A Freshman’s Guide to Writing a Research Policy Memo

The freshman seminars are one of the unique experiences at Princeton. While they may seem intimidating at first, they made me think of the process of research in my very first year in college. Not everyone might become a full-time researcher – I, for example, want to become a policy analyst – but many of our jobs will involve research, and the structure of the freshman seminar is very conducive to the research process. In the Economics of Immigration seminar that I took with Professor Leah Boustan during Fall 2019, we discussed aspects of the economic effects of immigration both on the receiving country and on the migrants themselves. Our final deliverable was a research policy memo – a document that describes a policy intervention by the government, by first arguing the need for it, then describing its advantages, and finally proposing a way by which it might be implemented. In order to write an effective memo, I had to research an issue that necessitated looking at it from diverse points of view. The process made me appreciate several principles of writing a policy memo.

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4 Tips to Organize Your Lost Folders and Misplaced Files

While I was working to finalize my research this summer, I realized something: I couldn’t find one of my sources central to my argument. Pouring through my various folders on my computer, I could not find this source. Between Excel sheets with undescriptive names and misplaced images, it wasn’t just that my source was missing; I lacked an entirely well-formulated, well-maintained organizational structure to keep track of my work.

If anything, organization should be easier in the digital space. Besides bytes, we’re not necessarily concerned with finding the space to store our papers, books, and other materials; in fact, we can create folders upon folders, meticulously grouping related works together to keep track of them.

But this is the trap. While I’ll see the mess before me on my desk, I don’t necessarily see that all of my folders are disorganized until I need to find something. I don’t see that I stored images for my essay on my Google Drive rather than in that class’s folder. In my experience, computer storage may facilitate organization, but it also hides potential messes from you until you need to find that one file for your assignment or research. And even if you’re the type of person where all of your work is spilled out onto your home screen, sifting through the documents at times is surely a nightmare.

So, I wanted to outline some of the steps that I’ve taken this school year to make sure that everything remains organized in this weird digital setting:

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Archival Research in the Age of COVID-19: Requesting Document Scans from Libraries

When I first applied for departmental senior thesis funding early this spring, everyone was still uncertain about how long the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic would last. It seemed departmental administrators were optimistic: funding requests could still be made for summer travel. In my application, I detailed my intent to travel to university and state archives throughout the U.S. south for a thesis examining how antebellum Mississippi Valley planters conceptualized the idea of labor. But before I even heard back about whether I was to receive support, the department updated its funding parameters to prohibit summer travel and I had to redo my application in turn. My summer plans, of course, were not the first academic casualty of the strange 2020 world; nor would they be the last. Fortunately, though, there were ways to work around my newfound limitations: all of the archives that I wanted to visit offered services for resident librarians to scan and send materials from their collection, so I updated my application to ask for funds to pay for associated fees. Here, I’ll be sharing some tips for requesting archival materials to be scanned, which I hope will be helpful to any researcher unable to travel (pandemic or not).

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Five Tips for a Regret-Free Thesis Summer

I remember feeling blindsided by thesis talk my junior spring. I was in the middle of my second JP—I didn’t have a topic, an adviser, or any idea where to start. But I knew I needed to start my research in the summer before senior year. If I had learned anything from my JPs, it was that I would need all the time I could get to complete a research project of this scale.  

Juniors: whether you’ve already applied for thesis funding or haven’t yet thought about your thesis at all, now is the time to make a summer thesis plan. Remember: every hour you invest over the summer is an hour saved during the semester, when you’ll be back to balancing coursework, job/grad school applications, and extracurricular obligations. 

This summer, I was doing an internship in São Paulo, but I spent my evenings and weekends at a local library, reading sources for my thesis. It wasn’t fun, but I’ve thanked myself for it every day this year.

As I prepare to submit my thesis this month, I’ve thought back to my own junior spring and collected five things I wish I’d known before my thesis summer: 

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No Argument? Return to Your Research Question

Last semester, I fell in love with a cemetery. I had been interested in the processes of death and dying during the height of the AIDS epidemic in New York City and hoped to write one (or more) of my final papers about the topic. A quick series of Google searches led me to Hart Island, a public cemetery where nearly a million unclaimed or indigent people are buried, including many victims of AIDS. I was fascinated. I read everything I could find about Hart Island, watched over a dozen YouTube videos, and even scheduled a visit to the cemetery with a friend.

By the time reading period came along, I had over forty pages of notes about this cemetery. But I had no idea how to write a paper about it. When I met with one of my professors to ask for help, I started to share all of the data I had collected about this site—its history, its design, its present-day controversies. After a few minutes of this, she intervened: “Great, but what’s your question?” I looked at her blankly. “Do you have a question about this site?”

Photograph of burials at Hart Island, ca. 1890.

Developing a research question is hardly a new idea. It’s emphasized in the Writing Seminar curriculum, and professors often require us to articulate questions at the early stages of our projects. But once we get buried in the work itself—collecting data, writing, meeting deadlines and assignment requirements—it can be easy to forget why we’re writing at all.

