Undergraduates are encouraged to perform independent research under the supervision of a faculty mentor. The 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.

Course Options

Note the distinction between Independent Study (391/392) and Research Independent 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:

Independent Study (391/392)

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.

Research Independent Study (393/394)

Research Independent Study requires the exploration of a research question based on review of the relevant scientific literature and the testing of a hypothesis or inferential analysis based on original data gathered from field work, laboratory work, or other primary sources. The goal is to produce 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 their project. In these cases, an intermediate product is delivered at the end of the first semester.


Fulfilling Major Requirements

Students majoring or minoring in Earth and Climate Sciences may count their Independent Study courses as upper-level electives. Those who are pursuing Graduation with Distinction, however, may count only one course as an upper-level elective. 

One Research Independent Study course may count as an upper-level elective for majors/minors in Environmental Science & Policy or Environmental Sciences, provided the course is not also being used to satisfy requirements for Graduation with Distinction. If this is the case, the second semester of Research Independent Study can still be used to count towards the major. For Environment majors, the Independent Study counts toward the “Independent study, internship or field experience” requirement for the major. 

Fulfilling Graduation Curriculum Requirements

  • Independent study courses count toward the 34 course credits needed for graduation.
  • Both Independent Study (391/392) and Research Independent Study (393/394) 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. Learn more about the WID option and view the form that must be submitted by student and advisor.

Expectations & Recordkeeping 

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. Sample record of faculty mentor meetings
  • 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.


When Should You Take Independent Study?

Students may enroll in an independent study course at any time during their college career. 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 their undergraduate career, and can serve as a capstone project towards Graduation with Distinction.

Finding a Faculty Mentor

Once you know the general topic you’d like to study, you can explore the Nicholas School faculty listing by area of interest to identify someone who specializes in your area. Once you know who you’d like to work with, familiarize yourself with their ongoing projects and approach them via email about your ideas and the possibility of working in their lab. If you haven’t yet settled on a topic of study, but you know of a faculty member you’d like to work with, make an appointment with them to explore possible ideas. The Undergraduate Research Support office offers advice on how to contact a potential mentor.

How to Register

To receive course credit for your research, you must register for an independent study course with a faculty mentor. You’ll need to fill out the Independent Study Form once you and your mentor have agreed on a project and the logistics. For Research Independent Study, the application also includes a space for the implication of the research findings. After your mentor approves and signs the form, submit it to the DUS for departmental approval. Your mentor will provide you with a permission number to register in the course.

Independent Study Form