On Navigating Research (and the Values of Mentorship)

While most people find research mentors after already knowing what they want to study, I took a more unconventional route. I met Professor Bernard Hibbitts months before I even considered going into research. We met after I walked into an Honors College advising appointment, unsure of what to do with my life but interested in law, and Holly Hickling said, “Law? Why don’t you meet with Professor Hibbitts? He’s perfect for this kind of thing.”  

He was, and since then, we’ve met on a regular basis. When I expressed an interest in researching something related to law, he helped me turn my vague idea into a fully-fledged thesis. At the beginning, I was uncertain whether my topic was too broad and scattered, as I wanted to study every significant instance of disease in the past 100 years of US history and deeply explore different factors like intelligence tests and eugenics. Talking through those concerns and approaches with Professor Hibbitts really helped me navigate what to do next and what to focus on. Together, we decided that I had to prioritize studying immigrant medical inspections at Ellis Island and Angel Island, a few specific epidemics in our country’s history like the Spanish Flu, the immigration laws tied to public health, and the xenophobia underlying everything. After we set a general plan, the ability to work through a to-do list really put my mind at ease. Any time I feel like I’m going in the wrong direction, whether I’m focusing too much on a particular group of immigrants or falling too far down the medical rabbit hole, I know that I can just email Professor Hibbitts and he will help me sort everything out.

Although my approach to finding a mentor was unique, my advice for connecting with research mentors is to talk to honors mentors and your current professors in similar fields and ask them to refer you to speak with their colleagues, or anyone else they think you might find interesting. This approach is also perfect for when you know is that you want to conduct research, but you don’t know where to start. Whether you end up working with the people you talk to or not, every new perspective that you hear is another idea that can inform the work that you end up doing. Take some time to shop around for an approach or topic that really excites you. You might end up becoming interested in something you would never expect.

Moreover, consider a potential mentor’s approach to research, and not just the specifics of what they are studying. How people research and the ways in which they think about problems should be just as important as the content of their work. In the end, you won’t be researching the same thing as your mentor, but your mentor’s methodology will inform how you go about your own project. Professor Hibbitts’ work with the history of law and lawyering was really instrumental to why I asked him to be my mentor. I marveled at how holistically he approached ideas and how he focused on the context of what he was studying just as much as the material itself. This approach has been crucial to my own research, where the historical contexts of disease and the prejudices of American society are integral to immigration laws and practices.

Professionally, I think I want to end up in law school or grad school after graduation, but the specifics are still hazy for me. I think what would help me the most would be to talk to people in every field that I’m considering and ask what their day-to-day looks like, what they love, and hate about their work. For me, the problem with deciding on a career is that I don’t know all of the jobs that are out there, or even what the work really like for those that I do know. Talking to people in the past is what helped me get to where I am today, so I feel like those future connections are vital to my next steps forward. 

A photograph of Jewish immigrants receiving medical inspections at Ellis Island in 1907 that I’ve come across in my research
(Underwood & Underwood (c. 1907), Physicians examining a group of Jewish immigrants [Photographic Print], Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington D.C., USA, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3a23422/)

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