Individual Research Requirement
Both the B.S. in Neuroscience and the Neuroscience Minor require students to undertake neuroscience research for credit as part of their program of study. Although there is a lab course (NSCI 570 - Neuroscience Laboratory) that students can take to fulfill their Research Requirement, most students should plan to complete Individual Research (NSCI 498 or equivalent).
Individual research, also referred to as independent research or independent study, is research a student undertakes with a faculty mentor. Unlike standard classes, you can only register for an Individual Research course with the agreement of a faculty mentor. Once you have identified a faculty mentor willing to supervise your research, together you will complete a contract for the work, outlining the topic and scope of the work that is to be completed and how the work will be evaluated. After obtaining a variety of approvals, you will be able to register in a unique section of the course that is created just for you. Details of this process are available below.
To count towards the Neuroscience Major or Minor, this research must have a neuroscience focus. Research in many areas of neuroscience can involve extensive training, including things like safety training, human subjects training, and training on specific techniques used in the lab. Because of this, many neuroscience faculty expect multi-semester commitments from undergraduates they accept into their labs, and many will only accept individual research students who already have experience in their labs. You may need to volunteer in a lab before you will be considered for individual research in that lab. Similarly, if you intend to complete a senior thesis, you may need to volunteer or complete individual research in their lab before a faculty mentor will agree to supervise your senior thesis project. Although you can complete your research credits at any time during your degree, it is recommended that you begin contacting potential mentors you are interested in working with by the end of the spring semester of your sophomore year, at the latest.
The Individual Research Process
Finding a faculty mentor is one of the most important steps in the research process. You should begin this as early as possible, as not all faculty are accepting new students in each semester and many faculty require students to have taken specific courses, have a minimum GPA, or for the student to commit to a minimum period of time working in the lab (e.g., 1 year, 2 semesters, etc.). Some mentors will prefer that students volunteer in their labs for a semester before they will commit to mentoring them for individual research or a thesis project. Because the requirements and availability can be so variable, you should start exploring your mentor options well in advance of when you think you would like to complete your research requirement credits. Be prepared for faculty to say no – most faculty members have limited availability and resources and cannot take on every student who contacts them. You may need to approach multiple faculty members before you are able to find a mentor.
There are many ways that you can identify potential mentors – they might be your professor in a course, you can ask your professors and they can recommend potential faculty mentors to you, you can attend Neuroscience Club events, etc. You can also use our searchable listing of Neuroscience Faculty to help you identify faculty whose work interests you. Once you have identified one or more faculty as potential mentors, you will need to contact them and inquire about research opportunities in their lab. Email is typically the best method (if they have requested an alternative form of contact it will be linked on the Neuroscience Faculty page). It is helpful to faculty if you indicate in your email why you are interested in their work or what particular aspect of their research interests you.
The Office of Undergraduate Research also has a lot of useful information about finding a research mentor.
The specific tasks required for an individual research project and the expectations of the faculty supervisor can vary quite widely. Some projects will involve you working on a small portion of a bigger lab project that has been designed by the faculty mentor, while others will have you developing and conducting your own experiment.
Although the specific tasks required for project completion will vary, when planning out your individual research project with your mentor you should keep in mind the general learning objectives of the research requirement:
After successful completion of this course, all students should be able to:
- Develop testable hypotheses and research questions for studying the nervous system
- Design and/or conduct an appropriate experiment and/or critically evaluate an existing experimental design and/or critically evaluate existing published literature
- Perform appropriate evaluation or analyses to answer research questions
- Evaluate and interpret the results of neuroscience experiments
- Communicate the outcome of the study effectively in a written paper and/or oral presentation
You should also keep in mind the expectations for the number of hours per week that you will devote to the project. If you are completing the research to fulfill your Research Requirement for the Major you should be registering for 3 credits. If you are completing the Research Requirement for the Minor you should register for 2-3 credits. Individual research projects are expected to be equivalent to 3 hours of work per credit hour per week (i.e., a 1-credit project = 3 hours per week, a 3-credit project = 9 hours per week). This may include time in the lab for data collection and analysis, lab meetings, individual meetings with the faculty supervisor, dedicated time for undertaking relevant readings, and time for preparation of any final products required for grading. Faculty supervisors and students should be mindful of these expectations when planning the project and completing the required contract.
