De-Mystifying the Black Box Part 2: Research Abroad and Narrowing Everything Down

I went to Paris! Not just for fun—although it’s a dope city—but to get some thesis research done to narrow down a topic. In the first part of this series, I mentioned how I submitted an application for funding to research advertisements in museum archives and libraries in Paris. My goal was to narrow down the initial research question I had at the very beginning of my research process: how Public Service Announcements (PSAs) subvert the capitalist practices within traditional commercial advertising. My goal was to see the advertisements that inspired the French theorists I’ll be drawing from in my thesis. But, alas, there was one problem—when faced with an entire archive of advertisements, where do I even begin??

Some pretty iconic French ads I was inspired by at the Museum of Decorative Arts

I spent most of my time at the Bibliothèque Forney, a library specializing in design and the decorative arts. I emailed ahead of time to speak with one of the librarians, who wanted to get a sense of my argument and which advertisements he could direct me into researching according to my response. After explaining my general thesis topic and the research I had done in my previous two JPs (pro-tip: explaining a thesis topic in a foreign language is a good marker for how well you understand it—or rather how much you don’t), he responded bluntly: “You really need to narrow this down.” My face fell. That’s exactly what I was trying to do, the very reason I was in that library. I didn’t have a corpus of ads, which is what I was in search for in Paris. I had kind of hoped to look at a vast layout of ads and just be naturally drawn to an era, a medium, a theme, or product, but I quickly realized it was far too unrealistic to be able to survey three hundred years of French advertisements and just hope that a few of them would speak to me so I could write eighty pages about them. The librarian asked me how much time I had to write my thesis, suggesting one to two years, and I chuckled, slightly panicked, and said “six months.”

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How to Get to Know Your Department

Every department offers wonderful opportunities. For instance, departments offer seminars, special lectures, opportunities for internships or grants, study abroad programs, amongst other things. But to take advantage of these opportunities, it is important to know your department well. As a sophomore, one of the biggest challenges for me this year has been familiarizing myself with my own department, chemical and biological engineering (CBE).

In this post, I will provide some tips on how to get to know your department by describing how I engaged with CBE.

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Demystifying the “Black Box” Part I: Holy Moly I Have to Write a Thesis

This is it. After an R3, two JPs, and the countless research papers in between, I’m expected to craft the 15,000 to 20,000-word magnum opus of my Princeton career. And I have to say, I still don’t really know how it’s all going to go down.

There’s something I like to call the “black box” of every Princeton student’s research career. You’re given a massive independent research project to undertake, then some wizardry happens in Firestone, a lab, or studio, and voilà everything is complete! This second “magical” step is the black box: no one from the outside can see what goes into the project’s actual assembly. We only see stress as a side effect of this mystical process, and then a final product. Throughout the year, I hope to demystify this black box by revealing my own thesis-writing process: the highs, lows, brainstorming, writing, and of course, the research.


The “black box” metaphor is actually computing jargon for a system only understood in terms of inputs and outputs, with its inner workings remaining mysterious. To paraphrase one of my favorite movies Se7en, “What’s in the [thesis] box?” We’ll find out together!
So what does writing my thesis look like in its initial stages? Right now I’m still brainstorming and narrowing down my thesis topic, which will be about how Public Service Announcements (PSAs) subvert the capitalist practices within traditional commercial advertising, using some French theory as a lens (shout out to the Department of French and Italian!). Fortunately and unfortunately that’s a broad topic with nearly infinite directions, so I’m working on figuring out more specific direction.

I’m beginning this process by looking at my JPs, which also dealt with my thesis topic, but used a small number of specific examples. Both papers were divided into sections where I argued different points, and while re-reading them, I’m treating each section as if it were its own paper related to my thesis. I’m asking myself questions like: Assuming I had ten more pages to write for each section, which other theories could I incorporate to corroborate the arguments I was making? How can I specifically incorporate the topic of capitalism? How would different theorists critique my arguments, and how can this inform a strong rebuttal?

