In between completing classes for one’s major and fulfilling general education requirements, many students often have the opportunity to diligently study and research topics of their choosing.
At first, the idea of embarking upon an independent study can be intimidating: you do not meet with a class of your peers each week, there are no exams and smaller papers to keep you on schedule, and you are pretty much in charge of your own success. To some extent, the skills that you learn through the independent study process are just as valuable as your final product…and being able to talk about completing your own research only bolsters your future grad school and employment applications.
Within the College’s honors program, one of the options available to students is completing an independent study under the tutelage of a faculty mentor. Thus, for the majority of the fall semester, I worked on crafting my 26-page thesis on the Salem Witch Trials and the role of the young accusers in perpetuating this tragedy.
As a professional procrastinator, I was slightly apprehensive about the whole independent study experience. However, the thought of how much stress I would be under if I just let that paper sit on a back-burner until the end of the semester seemed to motivate me to get a head-start.
The other major concern that I had was selecting a topic. While it’s exciting to be able to study any topic imaginable, I wasn’t exactly sure which of my interests I wanted to pursue as I didn’t want to end up disliking the subject by the time finals rolled around. Originally, I believed that if I spent an entire semester looking into one event or phenomenon, I was going to never want to read another article or engage in a conversation on the subject. Surprisingly, although the memories that I have of sifting through primary source materials evoke some feelings of frustration, I still enjoy learning about the Salem Witch Trials – I even watched a pretty cool episode of Ghost Adventures about Salem just a few weeks ago.
Having dispelled many of my concerns about independent studies through my experience in the fall, I was more than willing to sign-up for a psychology independent study this spring. Currently, I’m in the process of designing my own study, which I am hoping to run next semester.
I would say that one of the most important skills that I have learned through this course is applying research design techniques to actual research. While students can demonstrate their comprehension of the advantages and disadvantages associated with various research techniques and the different tests for statistical significance on exams, actually applying these concepts to new research requires an even deeper level of critical thinking. In this case, an independent study is the perfect tool in helping to ensure understanding of previously-learned concepts.
If you ever have the chance to pursue the independent study, definitely take advantage of that opportunity during your undergraduate career.
Here are just a few tips to keep in mind:
- Select a topic that you are already interested in or a topic that you would like to learn more about. (You will be spending far too much time seeking out source materials and writing lengthy drafts to study something that you find dull and dreadful).
- Be flexible. You may need to tweak your original idea or your research may take you on a different path than the one you had originally intended – don’t worry, your paper or project will still be a masterpiece.
- Plan ahead! Take full advantage of the summer months or winter intersession to get ahead on your reading and note-taking.
- Create your own deadlines. Think of the independent study as any other class and give yourself a due date for your thesis, your rough draft and any other tasks.
- Don’t let procrastination get the better of you…stick to those deadlines. Trust me on this one.
- Use your resources. Make sure you address questions with your faculty mentor or advisor and ask for help when you need it, rather than struggling alone.
- Also, don’t forget that the CAE is a great resource throughout the entire process.
- Have fun and share your research. Talk about your research with your friends, professors and other people. Not only will you become more comfortable discussing your work, but you may also discover new perspectives and opinions that you had not previously considered.