Most importantly, to be approved by the program director, your individual research project must include the written or oral presentation of your project. There are many ways this can be accomplished: a paper you turn in to your mentor for grading, your completed thesis proposal, a powerpoint presentation that you give at lab meeting, a poster that you present at Discover USC or another conference, among other possibilities. This requirement does not mean that your project has to be entirely complete or publishable in its present state, but it does mean that you cannot perform only data collection or data entry to fulfill your research requirement.
The Office of Undergraduate Research has some excellent resources you should have a look through about the types of things you should discuss with your mentor as well as a template for a research contract you can complete with them to outline what will be expected of you in greater detail. Although such a contract is not required, it is highly encouraged as a way to establish clear expectations.
Once you and your mentor have agreed on a project for your Individual Research course, you need to complete a contract outlining the project requirements.
The form is pretty straightforward and most of our faculty have experience completing it, but here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- The title of your course should be descriptive and make it clear that the project is neuroscience focused (i.e., don’t simply name it “individual research” or “independent study”). This title will appear on your record.
- The method of evaluation must include a written or oral presentation of the results.
- You can enroll in any research/independent study course to fulfill your requirements, but most likely you should enroll in NSCI 498 (i.e., the Subject Code should be NSCI and the Course Number should be 498). See our FAQ below about the different course options to determine which course you should register in.
- Make sure you are registering for the correct number of credits to meet your Research Requirement (Major = 3 cr, Minor = 2 or 3 cr).
- If you are registering for NSCI 498 you should leave the CRN blank. A course section will be created for you by the Program Director and the CRN will be provided to you when you receive your approved form back.
Once you have completed the information about your project, both you and your faculty mentor should sign and date the form (electronic signatures are acceptable).
You will need to get three approval signatures on your contract before you can register - your major advisor, the chair or director of the program for the course you are wanting to register in, and your Academic Dean - and then submit your contract to have it approved as fulfilling the Neuroscience Research Requirement. Electronic signatures are acceptable.
If you are a Neuroscience Major or Minor registering for NSCI 498:
- Contact your major advisor and obtain their signature
- Upload your contract using this form to have it signed by the Neuroscience Program Director. The Director's signature at this stage constitutes approval for this Individual Research project to count towards your Research Requirement.
- Get your form signed by the College of Arts and Sciences Dean's office using their online submission form
If you are a Neuroscience Major or Minor registering for any other research course (e.g., BMEN 499, COMD 408, etc.):
- Contact your major advisor and obtain their signature
- Take your form to the undergraduate office (or email the undergraduate program director) for that department to get their Department Chair's signature.
- Get your form signed by your academic Dean. If you are a Neuroscience Major or a Minor with a major within the College of Arts and Sciences you can request a signature using their online submission form. If your major is within a different college or school you will have to request a signature from them.
- Upload a copy of your completed, signed contract for the Neuroscience Program Director to evaluate your project and issue approval for the credits to be applied to your Neuroscience Research Requirement.
Once your contract is approved, a unique section of the Individual Research course will be created for you and you will be notified when you are able to register.
The Office of Undergraduate Research requires all students who engage in research with a mentor to register their projects, in addition to completing the Independent Study Contract. Note that you will need to include contact information for your faculty mentor and they will be contacted to confirm that you are completing this project with them. You can register your project through their website.
Have a fun semester working on your project! Make sure that you are completing your assigned tasks in a timely and professional manner and that you maintain contact with your faculty mentor or other lab supervisors.
After you have completed your individual research project, you and your mentor will each be sent a short survey about your Individual Research experience to help us evaluate how well we are meeting our program's learning objectives. These evaluations are for program assessment only and none of your individual data will be shared.
Undergraduate Research FAQs
In general, you are strongly encouraged to enroll in NSCI 498 to help streamline the approval process. However, research undertaken under any major independent research code can be counted as long as the research is in the field of neuroscience and is approved by the Neuroscience Program Director (e.g., BMEN 499, EXSC 499, COMD 408, etc.). If you are working with a faculty mentor in a college or school other than the College of Arts and Sciences, you can enroll in their department's independent study course, you will just need to obtain their department chair's signature on your Independent Study Contract.
If you have already completed the research requirement as part of the Neuroscience Minor, those credits will count toward the requirement for the major if you switch (note: the major requires 3 credits, while the minor requires 2-3 credits, so if you only have 2 research credits for the minor you will need to complete 1 additional credit).
