Independent Study – Nicholas School Undergraduate Programs

Independent Study

Independent Study Form >

Undergraduates interested in Environmental Sciences, Environmental Sciences & Policy, or Earth & Ocean Sciences are encouraged to perform independent research under the supervision of a faculty mentor. The research independent study consists of one or more semesters of research, each producing a written report of progress, and culminating in a substantial paper or written report appropriate for the chosen environmental discipline.

Note the distinction between Independent Study (391/392) and Independent Research Study (393/394) course options.
Although both Independent Study and Research Independent Study consist of a one-on-one immersion in the topic of your choice with a NSOE faculty advisor knowledgeable in that topic, and both require the completion of a final product (e.g. paper, report, proposal), they differ in the scope of the work in the following way:

  • The Independent Study may be a tutorial that includes guided immersion into the primary literature, or doing exercises relevant to the topic, regular discussion about the topic based on reading or other applications. The final product of the independent study is completed within one semester.  Thus, a second independent study is usually with a different mentor.
  • The Research Independent Study requires the exploration of a specific question based on research of the relevant scientific literature, the testing of a specific hypothesis or inferential analysis based on original data. Data collection can be from mining several databases from primary literature or elsewhere, field work, or laboratory work to address an original problem.  Here, the question is addressed to bring a new and unique contribution to the field.  Depending on the scope of the project, students may have a second Research Independent Study with the same mentor to continue her/his project.   In these cases, an intermediate product is delivered at the end of the first semester.

Rationale for enrolling in an independent study.
Students participating in an independent study can work towards general learning goals of their major.

  • Independent Study courses may count as upper-level electives for the majors/minors in Earth and Ocean Sciences; an Earth and Ocean Science major pursuing the two-semester Graduation with Distinction may count one course as an upper-level elective.
  • One Research Independent Study course may count as an upper-level elective for the majors/minors in Environmental Science & Policy or Environmental Sciences, provided the course is not also being used to satisfy requirements for Graduation with Distinction (GWD).  However, if GWD, the second semester of Independent Research Study can count towards the major.
  • For Environment majors, the Independent Study counts toward the “Independent study, internship or field experience” requirement for the major.

Students can use independent studies to satisfy their undergraduate Curriculum requirements

  • Independent study courses count toward the 34 course credits needed for graduation.
  • Both Independent Study and Research Independent Study courses count as a Small Group Learning Experience (SGLE).
  • Courses officially titled “Research Independent Study,” coded R, count toward the Research requirement.
  • One Independent Study or Research Independent Study course may be submitted toward the Writing in the Discipline (WID) requirement.  Such ‘W’ designation may be appropriate for a second semester Research Independent Study credit.  Information on that option and the form that must be submitted by student and advisor can be found here. Briefly, it entails several iterations of written parts or the whole paper or written report where the mentor helps the student’s writing towards the final version.

Expectations of Independent Study and Independent Research Study. 

  • The specific goals and expectations for each project are determined by the student and the faculty mentor. The independent research study represents a scholarly research experience that clearly addresses a specific question using methods appropriate for the field and contributes to the knowledge in the field.
  • At the beginning of the semester, student and mentor agree on a brief syllabus for the course, a schedule of regular meetings, a timeline of benchmarks or milestones throughout, and a final product. The grading scheme should also be included including the various milestones.
  • Student and mentor are to meet at least once every two weeks to discuss readings, research, and review progress.
  • The student is to keep a record of the meetings during the semester and submit it at the end of the semester as one of the deliverables. A template example can be found here.
  • For course credit, students are expected to spend a minimum of 120 hours per semester on the independent study (about 8-10 hours per week for 14 weeks), the equivalent of a laboratory course. Credit cannot be awarded for paid work.
  • For record keeping, an electronic copy of both the final product and the record of meetings are submitted to the Office of Undergraduate Studies at the same time as the final submission to the mentor.
  • We recommend that students who intend to write a senior thesis towards Graduation with Distinction enroll in two consecutive semesters with the same mentor.

Procedure to register an independent study or independent research study.
To receive course credit for their research, students register for an Independent Study course with a faculty mentor.

  • Once you have found a mentor, have agreed on a project and logistics as described above, fill out this
  • For Research Independent Study, the application also includes the implication of the research findings.
  • Have the form approved and signed by your mentor.
  • Submit to the DUS for departmental approval.
  • Your mentor will provide you with a permission number to register in the course.

Planning an independent study during the undergraduate career.
Students asks about the optimal time to register in an independent study.

  • Students may enroll at any time during their college career.
  • Starting early allows exploration of various topics through research.
  • However, most students opt to register for an Independent Study course during the junior and/or senior years. Waiting until then allows for a deep exploration of a topic discovered during the early part of one’s undergraduate career and can serve serves as a capstone project towards Graduation with Distinction

Students also inquire on how to find a mentor and/or a research topic.  A successful independent study matches student, mentor and research topic.  There are two ways to approach this.

If you have a research idea or general topic you would like to study, look for a faculty member to supervise your work.

  • Explore the Nicholas School faculty listing by area of interest to identify someone who specializes in your area.
  • Inquire with your advisor, the DUS, the undergrad program office, or even co-majors for suggestions.
  • Once identified, familiarize yourself with their ongoing projects and approach them via email about your ideas and the possibility of working in their lab.

If you do not have a clear idea of the topic you want to study, but you know of a faculty member whose work you are interested in, for example, an instructor you met in a previous course.

  • Make an appointment with the faculty member to explore possible ideas together.
  • Inquire with your advisor or the DUS. If your advisor has not done so, you can start this conversation early on during advising meeting

See the Undergraduate Research Support office for advice on how to contact a potential mentor.