Initial Publication Date: December 1, 2011

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:

  • Promote critical thinking skills
  • Teach the scientific method of research
  • Enhance students' communication skills
  • Improve skills in graphic presentation

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.



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:

  • Plan the project out prior to discussion with student
  • Make sure that it is a doable project in the designated time frame
  • Confirm that all the needed equipment, literature, or resources are available
  • Be prepared to provide constant supervision and mentoring


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.

  • Define a specific project with concrete start and end point
  • Reiterate the purpose for doing this research several times
  • Begin with a very structured approach and then amend this as needed to meet the needs of individual students
  • Be concrete in defining goals and the timing for achieving these goals.
  • Do lots of one-on-one mentoring
  • Organize meeting times with student's schedule - weekly or lab time
  • Have the student add 3 hours of research/analysis/writing time per week to their schedule
  • Give the student a notebook for their research. Let them know that notebook is returned to you at the end of the year. Encourage the students to write in the notebook all pertinent information with regards to the data collection/analyses. It may also be helpful to have the student photocopy new content in the notebook on a weekly basis so that you have a spare set of notes should the notebook get lost.


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:

  • Revamp continually
  • Redefine the project if student can't do the required work
  • Expand the project when needed
  • Implementation of a project - student's design
    • More time consuming if the project is not in the faculty's field of expertise
    • May need to have outside assistance with equipment at other institutions
    • Project may be part of a KECK Geology Consortium, NSF-REU, or other such program
      • Need to assist student in working with original grantees


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.

  • Some students excel in independent research - particularly those who might not be the highest academically
  • Both oral and written work are stressed
  • Students are better prepared for graduate research work
  • Students can have at least one abstract published
  • Projects that are a part of a faculty research project can make the independent study/thesis more meaningful to the student
  • Generates close rapport with faculty and students
  • Faculty get to work with great students
  • Students are generally excited and often will do "grunge" or "rote" work happily
  • Alumni returning comment that doing an independent study or senior thesis was the most remembered thing about their college experience

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:

  • CUR Spring 2009 Quarterly Singer and Weiler, 2009, A Longitudinal Student Outcomes Evaluation of the Buffalo State College Summer Undergraduate Research Program, CUR Quarterly, vol 29, p. 20-25.
  • Undergraduate research assessment - from the Pedagogy in Action project, learn more about formative and summative assessment in undergraduate research
  • Assessment module - from the Starting Point: Teaching Entry Level Geoscience project, this module provides a wealth of information and resources for assessment methods and practices.
  • Early Career Workshop on Collaborating with Students, with links to adviser-student contracts and case studies.

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 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.