Until recently, I only watched TV and movies in order to decompress. There’s nothing quite like lying in bed after a long day, lulled to sleep by my favorite Netflix show. Requiring minimal effort, movies acted as a brief escape from my reading- and writing-heavy coursework.
Like many Princeton students, though, I sometimes felt guilty choosing to watch TV over, say, finishing my readings for precept the next morning. But a few weeks ago, my professor introduced me to an invaluable resource called Kanopy. Completely free for all Princeton students and faculty, this site provides over 30,000 films for streaming on any device. But Kanopy isn’t just another Netflix or Hulu: it’s specifically designed for use in research institutions.
With Dean’s date looming, it is likely that many of you (like me) are about to get a late start on your term papers. In my experience, the success of a project and the effectiveness of my thesis rests largely on my understanding of past research and the foundational theories concerning the topic. The first steps I take in a research project are to explore the literature surrounding a topic and to begin to put together a library of sources. However, when searching for online sources, it can be hard to know where to start looking, how to identify important and reputable sources, and how to keep your searches organized. Luckily, there are many tools that can help you streamline your search and get writing faster! If you are struggling, here is a basic framework you can use to search better:
Use Web of Science to Guide your Search
Web of Science is a human-curated database, which generally includes only reputable journal articles. It links every article to those that it cited and those that cited it, creating the eponymous ‘web’ that you can easily traverse in search of important or fundamental sources. Web of Science’s detailed statistics on article citations and journal impact allow you to more easily ascertain the relative importance of an article. It has highly customizable search options and even provides links to the full-text through Princeton University Library and Google Scholar.
While Web of Science is a powerful tool, it has some draw-backs. You need to be connected through the Princeton network to access the site, it doesn’t include all journals from every discipline, and cannot search within the main text of articles for keywords. For that reason, I usually supplement my search with Google Scholar after forming a basis of reputable articles from Web of Science. Google Scholar allows for in-text keyword search and includes many mediums in addition to journal articles, but it is not a human-curated database, and search results will include many sources that are unreputable or low quality.
Build a Library of Sources With Google Scholar:
I have often found myself lost in a sea of open tabs or forgetting where I found a promising article. Keeping my search organized is always a struggle, but with Google Scholar’s library feature, it is extremely simple. If you find an interesting article, simply click the star on the lower left hand side of the search result. The article link will be saved to your personal library along with its citation information. You can easily organize your library by assigning labels to different topics or projects and editing citation information. As your topic narrows and you begin to form a thesis, your library will evolve. Using Google Scholar Library is great because you can easily add, delete, and organize your library without having to download PDF documents or external apps. When you’re ready to cite your sources, Google Scholar creates citations for you and allows you to export citation files in many different formats.
Using this basic framework for online source searching can help you find useful and reputable articles while saving you time and keeping your sources organized. If you are struggling to find articles for your discipline on Web of Science, Scopus is an awesome alternative which is very similar but has a different format and has a slightly different selection of articles. For even more specialized databases, you can always check out the Library’s website. In addition, for those who prefer to save their library on their computer and not store it online, applications like Mendeley or Zotero have great tools for downloading and organizing PDF sources and automating citations.
The blank page at the very beginning of the writing process is one of the most difficult stages for me. I struggle with how to get started and feel overwhelmed by the amount of work ahead of me.
To avoid this blank page, I open a Word Document called “Notes” early on in the research process. As I sort through the ever-accumulating pile of books and articles on my desk, I copy the relevant quotes into the document, followed by the author’s name and the page number. Typically, only a fraction of these quotes actually make it into the paper, so it can be hard to know when to stop. The metric I’ve figured out is: when the notes document is double the length of the assignment, I know it’s time to begin drafting the paper.
As I write, this document becomes my primary resource for information and direct quotes. Because it’s consolidated in one file, it’s easily navigable and searchable. Sometimes, I reorganize the quotes into sections to guide my paragraph structure and overall argument.
In the past, this system has worked well for me. But in the past few weeks, two of my teachers have modeled an exciting new approach to organizing research materials: visual mapping. Continue reading Visualizing Your Argument
Data collection isn’t always the most exciting stage of a research project, but the payoff can make everything worth it. I’m currently deep into the data analysis portion of my thesis, running up against my draft deadline on March 1, and the dreaded Woodrow Wilson School deadline of April 3. I’m writing about asylum approval rates in the European Union and the United States for unaccompanied child migrants, or unaccompanied alien children (UAC) in the legal parlance. If the same law is applied across all regions, in theory, there should not be substantial variation in asylum grant rates — but the research literature and my preliminary findings demonstrate otherwise. Pulling together the data to calculate these preliminary findings, though, was much more difficult than I had anticipated — and I had to make a tough call about my data collection as I wrote up these findings. Continue reading Deluged in Data: Overcoming Obstacles in Data Collection
Firestone is my favorite Princeton resource – but it has its limits, especially when it comes to primary source material (see my previous post). If I can’t access a source through Firestone, my next step is generally the New York Public Library system. NYPL offers not only a beautiful place to study, but also a wide range of primary source material in their public collections.