Continue reading Demystifying the “Black Box” Part I: Holy Moly I Have to Write a Thesis

How to Manage Your Research Tasks: Learning How to Use Trello

I’ve gotten to the point with my thesis at which I’m both writing new content and struggling to edit the ever-expanding volume of work I’ve already written. At times, this seems like an insurmountable task. How am I supposed to finish editing my literature review while also doing the data collection and drafting of my main chapters of my thesis?

The Trello Logo

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When Work is Playtime: Reflections on the Creative Process

In between classes, extracurriculars, and my Spanish and Portuguese thesis, I’ve spent the last year developing a new musical that runs Thursday May 11 through Sunday May 14 — Beautiful Girls: A Musical Playdate. Developed with two other theater certificate students, the play uses music by Stephen Sondheim to explore themes of friendship, queerness, and identity, and how all of these can and cannot be distilled in the clothes we wear. Looking back on this yearlong project, I realize it has helped me reconnect with what makes both research and creative work so fulfilling: the freedom to explore, improvise, and think beyond what has already been made.

The show runs only 45 minutes. Tickets are free, and may be reserved at: https://tickets.princeton.edu/Online/default.asp

When we started the project, we knew just a couple things about the show: 1) There would be only three actors: the three thesis students. 2) We would use songs by the versatile composer Stephen Sondheim. 3) We would queer this material by performing songs from a number of Sondheim’s shows, regardless of each character’s gender, personality, or “type.”

At our first production meeting, Vince, the music director, suggested it could be wildly fun to put our own mark on each song: adding voice parts to solos, layering different songs on top of each other, or even changing musical styles. This would require weekly sessions for musical improvisation. Rather than calling these “music rehearsals,” which implied some sort of set music to learn, we decided to call them “musical playdates.”

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Looking Back on Undergraduate Research: A Conversation with Shayla Reid ‘15

This semester, 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, Dylan shares his interview.

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When I learned that Shayla Reid ’15 was in New Jersey for her winter break, I jumped on the opportunity to interview her for this blog. She currently works as a Fellow through Princeton in Africa at Young 1ove, an organization in Gaborone, Botswana that implements health and education programming for youth. A Spanish and Portuguese concentrator at Princeton, she was one of the people who convinced me to major in the department. And now, as I began to write my own thesis, I was excited to get her insights.

Shayla, back left, shares a fun moment with coworkers from Young 1ove in Botswana

Shayla’s thesis — “Mulher como protagonista”: Women’s Experiences with Parto Humanizado in São Paulo, Brazil — dealt with childbirth in Brazil, particularly the country’s high C-section rate. Though surgical intervention is only necessary when complications arise, in Brazil nearly 60-70% of all births in public hospitals are C-sections, and upwards of 90% in private ones. Though she was interested in the cultural reasons behind the high C-section rates, she also sought more personal experiences. Thus, as a Princeton Brazil Global Fellow, she spent the summer of 2014 in São Paulo. Paired with an adviser at the local university, she began to visit women’s health groups, interviewing women to see how they navigated the health care system in order to achieve fulfilling childbirth experiences.

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Frankensteining my Thesis: Writing Without an Outline

In middle school, I remember being told that the best way to write an essay is with an outline. We would receive five-paragraph-essay worksheets, complete with a thesis statement, sub-arguments, and important supporting information. It was direct, simple, and structured.

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Remember these outlines? Things were so easy back then. And, yes, your teacher probably used Comic Sans!

In this post, I hope to advocate for a different sort of writing. Outlines are certainly helpful organizational tools. But as I delve into my thesis, I find myself taking a more free-form approach. As I have previously written, I am writing on the legacy of pioneer Brazilian art therapist Nise da Silveira. Based on two months of ethnographic research, my thesis is about how da Silveira’s image is evoked and utilized by people who continue similar work. I have lots of interesting ideas, but no single, unifying argument. While writing an outline might be useful down the road, right now it would impose a limiting structure on my thought process.

Instead, I have decided to do what my friend Lily calls “Frankensteining.” To her, writing an essay is like creating Frankenstein’s monster: you have to find all the parts before you can sew them together and create a body. Lily explains:

“I think you need to Frankenstein when you’re developing any kind of complex argument because you can’t know what you’re going to say until you start figuring it out and seeing how different insights fit together. It’s writing as a nonlinear process — you don’t brainstorm and then write. They happen at the same time.”

