Independent Study and Other Research Opportunities

Independent Study and Other Research Opportunities

Independent Study Research provides an excellent method to work individually with faculty members. This can be one of the best learning experiences in Psychology. The courses vary from intensive readings on a particular topic, to laboratory research, which is, in some cases, publishable. All Independent Studies culminate in a substantial paper. The possible general topics are listed with the descriptions of faculty. At the most, only one such course may count toward the major "area" requirement, and only two may count toward the major. At least one hour of contact every two weeks with your mentor is required and most students meet much more than this. Often, additional guidance, supervision, and training is provided by other mentors/laboratory personnel such as post-doctoral fellows, research assistants, and graduate students.

Independent Studies derive from interactions with a faculty member, rather than from initial application to the Director of Undergraduate Studies. It usually derives from discussions between a student and a faculty member in a small class; an interesting topic comes up between them which appears to be worth further intensive study.  Together, they write a proposal, which they submit to the Director of Undergraduate Studies as the topic for study. All Independent Study proposals must be approved by the DUS before permission to register will be granted. Students should plan their Independent Study course in advance with their faculty advisor and enroll prior to the start of the semester. In exceptional circumstances, however, a student may be permitted to enroll in Independent Study during the Drop/Add period. Independent Study Proposal forms are available in Room 242 or on our forms page. The closer the topic is to an area of common interest between the student and professor, the greater are the chances of a meaningful educational experience. Look at the faculty list page and read through faculty research interests.

Students interested in completing a significant research project during their undergraduate career may want to consider the Graduation with Distinction Program(GwD) . This is especially important for students planning to pursue graduate education in psychology but is highly recommended for any student with a strong interest in research. The table below offers an overview requirements for Independent Study and GwD.

A Note Regarding the Typical Time Commitment and Scholarly Product of Independent Study Projects

Many students often wonder how many hours per week they should be working in the lab, or how long their research paper should be. In truth, there is a range of time-investment and final product. Just remember that your reward for your project will typically correlate with the effort you invest. We have attempted to provide a basic guideline in the table below:

                Overview: Independent Research Study and GwD Thesis



Consider topics/areas that interest you most
Read faculty research interests on Department webpage
Discuss possible projects with relevant faculty, get a faculty advisor
Write a brief description, complete the independent study application form


Independent Study

    Graduation with Distinction
             Thesis Overview


Learn how to develop a research question, study it, report the results

Develop an original research question, test it empirically (with data analysis), write thesis for a professional audience and possible publication; complete oral exam



1 or more semesters (only 2 count toward major);

Student & advisor meet at least every other week

Minimum of 2 semesters (only 2 count toward major)

Student & advisor meet at least every other week



Empirical Project, with original data collection and analysis; or secondary analysis of existing data

Literature Review (review and synthesize article

Usually an Empirical Project, with original data collection and analysis; or secondary analysis of an existing data

Comprehensive Literature Review also acceptable (see Psychological Bulletin for general approach)



Usually APA style or similar; AMA style or similar if more relevant for medical journals

Usually APA or AMA style; in manuscript form or close, as for publication




Empirical Project: approx. 15-25 pages of text, plus references and figures/tables as relevant

Literature Review: minimum 20 pages, plus references

Whatever length is appropriate, as determined in consultation with faculty advisor; depending on the field

Typical manuscript length is 15-30 pages plus references and figures/tables




All papers have basic literature review, whether they are Empirical or Literature Review options

What is currently known, gaps in knowledge, relationship to student work, minimum 12 articles in peer-reviewed journals

Substantive literature review relevant to the research question plus additional citations as needed for interpretation of results



minimum 1-hour oral exam with committee (advisor plus two others); see Department webpage for details

Focus = the final paper (submitted at least one week in advance)

Other Research Opportunities

Research Practicum

If the area of research has not been worked out with your mentor in detail, consider taking our Practicum (PSY 203) which is less structured than Independent Study and serves as an introduction to a professor's work and laboratory. Practica are half-credit, Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory graded courses, and require approval of the instructor and permission from the Office of Director of Undergraduate Studies. Proposal forms are available in the Undergraduate Psychology Office, Room 242 or on our forms page.

Ongoing Research Projects

There are always a variety of opportunities available to undergraduates wanting to gain research experience through working on ongoing research projects. These are posted on the bulletin board labeled, "Opportunities for Psychology Undergraduates", across from Room 242. The Psychology DUS office also sends many emails to the listserv for majors & minors, noting available research opportunities. Finally, many faculty have now begun to advertise opportunities to participate in their laboratory's activities on the DukeList web site.

A WARNING REGARDING UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH: Strict Federal laws apply to all research performed with humans and animals and, like any researcher at Duke, you may be required to obtain prior approval from the university committee that oversees research with human subjects or animals. In general, research you may be conducting as part of a class requirement, e.g., surveying students in your dorm about their sleeping habits to obtain information about a term paper, does not require prior approval. However, research that you hope will contribute to generalizable knowledge, e.g., you intend to publish it or present it at a conference, does require review and approval before you can begin. As a general rule, you should consult with your professor or with one of the Directors of Undergraduate Studies before beginning a research project involving human or animal subjects so that they can advise you whether official approval is required. For more information about research policies at Duke, visit the Office for Research Support's web site at

Financial Research Support

The Undergraduate Research Support Program offers semester awards (up to $300/semester) for students engaged in research with Duke faculty. Students and their faculty research advisors may apply for assistantships (toward salary for a non-credit research experience) or grants (to defer expenses connected with research as part of independent study enrollment). When presenting a paper at a regional or national professional meeting, students may also apply for a URS grant to cover travel, lodging, and registration expenses.