Information for students interested in doing an independent study with me

I offer independent studies to current CMU students who’d like to pursue a deeper guided exploration of a topic or project. Please read on if you’re interested.

My schedule of responsibilities is variable, and depending on many particulars, I might not be able to accommodate adding an independent study. That being said, if I do have space it may in the fall or spring semesters. As of this writing (2023–2024 academic year), I have a preference for spring independent studies because my teaching load is lighter then.

Scheduling weekly meetings

An independent study has a schedule that is arranged between us based on our mutual availability; typically, I’ll meet with an independent study student on a weekly basis. (Please note that the university’s official Schedule of Classes will likely list “DNM” (“does not meet”) or “TBA” (“to be announced”) as the schedule; you can ignore these designations.)

Our meetings can vary quite a bit in length, based on the need(s) at the moment. For instance, an individual weekly meeting may be:

Timeline and goals

No two indpendent studies are structured identically, since they’re built out of a conversation between the student and me. That said, here is a very generic example of a schedule over the course of a semester that we might agree upon:

semester week major activity or deliverable
1 literature review
2 first third of work begins; material gathering; technical problem identification
3 first-third work
4 first-third work
5 check-in deadline for first third of semester
6 second-third work begins
7 second-third work continues
8 fall or spring break
9 second-third work continues
10 check-in deadline for second third of semester
11 final work begins
12 final work continues
13 final work continues
14 final semester deadline

This presumes your project might reasonably be broken into thirds, which of course doesn’t necessarily apply.

Grading and units

Grading for independent studies is based on a rubric that we agree upon before the semester begins which defines expectations so everyone’s on the same page. This rubric document is particular to your own project, timing expectations, prior experience, etc., and may go through several drafts before we settle on a final version. Undergraduate grading at CMU runs A through D, then R, without pluses and minuses; graduate students can get grades from A+ through D–, then R.

The independent study is a variable-unit course, which can range from 3 to 18 units for the semester. It would be unusual (but possible) to do a lightweight independent study, something in the 3–6 unit range; it’s typical to choose 9–12 units; and it’s possible on paper to do a project that would represent more work than a 12-unit class, but that would be a hard sell for me. The meaning of one academic unit at Carnegie Mellon is the presumed equivalence of one hour of academic effort per academic week for the semester—i.e. if you’re in a 9-unit course, whether it’s an independent study or not, then you should expect to spend a total of about 9 hours per week for that semester working on that class. Taking another generic example of a student who wishes to do a 9-unit independent study, we might expect a typical week to look like:

time activity
1.5 hrs. meeting with Zach
30 mins. emailing outside contact to help with scheduling final showing
45 mins. ongoing documentation, including taking photos and updating research blog
30 mins. reading research on a related precedent project
1 hr. sourcing an unusual part needed for the project
4.75 hrs. working on cracking a technical problem (not all in one session!)

I’ll admit that I finagled that sample schedule to make it actually add up to exactly 9 hours—in reality, you should expect to have lighter and heavier weeks of effort along the course of the semester.

Sound interesting?

If you think you’d like to do an indpendent study with me, I encourage you to reach out a few months before the target semester. (If you’re later than that, you should still write me, but know that it will be less likely that we can work together.) If we’re a good fit and I anticipate that I’ll have the time to do an independent study with you during your semester of interest, then we can start to have some initial planning meetings prior to that semester’s start so as to sketch out your schedule and draft your rubric. Write me an email and we’ll discuss: without the cation.