This year, I have faced the scary reality of being a senior, and more significant still, a senior in my final semester of Princeton. In addition to all the more sentimental considerations attached to the reality of an imminent graduation, I have also had another topic on my mind — my senior thesis.
Independent research or “independent work” in Princeton slang, is one of the defining elements of the Princeton experience. Most Princeton students complete a research assignment or essay their junior year (the Junior Paper or “JP”) and then all Princeton students, with the exception of B.S.E. computer science concentrators, write a senior thesis.
The thesis requires each student to develop a unique research idea, pushing us to crystalize four years of learning into an ambitious project. Yet, the very ambitious nature of the work means that it’s not a solitary enterprise. A strong support network is a must and your thesis adviser is an essential part of that network.
I had my own fears about thesis advisers. What if mine was too busy to respond to my emails, didn't hold me to deadlines or even had rigid, unrealistic expectations?
Yet, I know from personal experience that a good relationship with your adviser can really make the experience. While naturally shy and not typically assertive, during my time at Princeton I have learned how lucky I am to be surrounded by the world’s greatest scholars, almost all of whom are easily accessible. If such scholars are willing to meet regularly and help me make my own small contribution to an academic field, I would be remiss to ignore the opportunity to engage fully.
In the end, my experience with independent work and with professors at Princeton has shown that it pays to speak up, to ask questions, to be assertive about your needs and to admit when things are not going well. Positive relations forged with my advisers have allowed me to learn so much more via the process of my independent work and develop important skills that will prove relevant in my life after Princeton. While I have hit plenty of frustrating road blocks in my own independent work journey (and my thesis is not finished yet!!), I have learned so much from my adviser and the countless other professors and graduate students who were willing, even happy, to take the time to read over a difficult document with me or ponder an interesting historical question.
As such, independent work, and working with advisers, is not something to fear or dread. Rather, if approached right, it has the potential to be one of the most meaningful parts of your Princeton experience.