Plight of the Student Researcher
By Lily Samuels ’11
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
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.
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?
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.