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Preparing for a Lab-Heavy Semester

As I began choosing my courses for next semester, I knew I had to take CBE core lab, as this is a requirement for the concentration during the spring semester of junior year. In addition, I was really excited about conducting independent work in a new bioengineering lab, which I am hoping will be the lab that I stay in for my senior thesis. With both 7 hours of core lab per week and an expectation of 20 hours of independent work per week, I know I will be spending a lot of time in the lab next semester, so I have started to prepare for that. If you are also taking core lab while doing independent work, or if you are enrolled in multiple lab-courses, such as chemistry, molecular biology and physics at the same time, you will likely need to plan ahead. In this post, I will offer tips on how to prepare for a lab-heavy semester: 

Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite (2013)
Lab hours can quickly add up, especially if you are not organized with your time. Begin planning your schedule for a lab-heavy semester early in order to set your own expectations for you project.
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Research: Have Fun With It!

The second time I met with my independent Junior Paper adviser this semester, I was nervous. I had decided following our first meeting that I wanted this JP to be the continuation of research I had, at that point, started nearly two years before (that project on the 1848 revolutions that keeps popping up in my posts), and I was apprehensive to present ideas that I felt might be stale; at the time, I struggled to think of ways to expand the project to something more mature than what I had begun as a first year student. Plus, I was feeling reluctant to be finishing up a project I had been working on for most of my college career.

My adviser and I discussed some of these concerns of mine, and right before I left, he smiled and said, “Alec, have fun with it.” He repeated this phrase at many of our weekly meetings, especially if I came feeling overwhelmed by often self-imposed worries. It was usually paired with a reassuring statement: “You know more than you think you know.” I knew more than I think I knew, and I was going to have fun. 

Me “having fun” with my research, back in the summer of 2018!
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Connecting with Scholars beyond Princeton

It’s been almost four years, and the generosity of Princeton faculty continues to surprise me. So many professors here are not just accessible to students, but deeply invested in supporting us in and outside of the classroom. It typically isn’t too hard to find at least one research mentor among our 950 full-time faculty.

Nevertheless, one institution’s faculty cannot possibly cover every sub-field or research topic. This has become especially apparent as I’ve moved towards the specificity required of a thesis project. In my case, no professor on campus studies Vilna, the Eastern European city at the center of my thesis.

A newsboy in Vilna in the early twentieth century. Without guidance from professors at other institutions, I probably wouldn’t have selected this fascinating city as my thesis topic!

Of course, there are ways around this. For one, there is probably a professor on campus whose area of expertise has something in common with your project. My thesis adviser does not work on Eastern Europe, for example, but she is an expert in writing urban histories. So even though Vilna is new to her, she has been invaluable in guiding my methodology and argumentation.

She has also encouraged me to reach out to faculty and graduate students in other departments and at other institutions who might be more familiar with Vilna itself. Connecting with these scholars has turned out to be one of the most valuable aspects of my thesis process thus far. I’ve compiled some tips for accessing the rich academic network beyond your particular department or university.

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Why You Should Join a Research Journal: An Interview with PURJ Co-Editor-in-Chief Jasper Lee ’21

Since coming to Princeton, I’ve become involved in diverse publishing and editing opportunities. One of the first undergraduate publications I joined was PURJ, the Princeton Undergraduate Research Journal. As a member of the Peer Review Board for PURJ, I learned more about the peer review process in academic research publications and had the opportunity to review manuscript pieces spanning incredibly diverse disciplines from the undergraduate body. In contrast to some other more specialized journals I’m involved in, such as Unfound, Princeton’s Journal of Asian American Studies, PURJ is a truly multidisciplinary publication that showcases work from the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, engineering, and arts. 

To learn more about the perks of being involved in a research journal, I interviewed Jasper Lee ’21, the current Co-Editor in Chief of PURJ. A molecular biology major, he first joined PURJ as a member of the Peer Review Board and then took on the role of Managing Editor of Peer Review. Here’s what Jasper shared about his experience with PURJ: 

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Staying Up-to-Date with Lab Literature Readings

Lab readings can be less time consuming than simply opening up a science journal and reading through every abstract for papers relevant to your research! 

When beginning a new lab project, whether it is a summer internship, independent work, or a senior thesis, your mentors will likely present you with academic papers relevant to your topic. This will help you begin to frame your experiments and the overarching goals of your research.

But once you understand enough background to begin, staying up to date with recent papers can be difficult, especially when you are balancing course work, extracurriculars, and other commitments in addition to planning and conducting experiments. In my experience, I found it difficult to sit down and do broad scholarly searches on a research topic as I first did when starting a new project. However, strategies such as using library resources and speaking with others in the department facilitated this process. In this post, I will give tips on how to stay current with laboratory news and advances, specifically with STEM research. 

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