Getting Started in Research Independent Study

Getting Started

  1. Identify Research Problem — You and your research director need to agree on a clear statement of the research problem that you will pursue. In order for your research director to define the scope of your problem, you need to make clear to him/her the number of semesters that you plan to devote to research independent study.
  2. Develop Project Schedule — You and your research director need to agree on a schedule of times that you will work on your project. Plan on devoting 10-15 hours per week on your research, split between laboratory research and library research. Consider this schedule to be part of your obligatory weekly schedule (it is replacing TBA on your official DukeHub schedule). You may, of course, request occasional variations in the schedule from your research director, but such requests should be made seldom, in advance, and the time should be made up.
  3. Secure Project Location — Your research director needs to assign a space where you will do your research. Your research director will need to arrange for your card/key access to the space. Although you will have access after hours, you should NOT plan on carrying out any laboratory operations unless someone else is present in the lab.
  4. Complete Safety Training — You should undertake the formal safety training recommended by your research director. You should also familiarize yourself with the safety features of your research lab. Learn the locations of fire extinguishers, first aid kit, eye wash fountain, emergency shower, nearest fire alarm pull station, the nearest exit in case it becomes necessary to exit the building in an emergency evacuation, and the external meeting location for the research group following an evacuation.
  5. Apply for Funding — You should apply for some local funding made available by the university to augment any funding that your research director may already have obtained for your project. The procedure and the application form for obtaining a university grant are available at the Duke Undergraduate Research Support site. Since this funding pool is limited (about 50 grants of $350 per semester) and awards are made on a weekly basis beginning the first Monday after the end of Drop/Add in a semester, you should apply as soon as possible. This application requires a research proposal including a budget of equipment and supplies that will be purchased. You will probably need significant help from your research director in preparing this proposal since your knowledge of the project is understandably limited at this time.
  6. Obtain Research Notebooks — Independent study involves two kinds of research: laboratory research and library research. You will need to keep records of both types of research in notebooks. You should obtain two different kinds of notebooks: one for keeping records of laboratory research and one for library research.
    • For lab research you will keep chronological records in a bound notebook that has permanently numbered pages. Talk to your research director and your graduate student mentor about the standards your lab follows.
    • For keeping records of library research, consider using a two- or three-inch 3-ring binder in which you can keep records of important articles you find. A record will consist of a xerographic copy of the article along with a summary of bibliographic information.
  7. Get to Know Your Group — Although you will be participating in “independent” study, you will not start out being very independent. There is a steep learning curve in research so expect to be almost totally dependent on other members of the research group for guidance as you begin your research. A typical academic research group consists of a faculty member, post-doctoral student(s), doctoral candidate(s), and other undergraduate(s) pursuing independent study. All members of the group will be willing to help you. As you gain experience, however, you are expected to become more and more independent in your own research and more helpful to others in the group.

Aspects of Research

Scientific Methods

Laboratory research and library research have been integrated in various ways that are collectively known as "the" scientific method. Read here to explore the history and philosophy of the scientific method.

Library Research

  • An excellent summary of how to conduct library reserach can be found at the Duke Library site.
  • A wide range of request forms including InterLibrary Loan, which allows you to request materials from State or UNC libraries that are not available from Duke Libraries.


  • Explanation of Material Safety Data Sheets. When you purchase chemicals, the manufacturer will include MSDS sheets. These should be saved in the back of your library research notebook and organized in some logical manner to facilitate retrieval of information.
  • A vast array of safety information is available through the Duke Safety office.

Ethics in Science


  • Understand what a Q-test is.
  • Correlation Coefficient describes how to determine if there is a relationship between independent and dependent variables by carrying out correlation calculations. If there is a relation, carry out linear regression calculations for determining the mathematical equation that relates the variables.
  • Curve fitting is the process of constructing a curve, or mathematical function, that has the best fit to a series of data points
  • A common error in drawing conclusions is to mistake establishing correlation with establishing cause-and-effect.
  • A second common error is concluding that your experiment has proven your hypothesis to be true. “Scientists gather evidence (as opposed to ÒproofÓ) to support or falsify hypotheses. Hypotheses and theories may be well supported by evidence but never proven.” (, page 7.)

Misconduct in Science

“Beyond honest errors and errors caused through negligence are [sic] a third category of errors: those that involve deception. Making up data or results (fabrication), changing or misreporting data or results (falsification), and using the ideas or words of another person without giving appropriate credit (plagiarism) - all strike at the heart of the values on which science is based.” ( Plagiarism and how to avoid it are described in Duke's tutorial on the subject.

Written Communications

Oral Communication

A second requirement of independent study in the chemistry department is the preparation and presentation of a poster describing your research. Instructions for preparing and presenting a poster are located in the Resources section.