Independent Study (HORT 495)

The main purpose of the Independent Study is to give students the opportunity to pursue topics or skills not fully covered in their course work. Students arrange to work with a professor whose research is of interest to the student, and then spend the semester exploring a topic chosen by the student and professor. Activities and assignments will be project-specific and developed by the student and professor.

Steps to Starting an Independent Study

  1. Read the information below on identifying, contacting, and meeting with potential mentors.

  2. Contact any professors you’re interested in working with to let them know you're taking HORT 495 Independent Study in the upcoming semester and ask if they are accepting students.

  3. Once you’ve determined who you will work with for the Independent Study, you should meet to discuss specific expectations for the Independent Study. You and the professor need to develop a contract of sorts that outlines the expectations you’ve discussed. Here is an example of a contract, but each professor might have their own template.

  4. The contract and a Variable Credit form then need to be submitted to Karen Allison (, who will put an override in the registration system that allows you to register for Hort 495 Independent Study.

  5. You then will be able to register for Hort 495 Independent Study. When you register for it, you need to manually change the credits to 2 or 3, whichever you and the professor have agreed on (see Credit Information below)

Identifying Potential Research Mentors

  1. Determine what most interests you. In other words, define a research area (for example: controlled environments, pomology, specialty crops, floriculture, human nutrition, analytical chemistry, breeding and genetics). What are you curious about?

  2. If you’re not sure what research area interests you, then start by doing a general review of HLA research programs and HLA faculty research.

  3. Read the research descriptions and generate a ranked list of at least three potential faculty mentors. Identify one or more aspects about each person’s research that is interesting to you and that you would like to know more about. It may be necessary to contact several potential mentors before you find one with matching interests and space on their research team to add a new undergraduate research trainee. Do not get discouraged or give up!

Contacting Potential Research Mentors

Email is a good way to make initial contact with potential mentors. By sending an email you give the mentor a chance to review your materials before responding. It is like the first step in an interview, so be sure it reflects your best effort (no spelling or grammatical errors!). If you are comfortable, you may also ask to make an appointment to call or stop by a potential mentor’s office to ask about a research experience.

Some things to consider when composing emails:

  • Research mentors are very busy people, so keep it short and to the point (approximately 1 paragraph). However, do not treat the email like a text message. It should be a full, professional letter with proper grammar and spelling.

  • Make sure your email has a "subject". For example "HORT 495 - Independent Study Inquiry"

  • Address the email using the mentor’s official title (e.g., Professor, Dr.) Specifically refer to the mentor’s research, and what you find interesting about it. Be sure to use your own words and not to copy text from the research description on their website. This is the most important part of the email to demonstrate your interest in research.

  • Highlight what you have to offer; what distinguishes you from other students (e.g., hard worker, experience, eager to learn, willing to stay more than one semester, persistent, specific courses you’ve completed that are relevant to the research).

  • Show enthusiasm for learning how to do research!

  • Request that if the mentor is not able to take an undergraduate research trainee at this time, that they could recommend a colleague who might be able to.

  • Close the email as you would a letter, with a closing (e.g., “Sincerely,” “Respectfully”) and your full name, year of study, major and complete contact information (email, phone, mail).

  • If requesting a meeting, give a large range of times that you are available or ask when the potential mentor has office hours.


  • It can be challenging to connect with research mentors, so be persistent, yet polite. Ideally, give potential mentors a week to respond to your email before you follow up.

  • Research groups have limited space, so it may be difficult to find a group that is looking for, or willing to take, another student. Do not take it personally if they decline your request .

Meeting with Potential Research Mentors

  • Be on time, not early or late.

  • Be yourself. Be enthusiastic and motivated.

  • Be ready to discuss your academic and career goals and why you want to do research with this mentor specifically (What is it about their research that is interesting to you? Is there a particular project on which you would like to work?).

  • Ask about the expectations of undergraduate trainees in the group (time commitment, credits, type of work).

  • Have a plan for the time you will be available to work in the lab during normal business hours. Be prepared to give the potential mentor the times that you are available (rather than the times you are unavailable). Think carefully about what is realistic for you.

  • Ask about who would be your direct mentor in the group (professor, post-doc, graduate student, technician, senior peer undergraduate).

  • Bring a copy of your transcript if you haven’t already submitted one.

  • If you are interviewing with multiple prospective mentors, tell the mentor exactly when you will follow up with him/her and do it. Mentors need to know if you will not be available if they are interviewing multiple candidates for a position.

If you want to really impress a potential mentor:

  • Read about the research before you go to the interview. There is usually a research overview on the researcher’s website with references/links to the group’s published papers. Try to read one of these papers and prepare some questions about them. Generally, mentors won’t expect you to fully understand the research, but making an effort to learn about it on your own demonstrates independence and motivation.

Credit Information

The Independent Study can be for 2 or 3 credit hours, which will be determined between you and the professor you’re working with. Typically:

  • For 2 credits, you would work ~6 hours per week, often assisting a graduate student with their research and/or doing a literature review to collect information that would be helpful for the research in your lab

  • For 3 credits, you would work ~9 hours per week, often working on your own guided research and then doing some sort of final presentation (poster, paper, lab presentation, etc)

Some of this content was modified from: Branchaw, Janet L.,Butz, Amanda R.,Smith, Amber. Entering Research: A Curriculum to Support Undergraduate & Graduate Research Trainees (Kindle Locations 5826-5852). W. H. Freeman. Kindle Edition.