Independent research is an essential part of the Princeton undergraduate experience. Independent work offers students the opportunity to develop their skills at defining a project, conducting research, and completing a full-length scholarly project. Although students work with a faculty adviser or workshop leader, much of the responsibility for defining, executing, and writing up the research is left up to them.
Because it is less an assignment than a matter of personal choice, independent work should be the peak of a student’s University career. We intend for these notes to help make independent work easier and more rewarding.
We have divided the advice into six sections:
- Consulting faculty advisers
- Choosing topics
- Testing solutions
- Principles of ethical interviewing
- Library resources
- Writing the paper
You should maintain close contact with your official adviser or workshop leader, but this should not stop you from consulting any other member of the faculty who might be helpful.
Try to approach faculty with thoughtful questions and in sufficient time for an answer to be useful. It helps to be as specific as possible; there is no helpful response to the student who says, "I don't know what I want to write about." Ask for reading suggestions or judgments about debates in the literature. It may be quite effective to ask for comments on what you have already written.
For the senior thesis, the range of topics is as broad as the subject of Politics itself. For junior papers, the range is somewhat more restricted, but not greatly so.
The Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library has a complete listing of recent theses topics. They include:
- China: pattern of responses to external threat
- Suburban zoning and the public interest
- The political influence of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart: An empirical analysis
- The defeat of the tax reform proposal in New Jersey
- Marx and Lenin on bureaucracy
- Post-conflict military occupations: An analysis of critical controllable factors
- Newark and Black national politics
- Waking the "sleeping giant": The mobilization of Latino voters and their rightward shift in recent presidential elections
- Civil disobedience
- Fascism and eugenics
- The political side of Bob Dylan
- Environmental politics and electric power
- The intelligence capabilities of the Department of Homeland Security
- Origins of American containment policy in Asia
Selecting a topic is a crucial step. Try to choose a subject with which you have some familiarity and in which you have genuine interest.
If you are having trouble thinking of a topic, it may help to do some general reading or to run potential ideas past your advisers. It may also help to think of your topic in terms of a research objective or a problem to be solved.
It is prudent to begin thinking about a senior thesis topic in your junior year. Often, students write their second junior paper on a topic that they hope will lead into the thesis. While some discover that the subject is not the one they want after all, others wind up with a head-start on their senior work. Of course, students who choose a topic early generally have the best choice of advisers.
You are near to selecting a specific topic when you can begin to answer the following questions:
- What is/are the problem(s)? What is it that I want to learn more about? The answer here can be very broad; for example, "I'd like to learn more about American Politics, or about Congress, or about political campaigns."
- Which of these problems or aspect(s) of this problem do I want to examine? Now, the topic begins to narrow. If, for example, you would like to learn more about elections, you might want to know how voters make up their minds about which candidate to choose.
- Which of these problems can I examine, given the time and resources available to me? This prudential question further narrows the topic. For example, realizing that you lack the time and money needed to do your own voter survey, you might decide to restrict yourself to presidential elections since 1948, where data is already available.
You should then decide how you want to approach the problem:
- Do I want to define the problem more closely? (Do I want to do a descriptive project?)
- Do I want to explain how it got to be the problem that it is? (Do I want to do a historical analysis of a political problem?)
- Do I want to explain the effects of this problem on current and future developments? (Do I want to do what is often called "policy analysis"?)
- Do I want to offer a solution to the problem? (Do I want to do political analysis of a very high, difficult, and rewarding order?)
The best theses combine all of these objectives. A junior paper may be able successfully to attack two of these, though usually it can do only one well.
Because the first three sorts of questions listed above are familiar to most students in the social sciences, we offer special advice for those students who want to “offer a solution” as part of their independent work.
First, you should be careful not to try to answer this question unless you have enough time and material available to do the research to provide such answers.
If you decide to travel this challenging route, you should again rethink the problem. Making a list of the most probable solutions may be helpful. Then you will be able to think about how to test those solutions, whether by analyzing data or by examining the logical relations among propositions.
In practice, you will need to combine empirical and logical approaches. Logic is an essential component of empirical analysis, and statistics provide a useful set of tools to accompany logical analysis.
In discussing normative solutions, one cannot be content with abstract analysis. Students should try to apply normative concepts to actual behavior and see whether they are possible in the real world. A solution to problems of distributive justice in the modern state that concluded, "We must pass a law requiring all men and women to love each other as they love themselves" would hardly seem useful, given what we know about human behavior.
(For examples of this sort of analysis, you might look at chapter two of a small book by John Platt, The Step to Man (New York: John Wiley, 1966). In that chapter, entitled "Strong Inference," Platt suggests how, with a bit of ingenuity, one can "test" solutions to difficult problems without making each particular test a lifetime's occupation and how one can use those tests to build a corpus of reliable knowledge.)
One common form of empirical work is to conduct interviews, either to provide basic data or to supplement information available elsewhere. You should not attempt to do interviews until you know your subject well enough to ask the right questions.
Princeton University has a legal responsibility to protect the interests of all human subjects in research done under University auspices, including that done by students for their independent work. In the context of the kind of research most often done by Politics students, that means protection of the rights of respondents or informants interviewed in the course of research. Please review the Institutional Review Board (IRB) guidelines here.
