I meet with my JP adviser every other Monday morning. No matter how hard I try to beat procrastination, the weekend before each meeting is always an anxious scramble to complete a draft. On Sunday night, I worry that I’m unforgivably behind schedule, that my topic was a bad choice, that my writing is incoherent.
From conversations with my friends, I’ve realized that wanting to avoid our advisers is totally normal. It can be scary to share our work—especially when it’s unfinished, and especially when the reader will eventually be grading it. But as I’ve learned over the past semester, though it can be terrifying, meeting with my adviser has only helped and reassured me in the research and writing process.
When I feel anxious the Sunday before an adviser meeting, I’m not actually worried about what my adviser will think. I’m worried about having to confront my own work. If I send only a two-page draft, I have to admit to myself that I’m behind schedule. If my argument isn’t fully baked, I have to admit that I haven’t yet figured out how to approach my topic. If my writing is confusing, I have to admit that it needs a lot more editing.
Admitting mistakes or weaknesses is always hard. It feels so much easier to pretend they don’t exist—to convince yourself that you’ll be on schedule soon, that there are no holes in your argument, that your writing needs no editing. However, as difficult as it may be, confronting these questions regularly not only improves your work, but prevents a flood of buried anxiety at the end of the project.
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.
At Princeton, we are lucky to have access to an incredible collection of research resources. Between our libraries’ collections on campus, online databases, ReCap storage, and Borrow Direct, almost all your research needs are right at your fingertips. And, for most of the papers you will write while here, this is probably the case. But, especially with independent work, you may need sources so niche or rare that Princeton just can’t provide them. I have found myself in this situation this semester, as I write my junior paper for my HIS 400 seminar. Here, I’ll share my experience navigating the search for niche sources, with tips for getting creative when searching for material at Firestone and beyond.
My paper focuses on the political thought of Henry Katzew (a Jewish South African journalist and writer), situating it in relation to other Jewish South African responses to apartheid, Zionism, and a diplomatic crisis which occurred between the Israeli and South African governments in 1961. Given how specific my topic has become, it was difficult finding sources, especially primary sources, at Princeton right off the bat. Still, with some time to think and the help of quite a few librarians (more on that below— they are truly research superheroes), I have managed to find the sources I need to complete the work.Continue reading Stumped for Sources at Firestone? No Worries!
This winter, for our seasonal series entitled “Professorship and Mentorship,” PCURs interview a professor from their home department. In these interviews, professors shed light on the role that mentorship has played in their academic trajectory, including their previous experiences as undergraduate and graduate students as well as their current involvement with mentorship as independent work advisers for current Princeton undergraduates. Here, Rafi shares his interview.
I met Professor Pérez last semester as a student in her course on Commodity Histories. Throughout the semester, I was inspired by her commitment to interdisciplinary research and her focus on subjugated histories. I was excited to hear about her personal research journey and any advice she might have for a confused undergrad like me.
In almost every seminar I’ve taken at Princeton, one of the main assignments has been a weekly student presentation. The professor typically passes a syllabus around the room and asks each student to choose a week or two to present. The structure of these presentations will vary, but I’ve collected some tips for how to prepare an A+ class presentation:
Make sure you understand your professor’s expectations. How long is the presentation supposed to be? Are you expected to lead the whole class discussion or just introduce the readings? What types of information do they want you to provide: Background for the readings? Summary of the arguments? Your own analysis? It can help to schedule a meeting with your professor the week before you present to review these expectations and receive some personalized guidance. If you’re brave enough, consider asking these questions in class on the first day so your classmates can also benefit!
I love my spring JP adviser. For one, he knows the biggest challenge of independent work is avoiding procrastination. As such, he’s preemptively strict with me on deadlines—pushing me to work on my JP for twenty minutes every day, and to meet with him at least twice a month to report on my progress. When we meet, he asks difficult questions, and provides incisive feedback.
However, like any adviser, there is a limit to what he can provide. My JP project—which focuses on a series of maps produced in twentieth-century Yiddish memorial books— is actually quite distant from his area of expertise. He researches early modern Europe, a period nearly five hundred years before my topic’s. Additionally, I want my JP to engage with scholarship outside of the conventional boundaries of my discipline—particularly memory studies and theories of urbanism.
