When doing research as an undergraduate, sometimes the work you are doing and topics you study may be very familiar to you, other times you may be totally unfamiliar with what is going on. Maybe you even have some previous experience but the topic of the project is way above anything you’ve done before—you might be working with a physics professor on something really advanced like quantum field theory or condensed matter, which you have never taken a class on and are expected to now work on and understand what’s going on during your project. This can happen a lot in any field, not just STEM, where your professor may have spent years studying something that you are expected to contribute to after having taken maybe a few classes in it, if that. Some professors may work more often with graduate students, so they may assume that you know “basic” things about your field that you as an undergrad have just encountered for the first time: you could be working with an Art History professor who focuses on Late Antiquity, and they start throwing around terms and common symbols that you aren’t able to easily recognize.
Regardless of the circumstances, this situation comes up a lot in undergraduate research. The fortunate thing is that tons of professors are willing to work with students who have no prior experience in the subject, but you still have to wrestle with “catching up” as you try to somewhat understand anything that you’re actually doing. Here are some tips to try to get acclimated with difficult, unfamiliar topics that may be well above your current depth as an undergraduate.
Most people probably know Trustee Reading Room as that large room with big glass windows on the first floor of Firestone, where you go when you want a really quiet study space. Perhaps you’ve recently studied for midterms or worked on a paper in its sacred silence. Maybe you’ve wondered if there’s more to Trustee than simply providing a quiet atmosphere for study. The answer to that question is: yes, there is. It is the primary reference room of Firestone library– and if you read to the end of this article you will learn how to make the most of this tremendous resource.
Trustee Reading Room in Firestone Library has many reference works
Imagine that you’ve been working on a research project for months. Now you’re standing in front of a crowd of professors, some of which probably know more about your topic than you do. If you do research working in an academic department, it can be a stressful experience if you have to eventually present your work to that department. Trying to talk about what you’ve done with your own adviser can be enough sometimes, and showing work that you may not be 100% comfortable with for a whole crowd of professors is a whole new level of daunting. They all have years of experience and may know more about aspects of your presentation than you do, so trying to seem like you know what you’re talking about while possibly being asked questions far out of your depth may seem impossible for an undergraduate to do.
Nonetheless, whether it’s theses, JPs, internships, or summer projects, all undergraduates here are going to find themselves in this position. So how do you do it?
So you’ve been brave, reached out to that professor whose research you’ve always admired, and just confirmed a summer on campus doing the research of your dreams. Whether you’re a part of an on-campus research cohort (like ReMatch or HMEI) or starting up your own independent work, summer on-campus is a special, if not bewildering, experience. If you are anything like me, the first few weeks may be a little confusing as you figure out what is expected of you and what exactly you want for yourself. Even though you’re doing research full-time, you’ll likely find that you’re substantially less busy than you were during the school year. This raises some important questions about how you choose to spend your free time. Who are you outside of research? How do you navigate the campus when you’re no longer a full-time student? Beyond time-management, what else should you know about being on-campus in the summer? Below I’ve compiled a short list of advice I’ve found most helpful during my summers on campus.
Last spring, I interviewed Kasey Shashaty. In this second part of my interview, we discuss specific challenges in her transition between virtual and in-person research and reflections on how this experience in the PULSe Lab has influenced her perspective on research and her plans for the future.
Kasey Shashaty got her jumpstart in research through the ReMatch+ program organized by the Office of Undergraduate Research. ReMatch+ is a summer mentorship program that pairs first-year and second-year students with a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow as they work on a summer research project. Read on to learn more about her research experience!
Whether you’re trying to free up your summer to enjoy one of Princeton’s other fully-funded programs, or maybe pave the way for more advanced summer or independent research opportunities, it’s understandable why you might want to get a head start on research during the academic year. But, with jam-packed class schedules, multiple labs, essays to write, and hopefully squeezing in some time for yourself, it can feel impossible to do research on top of life at Princeton. So, how do students do it? Can you really spend 8-10 hours per week on research and still find work-life balance? In short, it depends. The number of classes you’re taking, extracurriculars, and your own unique circumstances all factor into whether research during the academic year is sustainable for your class schedule. For some, research can be a valuable addition to their academic schedules. But, like anything at Princeton, it requires careful planning, time management, and clarifying your own values. Here are three tips for striking balance with research during the academic year.
“Don’t let any opportunity pass you by.” Whether from parents, coaches, teachers, or other peers, chances are we’ve all had this phrase quoted to us at some point in our high school careers. Before Princeton, I more or less lived by it. I knew that opportunities had to be sought at all times everywhere. One thing I hadn’t planned for coming to Princeton, though, was the possibility of there being too many opportunities. When resources are abundant but time is scarce, how does one choose? How does one take advantage of opportunities that are exciting, meaningful, and fun for them without risking burnout? Read on for four recommendations on how you can make the most of your Princeton experience while maintaining a work/life balance.
Shannon Heh ’23 is currently Co-President of TigerApps, a member of KoKoPops dance team, and a member of Colonial Club
At Princeton, B.S.E.* computer science students are required to complete at least one semester of independent work (IW) during their junior or senior year. Students may either take an IW seminar, where a small group of students work on larger projects under a given theme, or a one-on-one IW, where students work and meet with their advisers independently.
Seminars had weekly meetings and provided more structure for students than a typical one-on-one project would; students were asked to choose their project ideas early and received valuable feedback through presenting and having their ideas workshopped by their peers in the seminar.
I met with Shannon Heh ‘23, a senior in the Computer Science department, to discuss her experience in an independent work seminar. Spring of her junior year, Shannon took COS IW 09: You Be the Prof, advised by Professor David Walker. Students were to produce a web-based platform, app, or tool to aid in teaching a particular topic, skill, or concept.
As anyone who has taken one of Princeton’s introductory statistics courses can tell you: informative statistics and figures can and will be incredibly useful in supporting your research. Whether you’re reworking your R1, writing your first JP, or in the final stages of your Senior Thesis, chances are you’ve integrated some useful statistics into your argument. When there are a million different positions that one can take in an argument, statistics appear to be our research’s objective grounding. The data says so, therefore I must be right. Right?
Kasey Shashaty is a junior majoring in Electrical and Computer Engineering. She began working at the PULSe (Princeton University Laser Sensing) Lab in the summer of 2021 and has been working with them since. In this interview, Kasey and I discuss how she got involved in this lab through the ReMatch+ program, her experiences working in the lab both virtually and in-person, and where she is taking her experiences in the future.