Human subjects have the following rights:
- Participation in research must always occur under conditions of informed consent. You should make clear your connection to the Politics Department at Princeton , and the purpose of your research (Junior Paper or Senior Thesis). A researcher may not coerce respondents into participating in a study. It must be clear that participation is voluntary, that participation may cease any time the respondent desires, and in particular that the respondent need not answer a question if he/she would prefer not to. It should also be made clear to the respondent how his or her answers will be used in the research (quoted verbatim or paraphrased).
- Deception may not be used to obtain an interview. You may not, for example, make an appointment with a public official to discuss some policy when your real interest is to learn about his sex life.
- The interview may not place the respondent at legal, social, economic or psychological risk. For example, information that might cause a respondent to be fired ("How did you use your unspent campaign funds?") may be obtained only if your informant understands the implications of what he/she is saying. Potentially embarrassing questions should be put directly, so that their implications are clear to the respondent. Questions that the respondent has declined to answer should not be repeated in an insistent or demanding way.
- It must be made clear to the respondent whether the interview will be confidential or whether he/she will be identified by name. If you promise confidentiality, you may give others access to your notes, transcripts or tapes only if they contain no identifying information. Descriptions of individuals in the finished product must not allow an informed reader to identify the respondent ("An actor-turned-politician now living in Washington told me...").
Most interviewing done for independent work in the Politics Department will easily meet these guidelines. However, if you have any doubts about whether your research topic, method of recruiting respondents, or interviewing procedures meet these guidelines, then contact the Junior or Senior Independent Work Adviser about your project. They will be happy to discuss with you ways to conduct your research in an ethical way that will avoid legal repercussions for Princeton University and yourself.
The University has rich library resources. The Fall Junior Workshops will include library sessions that introduce you to some of these resources. It is essential that you attend these sessions.
Please feel free to consult some of the many excellent reference librarians on Princeton ’s campus. Many times, these librarians know about items that faculty members do not.
Outside of Firestone’s general collection, consider consulting:
- The Public Administration Collection in the Social Science Reference Center , located on the A-level of Firestone)
- The Industrial Relations Library, also on Firestone’s A-level
- The Woodrow Wilson School Library
- The Urban and Environmental Planning Library in the Architecture School
- The Library in the Office of Population Research
- The library in the Research Services section in the Computer Center
- The Mudd Library, which contains papers of some prominent statesmen and copies of thousands of past senior theses
- The Politics Department’s files of prize-winning senior theses
For most students this part seems the most difficult. But if you have defined what it is you want to do, have decided how to go about it, and have actually gone about it intelligently, it is seldom difficult to explain what you have done. Simply following those steps, providing one writes clear, grammatical prose, will usually ensure at least a good paper.
None of us, of course, wants to proceed--or to think--mechanically, so as you do your research, jot down some insights to guide your writing. Even if the "insights" later seem less insightful, they will remind you of difficulties that you once saw and now need to address.
We suggest that you buy, read, and internalize a good manual on style, such as William Strunk, Jr. & E. B. White, The Elements of Style (3rd ed. or later), Thomas S. Kane, The New Oxford Guide to Writing, or Joseph Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. We also recommend a book on the methodology of studying Politics, such as W. Phillips Shively, The Craft of Political Research. The Princeton Writing Program distributes an excellent manual by Ian Gold, "Writing a JP: The Handbook", along with other materials. And in general:
- Avoid writing (and most of all thinking) in the passive voice.
- Avoid clichés or jargon.
- Express your thoughts as clearly as possible.
- Check your spelling with a dictionary or a spell-checker – but remember that computer spell-checking programs are not infallible!
- Follow, and if necessary relearn, the rules of English grammar.
- Begin to write in sufficient time that you can read the paper over both before and after typing it. If at all possible, finish the paper several days or a week in advance of the deadline, put it aside, and reread it after the details have receded a bit from the center of your memory. If you have a friendship that can stand severe strain, you might even read your paper --or portions of a thesis -- to your roommate. The ear can sometimes catch flaws that the eye misses.
- Do not wait until an hour before the deadline to print a final copy. Every semester, some students get caught up in last-minute technical problems that damage their final grades. It is a good idea to print a final copy of your junior paper or final copies of your thesis at least one full day before it is due to allow time for technical problems to be resolved.
The Writing Center offers free one‑on-one conferences with experienced fellow writers trained to consult on assignments in any discipline. Special 80-minute conferences are available for JP and Senior Thesis writers at any stage in the writing process, including brainstorming how to use specific pieces of evidence, constructing literature reviews, outlining argument structure, or crafting conclusions. No written work is necessary to discuss the writing process with a fellow. Juniors and seniors may sign up to work with a graduate student fellow from the department of their choice at: http://www.princeton.edu/writing/appt. Additionally, Independent Work Mentors from the Writing Center prepare workshops and programming to aid juniors and seniors in their research. Students should regularly check or subscribe to the Princeton Undergraduate Research Calendar (PURC) for upcoming programing, which cover topics ranging from preparing funding proposals to note taking, and from making an argument to draft review.