Open-Ended Assignments: Tips Towards Narrowing Your Research

When a professor assigns a research paper with no specific prompt, it sometimes can be hard to know exactly what kind of work is expected. Assignments like these may provide a suggested page count and an injunction to stay within the bounds of the course theme, but little else. In this case, the possibilities for paper topics seem infinite. Once you get past this hurdle and settle on a general idea you would like to explore, you still may feel compelled to answer some big questions; questions that might cover a long time frame, seek to identify general trends with a large sample size, or tackle broad theoretical questions. So much of the academic material we are exposed to seems to deal with these “big questions”: survey lectures, assigned readings with titles of sweeping breadth, and the prospect of the senior thesis.

The impulse you may have to ask big questions is natural, then— and it’s a good impulse, too! It is a great way to jumpstart your research, beginning the process of narrowing down by going from infinite potential topics to many potential topics. But, with a looming due date (unfortunately) limiting your research time, keeping your question broad can become overwhelming, and hinder your ability to meaningfully answer it.

During my experience this summer working on an independent research project as an intern with the Office of Undergraduate Research’s ReMatch+ program, I came to learn the importance of narrowing your question early in the research process. Though through the wonderful advice of my ReMatch+ graduate student mentor, my research was pretty specific by midsummer (focusing on the language of “othering” in New York City press reports of a June 1848 Paris workers’ rebellion), it took me several weeks to get to there— necessary time in retrospect, but time I would have rather been developing my topic rather than figuring out what it was. I definitely could have benefited from some guidance at the beginning of my work. So, with that in mind, I hope the tips below will help you narrow your research questions early on, so you don’t have to learn the hard way like I did.

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Get to Know your Department Before Concentration Declaration

The spring semester is in full swing, and, for sophomores, concentration declaration is quickly approaching. Obviously, choosing a major is a big decision which will dictate what discipline you study in most of your courses and possibly direct your professional career. However, your department will also define your academic experience as an upperclass student in other ways; each department has different requirements for independent work, different research opportunities for undergraduates, and a different type of community. I found that considering all of these variables helped me to choose my major, but doing so may necessitate a bit of investigating.

So if you are a sophomore about to choose your concentration, what can you do over the next couple months to get to know the department(s) you are interested in?

Here are some tips to get you started, with examples from my beloved home Department of Geosciences:

Members of the geosciences department on a field trip to Iceland in 2016. Undergraduates planned and led this trip which brought together graduate students, post-docs, professors, and administrators. The close-knit community and emphasis on undergraduates are two of the main reasons I declared GEO. Before you declare your major, I encourage you to do some research into the departments you are interested in and find out more about their communities and what kind of opportunities are open to undergraduates.

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Reflections on Thanksgiving Break: How Environment Influences Productivity

I hope I’m not the only one that feels like their Thanksgiving break went by far too quickly. For this post, I wanted to reflect on my Thanksgiving break — on what went well and what didn’t go so well — so that I can make the most of the upcoming winter break. Hopefully, this reflection will be useful for any of you who also felt extremely stressed that Sunday right after break.

Let’s start with the good. Like many of you, I went home to visit family and had a great time spending time with them and doing things like simply hanging out on the couch and reading. I also was *finally* able to catch up on sleep, so I felt physically rejuvenated. In short, break started off great.

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Planning Ahead for a Balanced Break

Working ahead prior to a break is another way to maximize your “off time” and enjoy a respite from the demands of academic life.

As we are all undoubtedly aware, another break is coming up. Thanksgiving break, actually! Excitement is in the air as cherished plans for relaxation and the celebration of gratitude inch ever closer. Whether you’re going home or sticking around campus, I’m sure you’re looking forward to this break as much as I am.

There’s just one problem: right on the other side of this break are the final three weeks of the fall semester. And if your course schedule is anything like mine, those will be three rather busy weeks! So, with break coming up and the final pre-winter break sprint right behind it, this is a perfect time for you, me, and everyone in between to come up with a game plan for what’s ahead. Continue reading Planning Ahead for a Balanced Break

How to Approach a Politics Paper

 

Corwin Hall, home of Princeton’s Politics Department, is often the final destination of a politics paper.

