Researching in Princeton’s Special Collections

If you want to take your research in the humanities to the next level while here at Princeton, one of the best ways you can do that is by availing yourself of Princeton’s Special Collections. Home to vast stockpiles of manuscripts, rare books, coins, and other materials, Special Collections is a great place for students who want to pursue rigorous and impressive humanities research while making use of the excellent resources that Princeton has to offer. Many of these articles were donated by benefactors or acquired by the university specifically so that they could be researched by professors, students, and other researchers. In this article, I’ll present some reasons why you might consider checking out Special Collections, and then follow that up with a basic “how to” for when you visit.

Image shows an Ethiopic book, opened to pages featuring pictures of saints and text in Ge'ez (Classical Ethiopic)

A manuscript of an Ethiopic Synaxarion in Special Collections

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How to Choose a Topic

After feeling inspired from reading my previous article about the reasons why you should pursue research, you might be stumped on what research topic you should investigate. Here’s some tips on how to find the right research field for you!

Image of summer laboratory research as an intern in the Department of Geosciences
This past summer, I had the incredible opportunity to be a research intern for the Sigman Research Laboratory in the Princeton Department of Geosciences. It was an incredible learning opportunity and a great experience of exposure to laboratory research in the field. Find out how you can discover the right field for you! Photo Credits: Mae-Yung Tang (High Meadows Environmental Institute Program Tech Support Specialist). 
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A Freshman’s Guide to Writing a Research Policy Memo

The freshman seminars are one of the unique experiences at Princeton. While they may seem intimidating at first, they made me think of the process of research in my very first year in college. Not everyone might become a full-time researcher – I, for example, want to become a policy analyst – but many of our jobs will involve research, and the structure of the freshman seminar is very conducive to the research process. In the Economics of Immigration seminar that I took with Professor Leah Boustan during Fall 2019, we discussed aspects of the economic effects of immigration both on the receiving country and on the migrants themselves. Our final deliverable was a research policy memo – a document that describes a policy intervention by the government, by first arguing the need for it, then describing its advantages, and finally proposing a way by which it might be implemented. In order to write an effective memo, I had to research an issue that necessitated looking at it from diverse points of view. The process made me appreciate several principles of writing a policy memo.

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Writing Lessons from my Creative Writing Workshop

This semester, I took my first fiction workshop in Princeton’s Creative Writing Program. I had taken two poetry courses in previous semesters and wanted to try something new. (Pro-tip: if you haven’t yet taken a CWR course, definitely consider applying for one before graduating).

Creative writing is, in many ways, a break from academic writing. It does not center on data, analysis, or argumentation. Instead, workshops focus on developing compelling images, characters, stories. Creative writing also has access to a wider variety of forms than academic writing, which tends to adhere to a narrow set of relatively conservative styles.

My Creative Writing professor, Yiyun Li, leading a Fiction workshop.

However, some of my workshop instructor’s writing advice has translated well to my academic writing. After all, writing is writing, and many of the same challenges confront both creative and academic writers. Below I’ve collected five of her best pieces of writing advice:

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Why You Should Talk to Your Friends About Your Research

While advising and formal research mentorship have been highly rewarding at Princeton, I have found more informal discussions with friends and classmates here to be invaluable in the development of my own ideas.

A professor recently offered this advice in class: if writing a paper isn’t going well—if you’re feeling the notorious “writer’s block,” for instance—then try writing a letter instead. In his view, this needn’t be a real letter to an actual person. The main point is to try to explain what you hope to achieve in a different way to a different audience.

Though I’d never tried letter writing of this sort before, I immediately appreciated my professor’s advice because of how it connects to a practice I’ve implemented in my own life for quite a while. That strategy is to “talk it out”—to take a break from a task that’s frustrating me and talk through the problem with a friend. This is the first reason that I think talking about research is helpful for each of us: it helps us clarify our aims and work through challenges. Continue reading Why You Should Talk to Your Friends About Your Research

First-Years and Sophomores: It’s Time to Start Thesis-ing!

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.

My thesis research proposal involves visiting an archive in Jerusalem. It’s never too early to start planning.

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.

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Class Trip to Japan: Immersive Experiences, Changing Topics, and the Importance of Reflection

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.

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Finding a JP Topic (On Your Own)

Personally examining the items around a book you’ve found is a great way to find related works on a given subject.

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.

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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.

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