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Independent Study Projects and Senior Thesis by Geoscience Majors

By Patricia Manley, Middlebury College and Meagen Pollock, The College of Wooster
An independent study project or senior thesis is a large, individual research project that students take on during their junior or senior year in college, often to fulfill a graduation requirement. For some students, it is a requirement for graduating with honors. Students usually work closely with an adviser and determine a question or topic to explore before carrying a research plan. In most cases, the student is involved from the initial planning through implementation to final product. These projects often are the culminating work of a student's studies at a particular institution. Individual projects demonstrate the student's ability to conduct scientific inquiry and to communicate effectively. The Starting Point Undergraduate Research module addresses What is student research? and Why do student research?

Jump down to: Strategies | Logistics | Problems | Rewards | Faculty Promotion and Tenure | Advising Students | Funding Students | Assessment | Independent Study/Senior Thesis Examples | References and Resources

Senior student doing her work on lake cores

Pedagogy The pedagogy on inquiry-based learning research is extensive. The benefits of doing this style of research are that it can:

Design of research project


The design of a independent study or senior research project can vary. Click on the links below to show a suggested outline of steps to consider when designing an independent study or a year-long senior thesis.

Outline of steps for an independent study

  • One-on-one tutorial with faculty adviser in the spring of their Junior year in which students:
    • Earn credit for one full course
    • Discuss papers with adviser and write a lit review
    • Learn lab and field techniques prior to field work
    • Work with faculty to develop a project proposal
  • Prior to field work, faculty:
    • Share photos, samples, and experiences from the site
    • Clarify expectations of students for research in the field:
      • help with preparations (make reservations, gather equipment, prepare samples for analysis)
      • engage the project and people (taking field notes and helping others, even if it's not the student's field area; summer research is a team effort)
      • help finalize the research (archive data and samples, put away equipment, file reimbursements, write abstracts)
  • Provide information about the trip:
    • Travel arrangements, itinerary, packing list
    • Check with the CDC and State Department for travel info such as obtaining a passport, required immunizations, and travel warnings, particularly if traveling outside of the United States
    • Emergency contact information
    • Weather for field site
  • Give students a cultural context by discussing current events, entertainment, and history for their field region.

Outline of steps for a year-long senior thesis
  • Designing the research project
    • The project is usually part of the faculty's research
    • Make the project goals obtainable in a year-long time frame
    • Have a discussion with the prospective student during in the spring of their Junior year, during which you outline the required research and time commitments
  • Starting the project
    • Teach any lab or field techniques prior to field work
    • Not necessary, but helpful, is to employ the student the summer prior to their senior year
  • Field work or Data Collection
    • Develop a time schedule for data collection
      • Does the data collection require long periods of field time?
      • Can the data collection begin in the fall of the student's senior year?
      • Does field work need to occur during the summer prior to their senior year?
      • Work with the student to map out field work/data collection times
  • Data Analysis
    • Set a clear timeline or schedule for data collection
    • Work out timing of equipment use within your department
    • Have "how to" procedures for individual pieces of equipment
    • Have a contact faculty for each piece of equipment
  • Oral Defense, Written thesis
    • Encourage the student to attend national or sectional GSA meetings, National Conferences on Undergraduate Research annual meeting, or state meetings to present their results
    • Have students present at colloquium meetings at their home institutes
    • Have a department thesis guideline for the written thesis
    • Have an oral defense
    • Make sure that all data and samples are archived and lab spaces are cleaned


To make sure that the student project will be successful, it is important to map out and determine that all the needed resources are available. Specifically:


The following are a few of the guidelines that can help to make a project successful. Consider making a contract with the student and clearly outline expectations for working with undergraduate students. The Early Career module has more information about setting expectations with students.


What problems can you expect while doing student research? Often the originally designed project no longer can be adhered to. Be prepared to redesign the project either by expanding it or contracting the scope of the project goals. When working on a student-designed project that is outside your expertise, realize that it will require more time. Here are some strategies and considerations for avoiding and overcoming problems you and your students may encounter:


There are many rewards in working with undergraduate students on projects. A few of these rewards are listed below and have been highlighted by faculty and students doing senior and/or independent research projects.

Faculty promotion/tenure

It is important to know what your institution's culture is regarding doing independent/senior undergraduate research. Specifically, will this add to your tenure package? Do you get credit for undertaking undergraduate research? Since doing independent studies or senior thesis is a large time commitment, are you at the right stage of your career to start undertaking this? However, in the realm of receiving and obtaining grants, student research is important as are papers with student authors. Often NSF/NIH look to see if there is an undergraduate component and doing undergraduate research is broader impact within the NSF definition.

The Early Career module has a section with information, tips, advice, and references devoted to preparing for and getting tenure. CUR also has several publications that are helpful for early career faculty Spring 2008 - Challenges for Early Career Faculty. You can also review the publications provided by CUR on their Publications page.

Advising students

The Early Career site has information on advising students.

Funding for student research


For assessing the independent project or senior thesis work, various tools/rubrics are being developed. A few sites that address assessment can be found at:

Independent Study/Senior Thesis examples

Many colleges have initiated and maintained Independent study and senior thesis work for decades. Every college/university has their own specific method of promoting this. It is suggested that you do an internet search on "geology undergraduate senior thesis guidelines" and review the multitude of institutions doing undergraduate research. In particular, we highlight Wooster for its well-recognized program. See "A Creative Adventure": Undergraduate Research at the College of Wooster in October's AAC&U News and the description of the Independent Study program at the College of Wooster and particularly for Geology.

References and Resources

There are considerable resources on undergraduate research that can assist in setting up undergraduate independent study/senior thesis. The CUR "How to" series has publications that are written to assist you in starting doing research with undergraduates. Other CUR Quarterly journals that are directed at doing undergraduate research are:

Additionally, learn more about other undergraduate research opportunities at the national, regional, and institutional levels.

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