But at a university like Princeton, a mismatch between your independent research and your adviser’s area of expertise is by no means a dead end. Because of the diversity of Princeton’s academic program, there are almost definitely people on campus—whether graduate students or faculty—who can supplement your adviser’s mentorship.
After late hours on the B-floor and that last-minute citation dash, you never want to see that Dean’s Date paper again. I know the feeling. Over the past few years, I’ve developed the terrible habit of sending in my papers before reading them over – in a short-sighted attempt to avoid confronting my mistakes. But sometimes, as I’ve learned, the final draft can offer the most important learning opportunities.
In my experience, very few professors share feedback on final papers beyond the letter grade. And there is something satisfyingly simple about the “grading machine” – send a paper in one end and receive a letter grade on the other. However, this process obscures some of the more personal and pedagogical elements of an instructor’s grading.
Professors dedicate a significant chunk of their time each semester to reviewing and grading students’ work. They’re expert readers, writers, and researchers – you don’t want to miss this opportunity to receive their feedback. Each professor’s approach to feedback is different, but I can almost guarantee that they’ll have something insightful to say about your final project.
On Friday morning, I encountered a manuscript no historian had studied before. I was on the C Floor of Firestone in the Rare Books and Special Collections Reading Room, finding it hard to believe my luck. I had asked Gabriel Swift, the Reference Librarian for Special Collections, if he knew of any interesting primary sources connected to my Junior Paper topic, an 1805 Lenape religious revival led by a woman named Beate. In response, he connected me with this new acquisition, a handwritten journal from 1774. Just this year, he explained, the University had purchased it at auction in Paris. And because it was from a private collection, the source was previously unknown to academics.
According to the RBSC website, “its holdings span five millennia and five continents, and include around 300,000 rare or significant printed works.”
With just a few simple steps, you can see one of the first “Wanted” posters for John Wilkes Booth, Beethoven’s music manuscripts, or Woodrow Wilson’s love letters. It is one of the most fabulous and underutilized research resources on campus – especially for historians. As undergraduates, we have nearly complete access to the collections. Continue reading Guide to the Rare Books and Special Collections
Sometimes graduate students are the older siblings you didn’t know you had.
In my Orange Key tours, I always emphasize how exciting it is to be an undergraduate student at Princeton. Unlike many other leading research institutions, Princeton maintains a strong focus on undergraduate teaching. This results in an unusual dynamic between undergraduates and graduate students on campus. In general, the two populations are pretty segregated. Aside from the preceptor-student relationship (and, of course, the ReMatch relationship), I haven’t encountered a whole lot of avenues for collaboration between undergraduates and graduate students in our research projects.
This semester, in our spring series, PCURs will interview a graduate student from their home department who either is currently a graduate student at Princeton, or attended Princeton as an undergraduate. In Graduate Student Reflections: Life in Academia, interviews with graduate students shed light on the variety of paths one can take to get to graduate school and beyond, and the many insights gained along the way from research projects and mentors. Here, Rafi shares his interview.
Jonathon Catlin is a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of History, focusing on intellectual responses to the Holocaust. Before beginning at Princeton, he earned his B.A. from the University of Chicago in Jewish Studies and Fundamentals: Issues and Texts and his M.A. in philosophy from KU Leuven in Belgium. A few days ago, I sat down with him in Chancellor Green café to hear about his research journey and some of what he’s learned along the way.
How did you arrive at your current research topic?
I was a junior in high school and, for whatever reason, I decided to take a course called “The Holocaust in History, Literature, and Film” at Harvard Summer School. Why I chose it I don’t know, but the rest is history. Holocaust representation and its intersections with philosophy, religion, literature, film — all in a sort of historical context — is essentially what I’ve been working on for about eight years now, bouncing around multiple disciplines.
My dissertation is hopefully going to be on the concept of catastrophe in modern European thought – a project I’ve been working on since my first year of undergrad. I guess the newest thing for me about coming to Princeton is that I’m in a history department now, which is just totally different than the interdisciplinary humanities focus that I was used to.