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JP Houdini

Students complain about a lot of things that set Princeton apart from other colleges. We have finals after break, strange, archaic social hierarchies and independent research as a requirement for graduation. But this is an article about the joys of junior papers and senior theses. Often regarded as a monstrous task which locks us in carrels and siphons away our free time, independent work comes with some pleasant, if surprising, side effects. Undergraduates have the ability to leverage their JPs and senior theses to — counter intuitively — gain more free time. Yes, I’m telling you that independent work can actually allow you to have more control over your time than otherwise.

In order for one to get the most time out of independent work, everyone must generally agree that independent work is difficult and time-consuming. Though JPs vary from department to department, most of them are at least semester-long endeavors, while senior theses can sometimes last for more than a year. The timescale of these papers makes them seemingly daunting, spanning more time and requiring more effort than many students have ever put into any academic work to date. Furthermore, being Princeton students, we’re prone to go above and beyond on assignments anyway. We’ve gone through our whole lives knocking academic work out of the ball park and that mentality naturally carries over into our independent work in that we tend to strive for perfection. Finally, it doesn’t help that everything we know about independent work comes from the words and deeds of upperclassmen who, as people are wont to do, blow their lives out of proportion. Because thousands of Princetonians who have come before us flipped out about their independent work, it stands to reason that we should follow suit. So, in these three ways, independent work is caricatured into a difficult and protracted labor which undergraduates must endure.


In actuality, there are differences between what people make independent work out to be and what it actually is. Keep in mind that my comments in this section are based on my own personal experience of having written a single JP and on anecdotes from alumni and professors. There is no denying that JPs and senior theses are longer and more involved than we’re accustomed to, requiring more time and more focus than most other work we have. That being said, at the end of the day, they are only papers and reports, not unlike the countless papers and reports which we have produced in our quests for a college degree. They have a beginning, and they have an end. They are made of words and often pictures. You usually have to read some other people’s stuff to do them.

Here’s where things get interesting. If you realize, then, that there is a difference between independent work in theory and independent work in practice, you are in a position to harness a tremendous power. All social and extracurricular obligations fall before the onslaught of independent work. Don’t feel like going to this meeting? Aren’t in the mood to go out? No problem! Just email or text the relevant people to say that you’re “working on your thesis,” and you’re good to go! Not only this, but friends, family and many members of the Princeton community tend to be incredibly accommodating during independent work. Whether you actually end up working on anything is completely up to you. You’ve gained the ultimate power over your time.

This power isn’t temporary and doesn’t have a specific number of uses. Because independent work occurs over such a long time and can be as extensive as you want it to be, you are granted a “get-out-of-anything-free” card for months on end. We even get the go-ahead from the administration to have more control over our time, as many upperclassmen are allowed to take reduced schedules in light of independent work. Sure, you still work really hard on it — but it’s work that you get to structure and dictate according to your own schedule, and it’s work that comes with perks.

We need to stop looking at our independent work as an insurmountably difficult task and start seeing it for the gift that it can be. JPs and senior theses are the trump cards of undergraduate academics. They can out-prioritize all but the most important of commitments, leaving you free to do what you want. But, with great power comes great responsibility. We should keep in mind that we shouldn’t use independent work to become hermits. There’s something to be said for the benefits of social obligations; we have them for a reason. But a little bit of extra alone time never hurt anyone. We should leverage our independent work to retake control of our time and to do what we want to do. Oh, and don’t forget to actually work on your papers, too.

Nathan Mathabane is a geosciences major from Portland, Ore. He can be reached at