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Reading Your “Script”: What Theater Can Teach You About Research

The more I do theater, the more I understand its parallels to academic research.

Recently, I attended a workshop with John Doyle, the renowned theater director and Princeton professor. He shared two details of how he begins a creative process. First, he reads the script only a few times before beginning rehearsals. Rather than getting mired in the script’s details, he likes to let ideas brew and leave space for his collaborators’ input. Second, he stresses the importance of entering rehearsals with unanswered questions — because if you already know the answers, your questions aren’t rich enough, and there’s little point in bringing people together.

Approaching my first thesis meeting, I’ve been thinking about this advice.

As I have written (both here and here), I spent this summer in Rio de Janeiro, researching the legacy of art-therapy pioneer Nise da Silveira. During that time, I conducted over 15 interviews, attended numerous workshops, and collected various books and documents. Recorded on audio files and scribbled in notebooks, these constitute — in a sense — my “script.” It is a body of research so juicy, varied, and detailed, that it tempts me to dive right in and begin working my way through problems.

Yet, as I prepare for my first meeting, the most helpful thing I can do is not read over all this material. Delving in right away, I would get lost in details before I have a sense of what interests me. For the moment, it is more valuable to step away from my “script” and reflect. To think critically about my two months in Brazil. To ponder what confused me and what seemed contradictory. To come up with questions that I cannot yet answer.

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Snapshot from the Lewis Center’s production of Elektra in February 2016. I’m the possessed-Chorus-maid on the right!

This strategy has worked for me in theater. Last year, in Elektra, I acted in the two-person Greek Chorus. Following our first read-through, we developed some big questions about the Chorus: Who are we? Why are we here? What makes us otherworldly? What grounds us in the physical world?

These questions, for the most part, went unanswered. But asking them from the start gave us time to test out answers every day, playing with different kinds of movement, costume, intonation — and, of course, finding new details in the script.

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Underclassmen: Make the Most of Thesis Season!

March Madness takes on a whole new meaning for Princeton seniors, who are working hard to stay ahead of upcoming thesis deadlines. With submission dates as early as next week, many seniors spent their spring breaks finishing up data collection, editing their drafts, and attending thesis-geared events (like bootcamps).

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The pollen on my doorstep scared me multiple times over break.

I spent my break watching basketball, being terrified of pollen every time I left my house, and sleeping for over 12 hours a day… But, now that I’m back on campus I thought it would be a good idea to ask seniors a few questions about their projects. Until this semester, I knew almost nothing about the thesis process that defines senior life in the months before graduation. Previously, most of my conversations with my senior friends would go something like:

Me: Hey, how’s the thesis coming along?

Senior: (Groan)

Me: You’ll get through it! Only a few more weeks!

And so I thought it might be time for me to ask more meaningful questions (given that my previous interactions only seemed to remind everyone of all the work they had left).

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Research lifeline: Phone a friend

It’s the first thing you have to do before you really start that research paper: nail down the thesis.  After reading a few articles and narrowing down your focus, you’ve come up with a general idea for your argument, which is an important first step. However, until that idea is packaged in a strong and shiny statement, your paper has likely reached an impasse.

Of course, the thesis results from first asking a research question, trying to explain some phenomenon you’ve observed.  The goal is to answer the question innovatively and assertively, advancing something both original and powerful enough to change the debate on an issue.

But who said questions have to be rhetorical?

When I’ve settled on a topic but haven’t advanced past the thesis-planning stage, I like to ask my question out loud — so I give my sisters a call.  Both are graduate students, one in library and information science and the other in education, so their responses are a good way to test my ideas. I know I’m ready to seriously start writing if they both recognize the goal of my argument.

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Frist has phones, which means you can assess your argument on the way to late meal…

That doesn’t mean I want my sisters to always agree with me. In fact, the opposite can be much more useful (and is, admittedly, much more common).  A classic example: asking my oldest sister “Would you accept that Jersey Shore represents a modern version of the American frontier myth?” made her question more than just my thesis.  Continue reading Research lifeline: Phone a friend