I recently spent a day at the Schwarzman building on 42nd and 5th in order to access a microfilm copy of a Yiddish periodical published by Holocaust survivors in 1946. This was my first time researching at the NYPL and working with microfilm (the small reels of film used to store documents in pre-digitization libraries) – so I learned a lot in my few hours there.
When working with historical sources, particularly secondary sources, one has to consider the levels of mediation that the historical narrative has gone through before it finally reaches the researcher. We all have to use primary and secondary sources in our work. But something often overlooked is the extent to which there are degrees of truth, or what Stephen Colbert famously called “truthiness,” in the sources that we encounter. We learn in English class about the idea of the unreliable narrator. Well, the exact same thing applies when studying history. Except, with history, everyone is unreliable to some degree, as demonstrated by my reading of The Battles of Coxinga.
In a continuation of last year’s seasonal series, this winter, each PCUR will interview a Princeton alumnus from their home department about his/her experience writing a senior thesis. In Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: Alumni Perspectives, the alumni reveal how conducting independent research at Princeton influenced them academically, professionally, and personally. Here, Nicholas shares his interview.
Chris Lu ’88 was a member of the Obama administration, where he served as a Deputy Secretary of Labor, White House Cabinet Secretary, and Assistant to the President. He is now a Senior Strategy Advisor at FiscalNote and an At-Large Member of the Democratic National Committee. He also served as the senior news editor for the Daily Princetonian during his time at Princeton. With a long career in public service, he has some useful insights for those seeking to pursue careers in public affairs. I had the opportunity to speak with Chris about his experience writing a senior thesis in the Woodrow Wilson School and the enduring impact that policy research has had on his career. Here’s what he had to say:
What I’m most passionate about is immigration. How do people move? Why do they move? And what can we do to assist immigrant communities? While I’m not an immigrant myself, I’m the child of Chinese immigrants who came at a time when Chinese immigration was almost entirely restricted on a racial basis. When my grandparents came to America, only 105 Chinese immigrants per year were permitted entry into the United States. While I acknowledge that I speak from a position of natural-born citizenship, it is the struggles of modern undocumented immigrants that truly fuel my desire to research this field of policy.
The research process comes full circle — less than a year after finishing my Woodrow Wilson School task force as a junior writing a Junior Paper, I’m now serving as a Senior Commissioner for a task force about federal policy and poverty reduction in the United States. The job of the Senior Commissioner is to help lead class discussions, to assist juniors in the research process, and to collate everyone’s junior papers into a final briefing book at the end of the semester. Having been through the whole task force process before, it gives me a unique perspective to help guide juniors through their first steps into independent work.
I enrolled in GEO/WRI 201, Measuring Climate Change: Methods in Data Analysis & Scientific Writing, last Fall to challenge myself and learn how to integrate field work, scientific analysis, and writing. Although I already had cursory experience in these areas thanks to a Freshman Seminar on Biogeochemistry in the Everglades and a summer of assisting ecological fieldwork in Mozambique, I had never created and executed my own field project from start to finish. In my naiveté, I presumed that although the course would be difficult, I would conduct research that had a clear and established “finish-line”—and that I would reach it.
My project centered around quantifying changes in vegetation cover in Utah over the past twenty years using satellite imagery. The first couple months of the class were frustrating and I floundered across the deadlines. Most of the science courses I had taken offered a framework: a set of given questions with specific, correct answers. In real research, I found, you must create the questions—and they don’t necessarily have “correct” answers.
Successful research is based on convincing motive that builds off of key literature to contextualize and explain the broader importance of a specific research question.
Despite my struggles, the project seemed to be coming along. Using images from multiple Landsat satellites, I created a beautiful figure showing a steep decline in vegetation tightly correlated with rising temperatures and decreasing rainfall. Genuine results linking changing climate to remotely sensed vegetation! I was thrilled.
However, after weeks of writing and data analysis, I discovered that the seemingly important trends I was writing about were–to put it bluntly–garbage. In a peer review session, another student in the class hypothesized that the apparent decline in vegetation might be simply an artifact of comparing imagery from different Landsat satellites. I scoffed–but I also started to worry.