As I have written for the PCUR blog before, choosing a topic for an open-ended research project can be challenging. Even once you have narrowed your search and settled on an idea you would like to pursue, you may find that other scholars have already written about it. There is indeed a finite number of possible research subjects (even if it seems, as I suggested in my earlier post, that there is infinite possibility), and as undergraduates many of us have yet to find our research niche. This by no means should discourage you! Just because there is existing literature does not disqualify you from making your own contribution. Of course, we are told this in our first-year writing seminars, where we discuss the different “scholarly moves” one can make (“piggybacking” on another scholar’s work, “picking a fight” with a scholar, and many others, as helpfully delineated in this paper).
In this post, however, I do not merely want to rehash what these “moves” are, but rather suggest how one goes about making any intervention, especially in determining what kind of intervention one wants to make. The following are some methods I have found useful in my research:Continue reading Finding Your Space in the “Scholarly Conversation”
Last spring, my JP adviser passed on a piece of wisdom from his graduate adviser: for a research project, you should spend one third of your time reading, one third of your time writing, and one third of your time editing.
This was new to me. Historically, I’d spent 80% of my time reading, 19% of my time writing, and 1% (at best) of my time editing. I had always told myself that it didn’t make sense to start writing until I’d read everything and figured out what I wanted to say. Also, reading almost always felt easier and safer than writing. Instead of constructing my own ideas, I could sit back and receive other people’s finished products.
The problem was: I never ran out of things to read. Most of the time, I would only start writing once the deadline was in sight and I had no more time to waste. Rarely would I have enough time to edit my work.
For my thesis, though, I’m trying to follow my JP adviser’s system, spending equal amounts of time reading, writing, and editing. It took me until this week to realize that I need to treat these three elements as parts of a cycle, rather than macro chronological steps. In other words, I realized that I shouldn’t spend the first half of my fall semester just reading, the next few months writing, and the next few months editing. I need to be doing all three simultaneously. My reading, writing, and editing should be working in tandem with each other.
In the fall of my first year I wanted to join a neuroscience research lab. I was hoping to contribute to meaningful research, network with helpful mentors, and develop new skills and qualifications. In retrospect I should have waited to adjust to Princeton and my new course-load before even beginning to think about labs. I didn’t, though, and as I sent a flurry of emails to lab directors, I soon ran into a barrier: I found it incredibly difficult to be accepted into a lab.
In their response to my email, one lab director told me that they preferred students with significant experience in the programming language Matlab. Although I’d used Matlab before, my trial subscription had long expired. Using the free software links available through the Office of Information Technology (OIT) website, however, I was able to download and use Matlab once more. I soon realized that a laboratory setting wasn’t necessary for me to conduct my own research. In fact, I actually felt empowered by the ability to choose my own research topic.
As we work our way into the fall semester, my fellow seniors might find some truth in the well-worn Dickens adage, “It [is] the best of times, it [is] the worst of times.” While this sentiment assumes a different shape and quality for each of us, it does seem generally fair to say that our final fall of college brings with it many joys—such as the enjoyment of established friendships, institutional and departmental familiarity, and an overall excitement about the many possibilities ahead—as well as certain unique stressors, such as discerning what in the great wide world to do after graduation and, of course, writing that Senior Thesis. While no one blog post can assuage all of our collective life-directional angst, that needn’t stop us from thinking about how to make our present situation a little brighter. One key way in which I suggest we can do this is by reframing how we view our theses. Which is to say, if your thesis currently makes you feel stressed, bored, uneasy, or generally bad, I hope you will read on. Continue reading Reframing the Senior Thesis for Intellectual Interest and Public Service
The infamous Senior Thesis is a source of stress and anxiety for many students. Although there are information sessions galore for juniors, I didn’t feel like I actually understood the process until I started it. This summer, I began my thesis research process by traveling to Norway to collect observational data on the country’s prison system.
Last fall, in a cubicle on the B-floor of Firestone, you might have seen me scrolling through my unfinished JP. It would have looked unremarkable. I had been working on my JP in the same cubicle for weeks. Except this time, my JP was due to my department in two hours and I was realizing I had about 25 pages of footnotes to complete. I was panicking: crying and shaking while typing faster than I’ve ever typed before.
Luckily, I was able to complete the citations and submit my JP with three minutes to spare! But it took me the rest of the night to recover from the experience (and, to be honest, I still get a rush of anxiety every time I think about it). I promised myself I would never allow myself to end up in the same situation again.
Whether it’s a final paper, a JP, or a thesis, here are some tools I’ve been using to help me beat the panic of independent work:
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.
Last week, a librarian at the University of Cape Town emailed me some scanned items from their archives which I requested for my Junior Paper research. I’ve looked through them, and I can see that they will be quite useful for my work.
At first, I was unsure of what to do with all of them. It simply seemed an overwhelming task to sift through them to figure out what was needed for my work (this is where having a clear yet flexible research question comes in handy; see my post here on that). A similar thing had happened to me this summer when I was working on a research project likewise involving hundreds of newspaper articles, and I do not think I dealt with it as well as I could have then. So, reflecting on these mistakes, I worked out some strategies to make things more manageable this time around. I hope these to be helpful for any student researcher who feels like they’re buried under a mound of potential sources:
My friends and fellow students, springtime has sprung forth from the recently-frozen New Jersey soil. Spring Break is in the rear-view mirror, and we march toward Dean’s Date, finals, and summer at a steady clip. But another set of deadlines draws even nearer, deadlines whose immediacy can be seen on the tired faces of many upper-class students. Yes, friends, I’m talking about independent work, JPs and theses, the academic tulips of the Princeton spring semester. Continue reading The Junior Paper: A Halftime Report
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!