Declaring a major means locking into an academic plan that allows little room for change. However, you can explore other areas of interest, without falling behind in credits, by creating an independent study.
An Independent study is a course designed and pursued by a student. Usually, these courses come about because a university does not offer classes specific to the student’s interests. The independent study course is completed with the assistance and/or sponsorship of an advisor who monitors the progress of the student.
Some universities offer pre-packaged independent study programs, which are courses that are already designed by a university, but creating your own independent study enables you to shape the program to fit with and satisfy your own needs.
“Independent studies can certainly be beneficial,” says Ann Hettinger, a professor at Syracuse University. Professor Hettinger assisted a student in an independent study, which involved creating a magazine. “I think the best thing was that it was completely tailored to what [the student] wanted to learn, so none of her time was wasted on things she didn't care about,” she says.
If you’re interested in creating your own independent study follow these five steps:
Submit a proposal package to the appropriate department of your university. Each school has its own independent study policy, so make an appointment with your academic advisor to ensure that you have enough credits available to participate in an independent study, or that you’ll be graduating on time, should you create an independent study. The proposal package should have a description of the “course,” a syllabus complete with assignments and deadlines, and a list of materials necessary for the course.
Set up and attend weekly meetings. An independent study requires you to meet consistently with a supervising professor, and to turn in assignments. “The meetings help keep the student on schedule and provide an opportunity for direct communication,” says Scott B. Wolcott, an undergraduate coordinator at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “Meetings often end with assignments being delegated to both parties.”
Document the status and progress of the independent study. When recording this, include the time and date, the tasks that have been completed and those that still need to be addressed, as well as any problems that you encountered. “It never works if the student doesn't make progress each step along the way,” says Professor Hettinger.
Collect data that is relevant to your independent study. Whether you have chosen to do psychological research with focus groups, or created your own internship with a local business, record and analyze all of the data or information you’ve collected along the way.
Generate and present results. At the time of completion, you should reach the goal that you established at the onset of the independent study. Present what you have learned in a complete, cohesive format. “The best work happens when the student is really focused and motivated by discovering and researching,” says Professor Hettinger.