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   Date: 11/10/10 Bookmark and Share

The Plight of the Student Researcher

By Lily Samuels ’11

Undergraduate research is a tricky thing.

The author engages in research for her honors thesis.

We student researchers and writers are fledgling academics, not quite professionals. I donít pretend to be much of an authority on anything yet, except, perhaps, pulling an all-nighter and delivering a coherent presentation in French class the next morning.

Despite being new to the research process, we take on special and independent studies and honors projects, conducting extensive investigations and writing voluminous papers that reflect months of grappling with an issue.

I believe the work of students is immensely important. The annual faculty-student program Celebrating Collaborations is just one example of the rich culture of fresh ideas and avenues for new research at Smith. And it is not unusual for students to be asked to present their work at academic conferences and other occasions. Our undergraduate research often opens opportunities for more focused trajectories in graduate school and beyond.

Still, it feels a bit presumptuous to think that we can make meaningful contributions to the existing corpus of knowledge at this early point in our intellectual careers. As I begin to draft my honors thesis in government, on the reintegration of girl soldiers in northern Uganda, Iím shocked that I had considered myself even halfway qualified to write on the topic.

What can I, with my limited experience, hope to bring to the conversation? What can I possibly say that hasnít already been said (or will be said by a worthier voice) about the grave life-or-death situations that these girls and young women face each day? Does, or will, my contribution as a student researcher mean anything?

These questions scream loudly at times, demanding my attention. Yet, behind the smokescreen of my insecurities my thesis remains, asking to be written. Abducted child soldiers, it insists, forced ďmarriagesĒ of 10-year-old girls to rebel commanders, the violence of hacked-off ears and noses command documentation. These horrors and the need to bring attention to them are the critical reason I chose this topic.

So I keep going.

I check out more books from Neilson Library than my little bookshelf can hold. The reference librarian makes cameos in my nightmares. I effectively become a hermit, forgetting birthdays, family functions, and coffee dates. Iím thankful that my friends and family are supportive, they understand.

But how to keep from slipping back into the vicious cycle of self-doubt? Three safeguards have assisted me.

First, I remember where Iíve come from and how Iíve been prepared to do this research. A six-month internship at the UNís International Labor Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, during my Junior Year Abroad gave me the opportunity to study and write at length about the disproportionate effects of armed conflict on women and girls. Under the supervision of seasoned UN officials, I wrote gender policy for the Programme for Crisis Response and Reconstruction, and the work they do in conflict-ravaged countries. So Iíve done this type of work before. Itís just a matter of remembering how to do it here, in a new context and for a new audience.

Secondly, I rely upon the academic skills Iíve learned at Smith. Participation in Smith classes has been instrumental in teaching me to employ a strong methodology, to call upon reputable sources, to cross-reference until Iím blue in the face, and to question biases and assumptions.

Thirdly, frequent contact with my thesis adviser, Greg White, professor of government, has proved essential in keeping me on target. Through his incisive and sensitive criticism, as well as a perfect blend of optimism and realism, Professor White has been a guide and a peer, alerting me to pitfalls and providing me with intellectual energy when I have none.

After all the self-analysis, the work continues. So does the wrestling match with self-questioning. Maybe it always will, maybe thatís part of the point. Is it possibleóor even desirableóto undertake such a project without being a little humbled by the import of the task? Probably not.

With that thought, I return to my topic, determined to produce work worthy of the subject and valuable to those who read it. Enough self-doubt for now. The plight of girl soldiers in Uganda needs my attention.

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