice matters, and so — while much of the advice below can be summed up as “just keep writing, all the time” — here are three particular strategies that have worked for me.

Write something

If you’re stuck, just keep writing. There’s a lot of advice out there about how to make sure you have the best outline (and writing really is easier when you’re fleshing out an outline instead of pushing ahead blindly without any guidance). But even an outline can sometimes feel like too big of a step when you’re faced with the blank page.

Continue reading Write something, write something awful, write everything