Research During the Academic Year: Tips for Time Management & Pursuing your Passions

A schedule board with a plethora of sticky notes containing writings on various obligations.
Whether you’re in a lab or working remotely, fitting in research during the academic year requires above all a willingness to prioritize yourself and good time management. Photo Credit: Jo Szczepanska.

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.

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Opportunity Overwhelm

An image of a coffee mug sitting atop a monthly planner.
An image of a coffee mug sitting atop a monthly planner. Photo credits: Estée Janssens (@esteejanssens)

“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.

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Independent Work Seminars as a COS BSE Student: An Interview with Shannon Heh ‘23

Image of Shannon Heh '23

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.

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A Figure Speaks a Thousand Words

Example boxplot titled Boxplot of Magnesium, Ashwaganda, and Melatonin with Deep Sleep. The boxplot analysis indicates statistically insignificant variations among supplement types. The author describes the follow-up question after their ANOVA analysis: how does my sleep vary with a magnesium pill vs. without a magnesium pill?
The boxplot comparison accurately reflects the variation between different sleep supplements and their effect on deep sleep quantity. As seen above, the boxplot demonstrates the presence of a single outlier under the Magnesium group which could have easily skewed and misrepresented the data in another type of figure.

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?

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Experiences in the ReMatch+ Program: An Interview with Kasey Shashaty ’23 – Part 1

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. 

Kasey Shashaty ’23
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A Week in My Life Doing Materials Science Research

This semester, I am doing junior independent work in the Arnold lab group at Princeton, which is based in the MAE department but also focuses on materials science, which is what I am interested in. My project investigates creating graphene aerogels from protein precursors, which basically means that I get to select different proteins of interest, freeze-dry them, pyrolyze them, and then see if they create graphene by examining them under a scanning electron microscope (SEM). These graphene aerogels are interesting materials because of their high porosity and conductivity, making them promising for applications to energy storage, which is why we are interested in researching them.

I thought it might be interesting to highlight a week in my life (well, actually two weeks) to give some insight on what lab-based independent work can look like during the school year. I want to note that this is only my experience as a CBE major, and independent work can look very different for other majors. If you’re an underclassman interested in doing junior independent work or just curious about what that could entail, I hope that this post can provide some insight.

The inside of Bowen Hall, the hub of the Princeton Institute of Materials and where my research lab is.
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Lessons from Junior Independent Work in MAE

In the fall of 2021, I worked in the Computational Turbulent Reacting Flow Laboratory under the guidance of Professor Michael Mueller. In the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) department, junior independent research is optional. I enrolled in MAE339: Junior Independent Work in the fall and am currently continuing my research this spring semester. Research was an integral part of my high school experience, and I was excited to start working on independent research in my junior year of college in a different setting. Now, I want to share a few of the lessons I learned from this past semester with you:

Logo of the Computational Turbulent Reacting Flow Laboratory.
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Lessons from My First Major Research Essay

As I dive into my second junior paper, I’ve begun to realize how much more serious this paper is than the first one. Gone are the safety rails once provided by Princeton’s History department; instead of a course with concrete deadlines, I am now in the metaphorical Wild West, negotiating with my advisor on a whole bunch of elements: deadlines, research content, framing, among others. Even though it is only February when I write this, the April deadline eyes me ominously. With four classes and an array of extracurricular activities, whatever will I do to survive my second JP? How can I even anticipate the thesis?

At PCUR, we’ve done plenty of reflections on our prior research experiences. The more I think about it, the best thing to do is to reflect on my first JP. In that paper, I explored the attitudes and ideologies of consumption that post-war consumers held, particularly in relation to an acute shortage of nylon stockings. Sifting through dozens of articles in local newspapers, I identified many letters to the editor that female consumers sent in to voice their opinion about how nylons should be distributed, who deserves them, and how the shortage was affecting their everyday lives. 

Although I am undoubtedly proud of the final product, there were many things I could improve about it. From the way I kept sources and my reading schedule to my writing method and the final editing process, I could enumerate an endless list. For now, I will highlight two of the biggest takeaways from my first JP, which will be particularly useful given the abbreviated timeline of the second paper. 

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Get Your Independent Work Done Without Stress

As a B.S.E junior doing independent work for the first time, I am already anticipating the stressful cram at the end of the semester that comes with senior thesis and junior independent work deadlines. As busy Princeton students, we often don’t think that we have enough time in the week to work consistently on our independent work, and thus, a lot of it inevitably gets pushed off to the weeks (and days) before the deadline. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Putting together a comprehensive plan to organize and budget your time at the beginning of the semester can save so much hassle down the road. Therefore, I think it will be helpful to walk through how to create a plan for independent work over the course of the semester.

Inside Firestone Library, where many students will be writing the bulk of their independent work this semester.
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NCBI: An Invaluable Tool for Life Sciences Classes and Research!

Have you ever come across something in class that you wish you could get a better Have you ever been wondering more about how proteins are made in the body? Or have you ever been looking for a specific type of lab experiment protocol for your independent work? If yes, then look no further than the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) website! It contains dozens of resources, some of which I have found to be very handy in my own research and school experiences. The site is tailored for students in the life-sciences field, but there is a lot of breadth in the resources available—you’ll be able to find useful tools regardless of whether you’re a MOL or CHM major, or if you’re interests lie in researching chemically synthesis mental health, or neurodegenerative diseases.

The NCBI Logo, as it appears on the website

A very useful tool on the NCBI website is Bookshelf. There is a search bar at the top of the website where you can input some topic, book title, or field name, and the program will return a variety of different reference materials relating to the query, including full scientific textbooks, book chapters, studies. On the side, there are often figures and graphs that may relate to your search. 

Some sample search results within Bookshelf if I look up “synaptic plasticity”
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