Failure at Princeton: A Conversation with Graduating Seniors

Over the past few weeks, Princeton professor Johannes Haushofer has received a lot of attention for his CV of Failures, in which he chronicles his lack of success in various academic pursuits. Many have called Professor Haushofer’s CV inspiring — because most of us rarely hear about the trials and tribulations of acclaimed individuals.

We also rarely hear about the trials and tribulations of graduating seniors. Our default is to view graduating seniors as 100% successful in all their endeavors,  especially those who receive prestigious awards and fellowships. I thought it would be great to sit down with some award-winning members of the class of 2016 to hear their thoughts on the topic of failure.

Big thanks to seniors Andrew Nelson, Jack Mazzulo, and Cameron Bell for contributing to this conversation. But the conversation around failure doesn’t have to stop here! Consider reaching out to RCA’s, Peer Advisors, and friends to have meaningful conversations about success and failure.

— Jalisha Braxton, Natural Sciences Correspondent

 

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

Pushing forward

Last week, Zoe wrote about research in the face of despair from external factors. How can you not push forward, she asked, when in your work is hope for a better future?

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Late nights in Frick – an all-to-familiar scene for me and many other thesis students.

This week, I tackle inner despair: How can you push forward when in your work you see no hope?

My thesis project holds no immediate promise of hope for the reefs, or of curing some plague, or of fantastic future technology. The motivation for basic biochemical research comes from its intrinsic beauty, and the hope of applications long in the future. I was incredibly excited about my thesis project at the beginning – I was asking fundamental questions about the origin of life; I had the potential to create something genuinely new. Inevitably, though, my project hit obstacles – both technical problems and scientific difficulties indicating misconceptions in my original idea.

So, the thesis I’m currently writing looks nothing like the thesis I imagined last spring. Continue reading Pushing forward

Mentorship in Research: What’s “networking” all about?

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, Bennett shares his story.

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When I say “networking,” what do you think of?

Affluent, well-dressed extroverts? Annoying emails from the LinkedIn account you signed up for Freshman year (out of a vague sense of professional obligation)? Shallow, self-serving conversations? The old boys’ club?

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There’s a lot going on at this career fair, but networking doesn’t have to be intimidating

There are a lot of negative associations that spring up around the word “networking.” And I understand that – there’s definitely something reflexively uncomfortable about conversations where the participants have ulterior motives. As someone who shuns both uncomfortable social interaction and formal wear, it would be understandable if I wrote networking off as an awkward, greedy affair.

But here’s the thing – that’s not what networking is.

One of the best ways I’ve heard it put goes as follows: what if instead of calling it “networking” we called it “learning from each other”?

Because that’s what networking is. And that’s why this post is part of the mentorship series – if you think of networking as finding and consulting mentors, it becomes a lot more approachable and a lot less uncomfortable.

Continue reading Mentorship in Research: What’s “networking” all about?

A survival guide for major declaration season

The EEB department dinosaur in Guyot Hall: pretty much the best thing ever.
The EEB department dinosaur in Guyot Hall: pretty much the best thing ever.

There are some things that department websites just don’t tell you.

For example: The History Department holds its mandatory senior thesis planning meeting one hour after spring junior papers are due. (“People hadn’t slept for days!” a friend told me recently.) The Spanish Department, on the other hand, hosts monthly department-wide dinners.

...though, if I were choosing my concentration by architectural and archaeological perks, I'd say the animal heads of WWS come in a close second.
…though, if I were choosing my concentration by architectural and archaeological perks, I’d say the animal heads of WWS come in a close second.

I am amazed — unfortunate scheduling and free food aside — by how much I didn’t know when I chose my major. Talking to other upperclassmen, I get the feeling that I’m not the only one. We all seem to have bumbled through the process, some better-informed than others. When April rolled around, we all picked something and moved on.

Surely, there’s a better way to sift through the options. Looking back at major declaration season, here are the three questions I wish I’d known to ask. Continue reading A survival guide for major declaration season

I went to the senior thesis archives. Here’s what I found.

The basement of the Lewis Library Fine Hall Wing is quiet.

"Where are the books?" you may well ask. The Lewis Library answers...
“Where are the books?” you may well ask. The Lewis Library answers…

There aren’t many books down here, and the ones that are here don’t seem to have many readers. There are dim-lit shelves of dusty periodicals, and tomes with titles like Essential Entomology: An Order-by-Order Introduction (a book I actually borrowed for a project last semester).

And then there are the theses, and these are something else. For sophomores looking at concentration selection, theses give a true sense of what it means to be part of a given department at Princeton. Even simply flipping through titles can give a distilled, unbiased sense of the type – and diversity – of work that students in each department undertake.

