Before senior year, the senior thesis can feel worlds away. For me, thinking about my senior thesis has always felt like imagining potential careers—impractical fantasies rather than realistic plans. Wouldn’t it be cool to…? What if I…?
But just a few weeks ago, I received an email from my department, reminding me that thesis funding application deadlines were approaching. If I wanted to receive summer funding for thesis research, I needed to have an adviser, a research question, and a summer research itinerary solidified by the end of spring break.
I felt somewhat blindsided by this deadline. I’m still a junior. I just started my second Junior Paper. I had given almost no thought to selecting my thesis adviser, let alone constructing a research plan for my still non-existent thesis project.
But for years, I’ve heard stories about the University’s generosity in supporting thesis projects. I wasn’t about to miss this opportunity.
Fortunately, I was able to select an adviser and write a project proposal before the funding deadline. Even so, I wished someone had warned me sooner about the timeline for thesis projects.
As I’ve learned, it is never too early to start thinking about thesis ideas. Because thesis ideas can gestate for a long time, it can be helpful to maintain a few lists of ideas, models, and resources. You can add to them when you get inspired and consult them when the time finally comes to select a topic.
This year, I spent my spring break traveling around Japan with my art history seminar course, ART 429 Visual Japan: Past and Present. It was an absolutely transformative experience, both academically and personally. I’m here to share a little bit about how I learned to use experiences to inspire research and find answers through reflection.
For many first year and sophomore students, fall break is a true respite from the academic demands of college life. For many juniors and seniors, however, it is a time of simultaneous relief and moderated despair as Princeton’s independent work requirements loom large. This is the position I find myself in. So gather round, friends, it’s time to talk independent work—specifically, how I found a general research area for my first JP. New to the JP game as I am, I feel rather unqualified to offer advice on how to “conquer” it or plan a totally coherent project right from the start. This will not be that kind of post. Rather, I’ll share some thoughts on beginning my own JP research process, which should illuminate some of the methods I used to cut down the uncertainty around my project and to find something like a workable topic. While I hope this is a useful guide for anyone facing the JP, I should note that it will probably be the most applicable to those in departments where fall independent work is not structured around a research seminar.
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.