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Maximizing Penn Law: Independent Study

(Matthew Corriel L’ 13 drafted and provided significant content for this page.)

Category Description

An independent study  offers students the opportunity to chart their own course, to delve deeper into a subject of interest, to get to know a particular professor better, and to build up a portfolio of academic writing, which can include fulfilling the senior writing requirement.  An independent study can involve academic research for or collaboration with a professor, a written follow-up to summer employment, or writing a paper under the supervision of a faculty member.  Independent studies are flexible, and there is tremendous potential to turn a faculty supervisor into a great mentor (and recommender).  Keep in mind, though: perhaps more than any other curricular pursuit, the rewards of an independent study are directly proportional to the efforts invested.

The Nuts and Bolts

Note curricular requirements and distinctions between full-time and adjunct faculty members

For general information about independent studies, please see here. Also note distinctions between full-time and adjunct faculty for this endeavor.  For example, per the Independent Study Form (available in the Registrar’s Office), those seeking an adjunct faculty member as a supervisor must receive approval from the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Paul George (pmgeorge@law.upenn.edu).  No such approval is necessary for an independent study with a full-time faculty supervisor.  Further, students should note that full-time faculty have offices right at the Law School and often teach multiple courses, usually year after year.  Adjunct faculty often teach a single course in a given school year, and may not teach every year.  If a student anticipates a project requiring multiple semesters of work, the student should note that an adjunct may not be present each semester to continue a tie to the student.  For more information on full-time and adjunct faculty, please consult the 2L-Classes and 3L-Classes portions of the Guide. 

Identify a topic and faculty supervisor

In many cases, students will seek a particular faculty member to supervise the independent study.  In fact, the opportunity to work with a specific scholar may be the impetus for the project.  Moreover, perhaps a particular subject sparked a student’s interest during a survey course, and the student could then seek out a faculty member to discuss this interest (and pursue an independent study).  All that remains in that case is to identify a topic for research and writing that is related, in some way, to that professor’s general area of interest and the student’s academic inclinations. 

If, however, a student is interested in pursuing a particular topic but is unsure which professor would be an appropriate supervisor, the student could start by consulting the faculty bios online.  Students should seek a faculty supervisor who can help refine their ideas and provide knowledgeable feedback in the particular area of law.  General Tip: The most effective independent studies are not substitutes for survey courses, but focused explorations of an advanced topic.

Ask to meet with the potential faculty supervisor and propose the independent study to him or her

It is possible the faculty member will not have time to supervise.  If busy, faculty members can also refer students to other professors who may be able to help.   Generally, most professors will be glad to supervise if at all possible as long as the interest and commitment are genuine.  Use that first meeting to: (a) refine the focus of the independent study; (2) discuss what kind of working relationship would be ideal (e.g. frequency of meetings);  and (3) determine whether the work product will be writing, the form of the writing, and when the writing will be due.  General Tip: the faculty supervisor is likely to recommend articles or books at the first meeting.  Don’t wait: read them as soon as possible!

During add/drop period, submit the independent study form to the Registrar

These forms are available online and in hard copy at the Registrar’s office.  Whether a student takes the independent study pass/fail or for a grade, and whether it is taken for one, two, or three credits, is up to the student and the faculty member.  General Tip: Typically, a student can take the independent study for a grade only if he or she produces a piece of writing.

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Chronological Narrative

Any semester in 2L or 3L year is a great time for an independent study.  The opportunity to complete work on a student’s own timetable may help the student balance coursework in a particularly heavy semester.  And while it’s absolutely fine to take more than one independent study during law school, it’s wise to limit independent studies to one at a time, and to consider other course selection factors (such as robust exploration of a given topical area, experiential opportunities, etc.).  Along those lines, be wary of the schedule that is too unstructured (i.e., all co-curricular opportunities with only one or none of the standard three- or four-credit courses). