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An image of Pliny the Elder’s Libros Naturalis Historiae Venice, 1469.  Credit: Colin Reeves-Fortney

How do I pursue an independent project?

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Have you taken a course that leaves you wondering about an unanswered question? Did an IntroSem, guest speaker, or extracurricular experience inspire you?  Thinking about doing a deep dive into a particular artist, author, social movement, or historical event?  Has your work in a professor’s lab inspired you to design an experiment of your own?  All of these are fantastic reasons to take up an independent project!

Topic vs Discipline

Many students start off by identifying a topic they might like to explore.  But it’s equally important to think about the different disciplines that might provide you a lens through which to study this topic.  Keep in mind that a single topic could be studied productively through many different possible disciplines!

For example, let’s say you are interested in the broad topic of sustainability and the environment.  You could of course approach this topic through disciplines like Biology, Chemistry, and Engineering.  But you could also study different ways human beings have understood their relationship to the environment through the lens of Art History, English, or Comparative Literature, for example.  Or you might explore how our opinions about sustainability interact with different economic, cultural, and social factors through the lens of Sociology, Anthropology, Political Science, and more!

Each discipline has its own way of asking questions, and can allow you to explore different facets of your topic.

Talk to Potential Mentors Early On

All independent projects can benefit from the guidance of a Stanford faculty mentor.  A faculty mentor is required if you would like to apply for funding for your independent project, or if you are working on an honors thesis.

Many students mistakenly assume that they can only start looking for faculty mentors once they have a fully formed, perfect project idea.  This is untrue!

In fact, your project will benefit from having preliminary discussions with potential mentors from the earliest stages.  Asking for advice about how to shape your project in the early days can help you decide what discipline might provide the best lens for you to explore your project.  And faculty advice can help you set feasible expectations, get you started down the right track, and potentially save you from a lot of wasted effort!

We recommend that you start out by asking for advice rather than asking someone to be your mentor right off the bat.  This gives you a chance to interact with your potential mentor and see if they’re a good fit.  Plus, most professors will be more willing to work with you after they’ve had a few conversations with you, especially if they’ve never met you before!

Remember that talk is free, and before you settle on your official faculty mentor it’s often useful to have many conversations with several different potential mentors.  The most successful independent projects often have many unofficial mentors who offered great advice along the way, even if you end up with only one official faculty mentor on paper.

Even a single conversation with a professor that you never meet with again can still provide you with excellent ideas and resources: a book that you should absolutely read, the name of another person you should connect with, a sense of what research has already been done in this field, and much more!

Ready to start reaching out to faculty?  Follow these links below for more tips and advice!

Take Courses that Prepare You

Many students use course work to learn the necessary skills and background information they need in order to be well-prepared for an independent project.  In fact, if you plan on applying for funding for your project, you will be expected to have taken some relevant course work in your project area and/or in your chosen methodology before you apply.  And taking courses can be a great way to connect with potential mentors!

Want to write a collection of poems?  Consider taking a creative writing class to hone your skills.  Want to do ethnography, interviews, or community-based research?  Find a course that can teach you the proper methods.  Thinking of making an original contribution to an area of scholarship?  Take a course that teaches you what’s already been done on this subject.  You can start by doing a keyword search in Explore Courses, but we also suggest talking to your faculty mentors and to your Academic Advisor for course recommendations.

Give Your Ideas Shape

As you take courses, talk to potential mentors, and start to develop your thoughts for an independent project, we encourage you to start giving your ideas a written shape.  For example, you may want to try writing out a one page project plan.  What do you want to do?  How will you go about doing it?  What have you already done to prepare, and what else do you need to do?  What questions do you have at this point?

You can download our version of a blank project proposal one-sheet here.  Once filled out, you can use the one-sheet as a kind of calling card as you continue to meet with potential faculty mentors.  The one-sheet can help you share with faculty what you hope to do, what you’ve already done, and how you plan to prepare further. You can also give faculty a physical copy of your one sheet and a pen and invite them to jot down their recommendations on the sheet while you discuss your idea with them.

Consider Applying for Funding

Each year Stanford allocates more than 5 million dollars to fund student research projects.  If you are working on an independent project, you may be eligible to apply for a VPUE Undergraduate Research grant: a Small Grant, a Chappell Lougee Scholarship, a Major Grant, or a Beagle II Award.  These grants can help cover travel costs, human subjects payments, or just pay you a stipend so that you can focus on your project instead of supporting yourself through a job.

Undergraduate Research grants are highly competitive, and successful applicants often start thinking about their project, finding a mentor, and drafting a project proposal months in advance.  You can always approach your Academic Advisor to learn more about the different kinds of student grants out there and what next steps you can take to prepare.

Remember that not all independent projects need funding to take off and be successful!  Even if you don’t receive a research grant, your project can still make a meaningful contribution to scholarship, further your own artistic and intellectual development, and play a prominent role in a future resume, cover letter, or graduate school application.

Write a Project Proposal

If you are applying for a research grant or an honors thesis program, chances are you will have to write up a project proposal or a grant proposal.  A project proposal is often more detailed and developed than your one-sheet.  Generally speaking, your project proposal will lay out your goals and objectives, discuss past work done in this field and what new contribution you will make, and discuss your methodology and detailed plans for how you will pursue your project.

Some departments offer courses that will teach you how to write a research grant proposal within that discipline: for example, Anthro 92A and B, CSRE 146A, Soc 202, STS 191W, UrbanSt 202A. (Read the course descriptions carefully, as some of these courses are intended for juniors within the major seeking to write an honors thesis.)

Always keep your intended audience in mind!  For example, if you are applying for VPUE Undergraduate Research funding, your proposal will be read by Ph.D. level reviewers who are not necessarily experts in your specific field.  This means you will want to avoid jargon and make sure your proposal is accessible to someone who is educated but not a specialist.

We also recommend reading the proposal guidelines and sample student proposals included at the link below.  The example proposals with annotations can be especially helpful in showing you what a good grant proposal looks like, and how even a strong grant proposal can be improved.

Finally, get feedback on your grant proposal from as many sources as you can.  Take it to your faculty mentor to get their feedback!  Take it to the Hume Center!  Take it to your Academic Advisor!  Many of the Undergraduate Advising Directors sit on the review committees for VPUE Undergraduate Research grants, and have a strong sense of what makes for a good proposal and what doesn’t.

Writing a Project Proposal (guidelines and sample proposals)

See Also

Return to the Advising Student Handbook