Only neuroscience-focused independent research can be applied to the major. If you have already completed independent research for your current major that you think is appropriate, it will have to be evaluated and approved by the Neuroscience Program Director. If you have a copy of your signed independent study contract you can upload it to have it evaluated. If you no longer have a copy of your contract, please contact the Neuroscience Program Director to discuss alternative paperwork you can complete.
Hands-on experience with research is central to most post-graduate program applications (e.g., medical school, PhD programs). Moreover, your research mentor will likely be your most important letter writer when you need letters of recommendation for those applications. For that reason, we recommend that any student who plans to continue their education beyond the B.S. degree complete Individual Research (NSCI 498 or equivalent) to fulfill their research requirement. Even if you don’t plan on continuing your education, Individual Research can be a great experience that teaches you valuable skills and it is highly recommended.
However, we recognize that there are some situations where completing Individual Research may not be feasible or necessary. If you are a senior and have not yet begun looking for a faculty mentor, or if you’ve already obtained research experience in a non-neuroscience area, you may wish to opt for taking a lab-based course (NSCI 570) to complete your research requirement instead. We highly recommend that you discuss this with a Neuroscience advisor before deciding if fulfilling the research requirement through a lab-based course is right for you.
Approval of the research requirement requires that the project be neuroscience-focused and in line with the program's learning objectives for the requirement. In general, if you are working on a project with one of the mentors on our Neuroscience Faculty page and your project is in line with the guidelines described in "The Individual Research Project - Step 2: Decide on a reasonable project" then it is highly likely to be approved. If you would like to undertake work with a faculty mentor not on our list of affiliated neuroscience faculty or if you are contemplating a project you are unsure will meet these requirements, you are welcome to email the Neuroscience Program Director and inquire before committing to a project.
Neuroscience Majors and Minors can take up to 6 credit hours of Individual Research. Students accepted into the B.S. with Distinction in Neuroscience can take an additional 3 credits, up to a maximum of 9. Three of these credits can be applied toward the Research Requirement, with any additional credits applied as major or minor electives.
Although exceptions can be made in unusual circumstances, you should plan to have the Individual Research that will count towards your research requirement be undertaken in a single semester with one mentor (i.e., 3 credits of NSCI 498). However, if you wish to take additional credits of Individual Research to count as an elective for your major or minor you are welcome to complete those with a different faculty mentor.
Yes, you can work on the same project for your independent study and thesis credits, you just can’t "double-dip" on the hours. Each credit you register for is meant to be equivalent to 3 hours of work per week, so if you sign up for 3 credits of NSCI 498 and 3 credits of NSCI 499 (or SCHC 499) you would be expected to complete 18 hours of work each week (9 hours for each 3 credit course).
Many students will spread their research credits across multiple semesters, as many neuroscience-related projects take multiple semesters to complete. For example, you could register for NSCI 498 in the Fall semester to develop your thesis proposal and register for NSCI 499 in the Spring semester to complete your thesis document and defense.
No. Many students do, and some do multiple semesters of individual research with the same mentor, but it is not required. You are welcome to do individual research with a different mentor than your thesis mentor.
What is the difference between these senior thesis options? Largely availability and topic.
Neuroscience Majors in the SC Honors College have to complete a senior thesis to fulfill their honors requirements, but have flexibility in the topic. Neuroscience B.S. honors students have three thesis options:
- Apply for the B.S. with Distinction in Neuroscience, and complete a neuroscience-focused senior thesis as SCHC 499 or NSCI 499 that fulfills both their B.S. with Distinction and SCHC requirements. Students will graduate with "Honors from the South Carolina Honors College" and with "Distinction in Neuroscience"
- Complete a neuroscience-focused senior thesis as SCHC 499 without applying for the B.S. with Distinction. Students will graduate with "Honors from the South Carolina Honors College"
- Complete a non-neuroscience senior thesis as SCHC 499. Students will graduate with "Honors from the South Carolina Honors College"
Non-honors Neuroscience Majors can still complete a Senior Thesis by being accepted into the B.S. with Distinction in Neuroscience and completing a neuroscience focused senior thesis as NSCI 499. Students will graduate with "Distinction in Neuroscience"