Independent Research

Gain experience in the field and develop in-depth knowledge in an area of expertise by conducting rigorous academic research in a specialized area of focus.

Doing serious research also gives you the field experience needed for certain jobs and internships. It tells the world that you're serious about your studies and serious about your career. It's hard work, but the rewards are worth it.

several students are in conversation around tables

Undergraduate Students

All undergraduate students must meet a field experience requirement, which can be an internship, a study abroad session, or an independent research project. To receive Independent Study CONF 499 credit and meet the program's field experience requirement, you must:

  • Determine the topic you wish to research and develop your research questions. Learn more about a specific area of interest or a topic that will help you in your future career through independent study.
  • Develop a research proposal about your study topic. You'll also need to provide a bibliography of publications guiding your research.
  • Find a faculty advisor. This professor provides research guidance and assigns the final grade.
  • Revise your proposal and develop a syllabus. Your faculty advisor will help you develop the specifics of the course, such as what you'll read and produce, and your timeline.
  • Complete the Individualized Section form (PDF). You'll need to submit this form to an Academic Advisor or the Director of Student Services and Field Experience.

If you need financial resources to conduct your research, contact Mason's Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR). It offers funding for undergraduate students through the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (URSP).

Graduate Students

You have two independent study options: a Master's Thesis or a Directed Reading (Independent Study).

If you're interested in a career in academia or research, we strongly suggest you write a thesis. This will allow you to concentrate on and learn more about one area that is of particular interest to you. Before you begin work on your thesis, we recommend you take CONF 600 and CONF 610. Students usually start the thesis process a year before they plan to graduate.

In some circumstances, students can instead take an Independent Study course. You might qualify for independent study if:

A course that you require is not scheduled for two semesters, which would delay your graduation.

You want to work with a specific faculty member on a topic that isn't a part of your program. You can ask the professor responsible for that required course to substitute a directed reading course (MS students, CONF 697; PhD candidates, CONF 897), which will allow you to cover the material independently.

Incomplete grades will not be granted for Directed Reading courses, unless you have a medical emergency.

To learn more about requesting a Directed Reading/ Independent Study please email your academic advisor.

Masters Thesis Requirements

Determine Your Intended Graduation Date

It takes a year or more to fully complete a thesis. Use your projected graduation date to set up a timeline to schedule deadlines for each step in the process.

Select and Confirm Thesis Chair and Committee

A thesis committee consists of at least three full-time faculty, including the chair. You must keep all committee members informed of the scope, plan, and progress of your thesis.

Review faculty profiles to identify faculty members who can help you reach your goals. They should:

  • Conduct research in your area of interest.
  • Use research methods similar to those you will use.
  • Be someone with whom you are comfortable working.

Select the chair of your committee first, as this person will be primarily responsible for directing and guiding your research and writing. While all full-time faculty are qualified to supervise/ chair theses, some might be unavailable. However, you can ask them to recommend a colleague.

You're not required to have an outside reader but if you request one, the MS Program Director can approve a full-time faculty member from outside the Carter School.

You must complete this step a year before you submit your thesis.

Submit Thesis CRN Request Form to Enroll in CONF 799

You'll use the Thesis Course Reference Number (CRN) form to register for your first thesis semester. It will include a descriptive paragraph or abstract of your thesis topic, a thesis completion schedule with dates, and the signature of your thesis chair. You don't need the signatures of your other committee members.

Submit the thesis CRN request form (PDF) to

You must turn this form in 10 months before you submit your thesis.

Submit Thesis Proposal to Committee for Approval and Signature

A thesis proposal outlines the research question, methodology and literature on the area of interest. For a sample proposal cover page/signature sheet, see this Proposal Signature Sheet template (Word Doc).

Students must have their thesis proposal approved by their chair and committee. Once approved, please submit the signed thesis proposal signature sheet and a copy of the proposal.

The John Burton Library requests copies of proposals for examples for future students to reference. Please email your proposal.

Complete Human Services Review Board Exam and Application

If you're conducting human subject research, you must submit an Institutional Review Board (IRB) application for IRB approval. application/IRB approval is only required if the student is conducting human subjects research.

If you're working with data collected from human subjects that contains information that might identify them, you might require IRB approval, even if you don't have any personal interaction with the subjects. This could include analyzing existing human subjects data/medical records, etc. You should work closely with your chair, and contact IRB if you have any questions or think your resource material might be an issue.

  • The HSRB meets monthly to review applications. Monthly submission deadlines are available here
  • Information on human subjects review, templates and forms are available.

You must complete this step eight months before you submit your thesis.

Conduct Research, Analyze Data, and Begin First Draft

You must complete this step seven months before you submit your thesis.

Submit First Draft to Thesis Chair and Committee

Allow for multiple revisions, and set review timelines with the Committee. Faculty may require considerable time to evaluate, advise, and suggest changes to the thesis draft.

You must complete this step three months before you submit your thesis.

Consult with University Thesis & Dissertation Services

Students completing a masters thesis should consult the University Thesis and Dissertation Services (UDTS) site regularly to ensure they are meeting the appropriate Mason requirements.

We also urge you to attend a UDTS workshop. These are held every semester on the Arlington and Fairfax campuses.

Mason requires strict adherence to the formats described in the online thesis guide. All theses must be reviewed by the UDTS Coordinator prior to final submission. Make an appointment with the UDTS Coordinator to review formatting guidelines as soon as you have a workable draft. The UDTS site also offers templates to ensure proper formatting.

UDTS assists with formatting tables and images in your document and are considered a fourth committee member. Your document does not need to be finished when you submit it to UDTS, which should review it before you present your final version to your committee. Email the file; UDTS does not accept hard copies. You do not have to be present for the review process.

Because UDTS reviews all submissions, we strongly advise you to turn in a copy for review well before the end-of-semester deadlines.

You must complete this step four weeks before you submit your thesis.

Submit and Receive Final Approval from Committee

Once your committee has approved your thesis, you must get the signatures of your committee chair and members. After you have received all the signatures for your committee please forward the updated signature sheet to your academic advisor, who will coordinate the Program Director's and Dean's signatures.

You must complete this step two weeks before you submit your thesis.

Schedule Submission Consultation with UDTS

Review Submission UDTS deadlines, and make an appointment with the UDTS Coordinator.