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.
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.
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
Staring at my computer screen, I blink. The black cursor, a vertical slit of a pupil, blinks back.
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Over the course of the semester, PCURs will reflect on the professors, advisers, and friends who shaped their research experiences. We present these to you as a series called Mentorship in Research. Most undergraduates have met, or will meet, an individual who motivates and supports their independent work. Here, Dylan shares his story.
“Everything you might write has been written before,” said Professor Pedro Meira Monteiro, my adviser, leaning back into his chair.
I was in a JP meeting in his cozy, naturally lit East Pyne office. The paper had me in high-stress mode, but I was in good hands. Somehow, hearing that all work is derivative and unoriginal did wonders to immediately calm me down.
Let me explain.
I am writing my JP about Nise da Silveira, a Brazilian psychoanalyst who taught painting and sculpture to schizophrenic patients as a means of treatment. This paper is meant to prepare me for my summer research in Rio de Janeiro, where I’ll look at current artists who use da Silveira’s teachings as creative inspiration. My JP is, to a certain degree, an appetizer — the background knowledge I need to enrich my summer work.
And yet, the deeper I got into my topic, the more I faced the sinking feeling that I couldn’t contribute much to the scholarly discussion — at least not until I got to Brazil and did my interviews.