Independent Study

All physics and biophysics majors are encouraged to take an independent study so that they can learn about some advanced topic or do some original research. A research independent study is especially recommended for majors planning to go to graduate school since such a study often leads to a strong recommendation by the advisor (who has gotten to know the student well through collaboration) and sometimes leads to publications or talks at conferences that strengthen a student's application to graduate school. A research independent study also often is a first step toward completing an honors thesis.

 There are three kinds of independent studies:

  1. PHYSICS 491, in which a student learns more about an advanced topic through guided reading of research articles or advanced textbooks.
  2. PHYSICS 493, in which a student does original research.  This course carries "R" code.
  3. PHYSICS 495, a research independent study during which a student does significant writing along with original research.  This course is often taken while a student writes her or his thesis,  or completes research while writing a thesis. Thus 495 is most often taken spring of the senior year. It can be taken more than once.  This course carries "R" and "W" codes.

Note that, while students graduating with distinction commonly take one or two semesters of PHYSICS 495, enrolling in PHYSICS 495 is not required in order to do a senior thesis. Conversely, a complete senior thesis is not a required outcome of a semester of PHYSICS 495. However, since PHYSICS 495 is coded with "W", some type of writing product is required of a student signing up for this course for a given semester.

Summer research in a physics research group does not count as an independent study unless a student is formally enrolled in Duke's summer school and takes an independent study course.

Steps to Enroll in an Independent Study

1. Find an advisor.  

You should try to find an advisor a few weeks before the end of the semester preceding the semester during which you will actually do the independent study. One way to find an advisor is to get suggestions from the Director of Undergraduate Studies or from a professor teaching one of your physics courses, but also feel free to browse the webpages of Faculty Research Advisors and Physics faculty and then make an appointment to meet with a professor whose research looks interesting to you, or who has expertise related to the topic you want to learn about (for a PHY 491 course). Not all professors have time or resources to be an advisor in a given semester, so you should identify several possible professors and not get discouraged if your first few attempts to find an advisor are not successful.  It is possible to have an advisor who is not in the Physics Department but your choice needs to be approved by the Director of Undergraduate Studies as having sufficient physics content for it to be approved as a physics course.

2. Fill out an Independent Study Policies and Procedures form.

It is important that you and your advisor fill out this form together and in detail so that everyone will know what milestones you should achieve at different points during the semester, how often you will meet per week, and how you will be graded. The amount of work expected per a week is comparable to a regular physics course, about ten hours, and most advisors meet with their advisees at least once per week for at least an hour. Typical deliverables involve one or more of the following: writing a paper, keeping a detailed lab book, constructing and testing an experimental apparatus, analyzing a dataset, writing and applying a computer code, preparing and giving an oral presentation using presentation software, preparing and presenting a poster at the annual Department poster meeting or at a professional conference, or writing a thesis.

Physics Independent Study Application for AY2023-2024 (updated) 

3. Submit the form to the DUS by Friday, January 12th 2023 at 5pm.

The DUS may iterate with you on content. If you meet the submission deadline, you will receive a permission number to add the course before the drop/add deadline.

4. Ensure that you and your advisor have filled out the independent study course assessment form at the end of the course.

(This applies to 493 and 495 courses only.)  The form will be sent by the office of the DUS, and should be completed before the end of the exam period for the semester in which you took the IS.