New independent work guides help students complete 'signature' Princeton experience

The senior thesis is the capstone of many Princeton undergraduate careers — but how do students actually go about writing one? A new initiative by the Office of the Dean of the College helps answer that question, charting a course from the seeds of an idea to the final grade and all of the requirements, resources and deadlines in between.

The new Guides to Independent Work provide a roadmap for seniors and guidance for juniors majoring in one of the University's 34 academic departments. At Princeton, every candidate for a Bachelor of Arts completes a senior thesis and junior paper or project, and every candidate for a Bachelor of Science in Engineering completes a substantial independent project during their course of studies. Some students also complete an independent project as part of the University's 47 certificate programs, though the guides focus on academic majors.

"The guides will be enormously valuable to students as they select and then make their way through their concentrations," Dean of the College Valerie Smith said. "They will also provide guidance for visiting and new faculty who are unfamiliar with the process of advising students on independent work."

Deputy Dean of the College Clayton Marsh said the guides reflect Princeton's extraordinary commitment to independent work as the signature experience of a liberal arts education.

"The process of producing a senior thesis gives many of our students their fullest opportunity to develop and demonstrate a broad range of qualities and skills that will serve them well in their many endeavors after college," Marsh said.

While the guides share common elements, each department wrote its own version to convey specific expectations, standards and tips. The guides include: a portrait of the academic field; an overview of the research process and main learning objectives of independent work; key dates and deadlines; faculty adviser information; campus research and writing resources; guidelines for submitting independent work; and grading standards.

Many departments already conveyed elements of this information to students, but few had an all-encompassing resource. During the past year, staff in the Office of the Dean of the College and the Princeton Writing Program collaborated with faculty in departments to create the comprehensive guides.

"Departments were able to express their own academic culture and vision of independent work through the guides," said Pascale Poussart, director of undergraduate research at the Office of the Dean of the College. "We encouraged faculty writing the guides to think like a student and address questions they hear over and over again from students."

Approaches to these questions varied. Some guides, such as molecular biology and geosciences, include a list of top 10 things students should know before starting their work. Others offer personal anecdotes from faculty, such as Professor of Computer Science Brian Kernighan's essay "Unsolicited advice on CS independent work." And some guides provide inspiration, such as civil and environmental engineering's thesis shopping guide that outlines potential faculty advisers and thesis subjects.

Many guides address the highs and lows of completing a yearlong independent research project.

"Writing a thesis is a challenge. It requires you, the student, to call upon the knowledge, skills and insights you have acquired at Princeton to produce a work of original scholarship," the Near Eastern studies guide says. "Many students find the thesis to be the most rewarding academic experience they have at Princeton. If you take to heart the information and suggestions provided herein, this guide will help ensure that your own experience of writing a thesis is a productive and positive one." 

Hard work, stimulating work

Associate Professor of Near Eastern Studies Michael Reynolds said the guide's advice was inspired by his undergraduate thesis at Harvard University — an experience that changed his life and set him on a career path in academia.

"It's an experience that should be beneficial in expanding students' horizons and improving their skills as scholars," said Reynolds, the department's undergraduate representative. "But few people recognize how difficult writing is, especially writing something as extensive as a thesis. I want to reassure students that although they should expect the work to be hard, it does not have to be overwhelmingly stressful, and that it can and should be stimulating."

For students looking at the long journey ahead of them, the guides demystify the thesis process and delineate a way forward. Senior Nadirah Mansour said she used the Near Eastern studies guide to develop the research question for her thesis on Palestinian nationalism in Islamic religious rhetoric in the 1950s and 1960s.

"I read the guide in full at the beginning of the year," Mansour said. "What's useful is that it details the more practical aspects of writing a thesis, like timing, as well as the technical and methodological aspects of conducting thesis research."

Associate Professor of Classics Brooke Holmes, who helped draft the Department of Classics guide, said students tend to underestimate how long it takes to complete a large independent project.

"By spelling out all the things that have to happen to produce a successful piece of work, we hope our guide gives students a better sense of the whole process before they embark upon it," she said.

Kristin Dombek, a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program who worked with the Office of the Dean of the College on the initiative, said the guides distinguish the varying approaches to independent work within academic fields.

"In addition to gathering all of the logistical information in one place, the real benefit of the guides, in my mind, is the descriptions of what excellent research and writing look like within a given discipline," Dombek said.

The guides also can prove valuable to students who are still far from writing a thesis.

"Freshmen and sophomores should also consult the guides as they consider a major," Marsh said. "The guides will give them a clearer picture of the types of questions, problems and intellectual debates that define a given field of study."

And while the guides aim to make students' lives easier, faculty stressed that they are part of a myriad of resources within departments and across the University. Among them, the Writing Program's senior thesis writing groups and boot camps; conferences with experienced writers at the Writing Center; the McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning's workshops on managing independent work; assistance in designing survey-based projects at the Survey Research Center; and reference specialists at campus libraries.

Nicole Shelton, professor of psychology and associate chair of the Department of Psychology, said the guides are intended as the starting point, not the end, to students' thesis experience.

"The guide is not meant to substitute for the wonderful one-on-one interactions students should have with their faculty adviser as part of the thesis process," she said.