This week, I’m working on a paper for Human Rights, a politics class that I’m taking.This course only has one major paper assignment, and it’s very broad. Given that this is a tricky, but not entirely uncommon situation, I thought I’d share my approach to writing this paper. It’s often said that “writing is thinking,” so why not write about thinking about writing?

I started thinking about the paper pretty early in the course. To be fair, this wasn’t all me—my preceptor gently encouraged us to have a topic in mind before Spring Break. The best thing about brainstorming topics early is that you have the time and latitude to allow your idea to evolve. And evolve my idea did. Continue reading How to Approach a Politics Paper

Advice on Reaching Out to Faculty

Sitting in the back of a lecture can make your professor seem distant. Reaching out via email, discussed below, can help you get to know them better.

In my last post, I ended with a suggestion: reach out to faculty members. This post is an assortment of advice on how to go about doing that. More precisely, this post is about how to get in touch with faculty for the first time. Yes, dear readers, today we discuss the joy that is the cold email.

There are several situations in which cold emailing can be in your interest. You might want to get to know the faculty member better, or to do research with them. You might also want their advice on research at other institutions, summer programs, or independent work. Whatever your individual case, however, certain general principles apply when reaching out to faculty.

If cold emails are new or intimidating to you, fear not. The advice contained below will (hopefully) make this menacing task feel much more manageable.

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The value of harsh editing: “Killing your children”

When you’re struggling to begin a paper, perhaps the last thing on your mind is the possibility that you might have too much to write about. But sometimes when you’re struggling to start, it’s not because you don’t have enough to write about, but because you have too much. Have you ever found yourself with so many competing ideas bouncing around in your head, each clamoring for expression, to the point that your writing has no focus?

editing
Editing can be painful, but comparisons to prolicide are a bit exaggerated

When I find myself in such a situation, I remember an unfortunately violent piece of editing advice: Kill your children — that is, don’t let your attachment to particular sentences or ideas prevent you from cutting them.

Just do it. Don’t convince yourself that an idea that it must remain in your draft at the expense of the quality of the work as a whole. However painful it may be, there will come a time when you have to sacrifice something for the good of the piece.

This fall, I wrote a piece for my journalism class, later published in the Daily Princetonian, about Princeton’s Career Services office. In the course of researching for the article, I interviewed more than a dozen students, alumni, and career service staff. Musicians and consultants, grad students and executives – everyone had  their own story, their own advice to offer me and other students.

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Senior Reflection: What I Wish I Knew During My Spring JP

Small details are important to consider when planning to use your Spring JP as a springboard for your thesis!
Small details (like knowing which computer clusters have specific software ) are important to consider when planning to use your Spring JP as a springboard for your thesis!

As spring semester approaches, most juniors are trying not to think about what’s coming next: the spring JP. For psychology majors, the spring JP is a project proposal that often becomes a student’s senior thesis. My JP-turned-thesis was on learning science through composing analogies, a topic that intersects my interests in psychology and education. While I was very excited about crafting my spring JP, I also remember feeling very overwhelmed. I knew that a well-done JP would save my senior self TONS of time in the thesis-writing process — but I also knew that planning your thesis during junior year puts a lot of pressure on you! Though I successfully used my spring JP as the foundation for my thesis, there are many things I wish I had thought about when I first designed the project. Here are some tips to be mindful of if you plan to base your thesis on your spring JP (and save yourself a lot of time during senior year!)

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Five Tips to Tackle Winter Break  

My wonderful mom keeps sending me pictures like this - this one captioned, "incredible morning sunrise!" I'm pretty excited to be home.
My wonderful mom keeps sending me pictures like this – this one captioned, “incredible morning sunrise!” I’m pretty excited to go home.

In a few days, I’ll be home in sunny Kona, Hawaii. I haven’t been back since June, and by now I’m hankering to feel the warm Pacific on my skin. I’m going to eat homemade chocolate truffles, free-dive with my dad, catch up with old friends…and also write an entire junior paper, and review a semester’s worth of organic chemistry. Gulp.

Last Friday, hoping to figure out how to juggle it all, I attended a workshop at the McGraw Center: Balancing Work and Play During Winter Break. Here are five essential take-aways:

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