Independent Study Modules (ISMs) and Undergraduate
Research Opportunities Programmes (UROPs) in their
original form were highly intensive, self-directed
projects pursued by undergraduate students in
University Scholars Programme (USP). With inputs
and guidance from a supervisor (usually a lecturer with
cognate interests/expertise in students' chosen field of
research), many bright and highly-motivated students
have done very promising research work that exposes
and primes them for graduate work.
In the Department of Political Science, students
normally choose a topic, approach a lecturer who has
to agree to supervise him/her, and then submit an ISM
paper of some 5,000 words at the end of one semester
of research work.
However supervisors may already have several PhD,
Master's and Honours students in addition to their own
research, teaching and administrative responsibilities.
Thus most supervisors are usually left with very little
time for undergraduate research, and can typically take
on no more than one or two ISM students per semester.
In view of these constraints, I have found the following
checklist useful in helping me decide whether to accept
students who approach me to supervise their ISMs:
1. Choose Only Very Motivated Students
There is nothing worse than accepting an unmotivated
student who wants to do an ISM only because it is a
requirement. I usually ask potential students for as
detailed a research proposition as possible. They should
be able to at least identify a research question or puzzle
that interests them and have some ideas of the leading
arguments in their field of research.
2. Accept Only Do-able Topics
Some topics are just impossible to do within a semester
(the usual duration of an ISM in the FASS, although
other faculties may have topics that stretch over a full
academic year). Thus, the lecturer may have to advise
students to trim down their research objectives or
scope of work.
3. Meet Students for a Getting-to-Know-You
This is an important means of getting an idea-after
the initial round of emails (if approached by a student
one does not know)-of students' time and academic
4. Group Students
If a lecturer is approached by more than one student
and there are students with similar research interests, it
is often feasible and productive to group these students
so that they can meet together with the lecturer. I did
this once with a student who was doing research on
the integration of Turks in Germany, and another
who was working on the position of France in the EU
after the "No" result on the European Constitutional
referendum in 2005. Both students found it meaningful
and productive to meet me together and even shared
some of their research findings and readings between
themselves. It was a win-win situation for all.
5. Postpone if Necessary
There may be some semesters where the lecturer is burdened with
more responsibilities than he/she can handle. In such cases, it would
be wise to suggest to students other supervisors whom they could
approach, or postpone the project to another term. It is better to be
able to devote quality time and attention to students than to take on
too many ISM projects only to give them all half-hearted attention.
6. Draft Writing
Unlike the normal practice of producing only one term paper at the
end of the semester in some faculties, I have found it useful to make
students prepare short (1-2-page) outlines (e.g. list of references)
before they embark on actual research, and then to produce at least
one draft of their paper before submitting the finalised product. This
not only ensures that students are familiar with important scholarship
in the field, but also helps them make informed and critical decisions
about which lines they would like to pursue in graduate research,
and produce original and creative work.
7. Question Thoroughly
In humanities and social sciences at least, much of students' learning
experience lies in working through questions of methodology and
epistemology that the supervisor should be posing as the project/essay
develops. Such training would prepare undergraduate students for
research work at a higher level (e.g. Honours, Master's and PhD).
The ISM is an invaluable undergraduate research training
programme. In supervising undergraduate research, supervisors
can benefit from the exposure to bright and potential Honours and
postgraduate students particularly if their research interest coincides
with the supervisors'.