The Independent Project Option

Many students are interested in pursuing independent research projects and need to find a faculty sponsor.  Listed below are some tips to help you succeed with an independent study project.

Steps to a Successful Independent Project

1.  Check your Department's webpage to see if there is information posted about undergraduate research and/or independent study projects.

Linguistics, for example, has a very useful site on undergraduate research and independent study.

2. Consider what quarter you should do your project.

Independent projects take a significant amount of time.  When you are planning your project, think about what other classes and personal commitments you will have that quarter.

One option, for highly motivated students with excellent time management skills, is to do the project during the UCSC Summer Session. Since you will need 6 credits to qualify for financial aid, a 2 credit independent study might be a good addition to your 5 credit class.  Overall, you can take up to 15 credits during Summer Seesion.  If you want to take more than 15 credits, please discuss it with your academic adviser.  The form for independent projects in the summer is due August 1.

However, it can be difficult to find a sponsor for the summer because many professors have other time commitments.  You are most likely to be successful in getting sponsorship for an independent project if you have a strong mentoring relationship with the professor already.

It is also important to note that not all instructors can sponsor independent study projects.  The instructor has to be a faculty member, not a lecturer. You can figure out if the instructor is a faculty or a lecturer by looking at his or her title in the Campus Directory

3. Contact your Advisor for your major to learn about the procedure.

It is a good idea to contact your major's advisors before contacting a prospective faculty sponsor, since there may be procedural guidelines that influence your decision.

Be sure to get any paperwork or links to forms that will need to be filled out.  The petition for independent study can be found here.

4. Find a few professors with similar interests.

You can find professors' research interests here.  Look over the webpages thoroughly and read papers, if possible.  You will have the most flexibility if you can find several professors whose work you are interested in.

5. Write a brief overview of your project and provide a timeline.

What are your goals for the project?  How will you accomplish them in the set time period?  Are there milestones (such as due dates) that need to be set?

6. Contact the professor(s) and ask for an appointment or go to office hours.

You can go to office hours, send an email, or talk to the professor after a class or a talk. There are several critical points to remember:

Be formal with a professor until you are invited to be more casual.

  • Address him or her in writing and in person as Professor or Doctor until you are asked to be less formal.
  • Write professional emails (see the examples). Don't use emoticons, slang, abbreviations, or casual cultural references.
  • Don't mass-email the entire department.  If you are interested in the work multiple professors are doing, email each one individually and tailor the email to that specific research group's work.

Professors are busy. If you approach them in person, ask if this is a convenient time and be prepared to make an appointment. If you email, it may take a while for the professor to reply.

You should reply to any professor's email with 48 hours, even if the professor took much longer to reply to you.

7. Meet the professor and discuss your project.

Remember that the professor is an expert in this topic and be respectful when you present your ideas.  Explain the project goals and timeline.  Ask the professor what his or her opinion of the project is, if it is feasible, what improvements could be made, etc.  Ask what readings or primary sources he or she would suggest you read. 

If the professor is unable to take you on as a student, try not to take it personally.  Professors have many commitments, and it is best for you to find a sponsor who has the time to work with you.

8. Make sure you file the forms by the deadlines and get required signatures.

There is a specific form to fill out to petition to do an independent study project.  You can find it here.

You are going to be doing a significant amount of hard work, and you want to be sure you get the credit for it!  Check in with your adviser several times to confirm you are meeting the requirements.

9. Stay in touch with your faculty sponsor.

Let him or her know how your work is going.  Consider regular meetings or emails.  Bring up any problems immediately so you stay on track.