Many students in psychology engage in research and/or service projects under the supervision of psychology faculty members. Whether a student plans to go to graduate school or to seek employment immediately after graduation with a bachelor’s degree, apprenticeship experience with a faculty member is invaluable. Such experience provides first-hand experience with the joys and frustrations of psychological research and scholarship, and it teaches students how to think critically about theory, how to analyze data, how to review relevant literatures, how to synthesize existing research, how to design a statistical analysis, how to use laboratory equipment, how to conduct ethical research, how to write about psychological theory and empirical findings, and how to disseminate new findings and ideas.
Some students engage in research and/or service projects simply for the experience, while others get “independent study” credit for such work. Psychology offers two different kinds of “independent study” credit.
Two Flavors of Independent Study
The first type of independent study, PSY 399, is titled “Independent Readings.” Students who earn credit in PSY 399 typically write an APA-style paper critically reviewing and synthesizing the scientific literature on a well-defined (and usually narrowly defined) topic. Such an assignment involves considerable bibliographic work, library work, database searching, reading, thinking, critiquing, synthesizing, and writing. The topic of study is usually one in which the sponsoring faculty member has some special expertise or interest. Some faculty members also begin to integrate students into conducting research projects while they are enrolled in PSY 399.
The second kind of independent study, PSY 499, is titled “Independent Study and Research.” Students earn credit in PSY 499 by engaging in the design, conduct, and analysis of original psychological research. Because most research projects (including those that have a service component) are team efforts, the student typically becomes a member of a research group associated with the sponsoring faculty member. The student’s role in a project is usually well-defined in advance.
Contracts and Credits
With PSY 399 and PSY 499, both the student and the sponsoring faculty member must sign a contract in advance. Complete and submit the contract form by going to the Psychology web page, click on Forms and choose the Contract Proposal for the course you are requesting.
The form will be automatically emailed to the Psychology Department for approval and processing. After processing the contract, the student will be notified, via e-mail from email@example.com, that they are able to register for the class in Banner.
Students can take PSY 399 for 1 to 3 credits and PSY 499 for 1 to 4 credits. The amount of credit awarded depends on the amount of work a student is expected to do. In general, for a standard course at GVSU, students are expected to put in 2-3 hours outside of class for every hour in class. Following this guideline, students are expected to devote about 3-4 hours per week to the course if they register for one credit, 6-8 hours/week for two credits, 9-12 hours/week for three credits, and 12-16 hours/week for four credits. The amount of credit you will receive is stipulated in the contract.
Grades are based on both the quality and quantity of work done by the student. If a student has contracted to produce a particular product (e.g., a review of the literature or a paper reporting an empirical study), a substantial portion of the student’s grade will typically be based on the quality of that product.
How to Find a Faculty Sponsor
Sponsors of independent study typically are tenure-line faculty members in the Psychology Department. A list of such faculty is available in the Psychology office. Non-tenure track faculty may offer independent studies with approval by the department chair.
Before signing up for independent study credit, it is a good idea to apprentice as a volunteer on a research project with the faculty you are considering as a sponsor. By volunteering, you will get a sense of the pace of the work and also of the responsibilities you will have as an independent study student. Because independent studies involve both a great deal of work and also a great deal of individual responsibility, students should be highly motivated to participate actively in any project they select as independent study.
The success of an independent study often depends on how well matched the student and the sponsor are. It is a good idea to work with a sponsor that you already know (particularly one who has taught a course you have taken). However, if your own interests are good match with those of someone you do not know well, you can still approach that professor to discuss whether an independent study project would be appropriate.
Limits on Applying Credits
You can do more than one independent study. However, you are permitted to apply at most six credit hours of independent study work to a major in psychology.
Some Things that Independent Studies are NOT
Independent Studies are not substitutes for courses offered by the department. Typically, independent studies address content areas that are both more specialized and more advanced than is typical of standard courses. Nor are independent studies simply directed readings courses; the level of engagement, self-direction, and independence expected of participating students is substantial. The students who thrive in independent studies tend to be highly motivated self-starters who become intensely engaged in the project.