Math theses archived from the 1970's.
Math theses archived from the 1970’s.

As a junior, I went to the archives this week under the pressure of an impending deadline for my EEB thesis funding application. In the black-bound books, I felt optimism and excitement, a sense of both broad possibility inspired by all my peers have done, and realistic scope that comes from the recognition that these books are finite, and that writing one is possible.

Continue reading I went to the senior thesis archives. Here’s what I found.

The Project That Made Me a Researcher: 8 Things Infancy Teaches Us About Research

Over the course of the semester, PCURs will explain how they found their place in research. We present these to you as a series called The Project That Made Me a Researcher. As any undergraduate knows, the transition from ‘doing a research project’ to thinking of yourself as a researcher is an exciting and highly individualized phenomenon. Here, Bennett shares his story.

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This is hardly the conventional idea of a research project: for one thing, I don’t remember it, and it’s hardly a lab or an archive project. But, unlike the writing seminar paper I wrote on Osama bin Laden, or my first lab experience with yeast genetics, this is a project every PCUR reader has gone through. So here’s baby Bennett, to take you through the first and most exciting research project any of us has participated in: discovering the world as an infant.

1. Bury Yourself In The Literature

I don’t mean that literally, silly.

You can’t start a research project without a deep background on the question you’re asking in the first place. That’s pretty difficult for an illiterate baby: the best I could do was crawl into the papers in my Dad’s briefcase, and hope some knowledge rubbed off, or that I would at least get a better understanding of how the world around me was shaped. If you’re literate, then you’ve got a huge advantage: read everything you can (even if you don’t understand it all at first – we’ll get to that later).

Continue reading The Project That Made Me a Researcher: 8 Things Infancy Teaches Us About Research

Five (and a half) steps to choosing a lab

It’s that time of year again – you’ve (sort of) got the hang of your classes, you have (a short) break coming up before finals, and you (kind of) feel free to think about your future in research. Your department office, OIP, PEI, and Princeton offices you’ve never heard of are sending out long lists of opportunities to do research in fantastic, far-off places – China! France! San Francisco! The E-Quad!

Even without leaving Frick, there are all-too-many labs to choose from.

How do you choose? A few weeks ago, Stacey wrote an excellent post detailing a few of the clearinghouses researchers have for finding opportunities, and my fellow correspondents are working on a Resources for Researchers list of opportunities and support systems for researchers on-campus (watch this space). But with so many opportunities out there, it’s hard to be sure that you’re choosing the best one. Whether choosing a summer internship, a JP, or a thesis advisor, here are a few things you can think about as you pick what to apply to and listen to. Continue reading Five (and a half) steps to choosing a lab

The Fellowship Frenzy

Many graduate fellowships have deadlines in early fall!
Many graduate fellowships have deadlines in early fall!

This fall has been an extremely hectic one for me- in addition to taking the typical Princeton course load of 4 classes, I’m also trying to balance starting my senior thesis research, working my various on-campus jobs, and applying to grad school. Recently, however, a new challenge has emerged: preparing applications for graduate fellowships. It came as a surprise to me that these applications are due well before any of my actual graduate school applications. Luckily, I’ve been able to find a few resources to help out with the fellowship application process, especially for research fellowships like the NSF.  I’m sharing my fellowship resources and strategies here to help anyone else who anticipates riding the senior year struggle bus while applying for fellowships.

Continue reading The Fellowship Frenzy

Reframing “Independent” Work

Every senior dreams of the day their thesis is finally binded! Photo credit: Princeton University Office of Communications
Every senior dreams of the day their thesis is finally bound!

This is how I respond to a non-senior who asks about my senior thesis:

“I love my topic and my adviser is amazing; I can’t wait to start my research!”

& THIS is how I respond when a fellow senior asks about my thesis:

” OMG I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I’M DOING; WHY DO I FEEL SO LOST??!”

Despite the great deal of resources departments provide to help seniors with their independent work, feeling overwhelmed appears to be inevitable at the start of senior year. This seems to hold true no matter how many times you emailed your adviser over the summer or how much time you spent writing (and rewriting) your IRB proposal. If you’re anything like me, your natural reaction to stress is to seek seclusion; you’ve probably thought to yourself, “Senior year, I’m going into isolation in order to finish this thesis- it’s the only way it can be done!”  

The name “independent work” promotes this same idea, that your thesis must be your own work and therefore requires you to independently figure everything out. However, it’s possible that by reframing the way we think about independent work, we can actually succeed in completing our senior theses and save ourselves a lot of stress along the way.

Continue reading Reframing “Independent” Work