Thesis or Project?

We encourage interested students to pursue research as part of their education in biology. Research brings the rewards of individual achievement outside of the normal classroom setting and allows the student to explore a depth of exposure not available in our regular courses. Research provides an opportunity to demonstrate responsibility by the scheduling of one's own work, and an opportunity to demonstrate initiative by attacking barriers that were not anticipated.

Students engage in research under the direction of a faculty advisor. The relationship between the research advisor and student is more intensive than in most courses. Successful research requires a level of independence, critical awareness and academic maturity beyond that expected in the classroom.

Independent Study

The first semester of BIOL 0500 or BIOL 0700 is an independent study project. You earn credit for a term of work on a laboratory project, a field project, or in some cases a library project. Work is carried out under the supervision of a member of the Biology Department faculty with permission from the Chair of the department. Expectations and due dates for the final results of the project (before the end of the exam period of the semester in which the project is undertaken) are worked out with your faculty advisor, who assigns the final grade for the project. The grade for this work is intended to recognize your effort and determination as well as the material you have learned, including your understanding of the scientific process or experimental design.

Students undertaking an independent study are required to attend all departmental seminars, attend all weekly lunchtime research discussions, and make a presentation concerning his or her project during one or more of these discussions.

To enroll in BIOL 0500 (non-seniors) or BIOL 0700 (seniors only) for a one-semester independent study, you must

1. Begin talking with individual faculty about possible projects the term before you want to start your project. You may approach a faculty member with a specific research proposal, you may have a general interest that needs further definition, or you may have only a broad topic in mind. You may need to read extensively in the primary literature to adequately define a project. Faculty generally direct research in areas in which they teach and have special interests. Depending on availability of equipment, the expertise of a faculty member in your area of interest, and your previous preparation, it may be possible to work on topics outside your advisors primary area of research.

2. Have both your faculty advisor and the Chair of the Department sign your registration card authorizing your enrollment in BIOL 0500 or 0700. You may enroll during any semester, but if you hope to continue your work in subsequent semesters, it is recommended that you enroll in your first semester of Independent Study during the first semester of your senior year.  For students matriculating in the Fall, this means that your initial discussions with your research advisor will occur in the Spring Semester of your junior year. In some cases, particularly those involving field work,  your first semester of Independent Study  may be in the second semester of the junior year (at which point you would take BIOL 0500). In some cases the first semester of Independent Study is in the Winter Term of their senior year, but such a schedule places severe time constraints upon the student.

It is possible to enroll in a two semester Independent Study project without having that work done in the context of a Senior Thesis. This requires the approval of both the student's faculty research advisor and the Chair of the Department. The final written report for a multiple-semester non-thesis Independent Study must at a minimum include an introduction to the study, a description of and rationale for the methods employed, an analysis of the data, and a discussion of the significance of the results.

Students who carry out independent research not in the context of a thesis are not considered for Departmental Honors. As in the single semester project, the due dates for the final results of the project (before the end of the exam period of the semester in which the project is completed) are worked out with your faculty advisor, who assigns the final grade for the project. The grade for the second semester of work is intended to recognize both your effort and product.

Senior Thesis: If you make satisfactory progress on an independent study project that requires more than one semester to complete and you wish to write a thesis and present your research in a more public forum, you may apply to continue your work for one additional semester as a senior thesis. Normally this means that your first semester of BIOL 0700 was carried out during the Fall Semester and that subsequent work is continued during the Winter and/or Spring Semesters. Other schedules are possible, however, and should be discussed with your faculty research advisor.

Enrolling in more than one semester of BIOL 0500 or BIOL 0700 and conducting your work in the context of a senior thesis changes the nature of the expectations placed on you.

Department of Biology

McCardell Bicentennial Hall
276 Bicentennial Way
Middlebury College
Middlebury, VT 05753