A couple days after my admission to Princeton, I opened my mailbox to find a thick orange envelope. Inside were a series of pamphlets and flyers that would prepare me for my time at Princeton, discussing everything from student life to the Novogratz Bridge Year Program. After poring through those materials, and the University’s corresponding online resources, I came away with two key impressions. The first was that Princetonians really love the color orange (it’s true!). The second was that students really care about research.
Even after looking online, I couldn’t truly picture what “research” might mean for a student like me. I knew I was interested in social sciences and the humanities, and I’d always imagined “researchers” wearing white coats and goggles at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It wasn’t until my writing seminar at Princeton — a mandatory class for first-year students that introduces a variety of research methods and principles — that I got a grasp of what academic research outside of the scientific disciplines might look like. Even then, as I was reading through and analyzing academic articles at a new, rigorous level, I wasn’t sure how I was ever going to come up with a topic to research myself. How was I, a public school kid from the suburbs, going to come up with an original research topic with academic merit?
I’ll let you in on a secret: it’s not as hard as you think. Every student at Princeton is required to produce a senior thesis as well as independent work during their junior year. What all that work has in common is that it represents an exploration of something each student is passionate about. As you declare your concentration (our word for major) as a sophomore and delve into your chosen field, you’ll discover with your professors that there are myriad questions left unanswered in your discipline’s literature. There is so much we don’t know! And there’s no way you won’t be curious about it. Many incoming students are under the misguided belief that their independent work has to be revolutionary somehow — that their findings have to be game-changers if they want to get an A or the respect of their professors. What they inevitably find, however, is that academic progress is oftentimes made up of minute contributions to larger questions. It’s bit by bit that many of society’s biggest questions are answered. It’s your job as a researcher to add another piece to the puzzle.
Princeton is a community of student researchers. That really does include every student — no student has ever graduated without turning in a research project. And don’t worry, there’s no chance you’ll be the first. Research can seem daunting, especially to students in disciplines not typically associated with “research.” But it’s nowhere near as nerve-wracking as you think, and the curiosity you’ll develop as a Princeton student will leave you with many more leads than you could ever research.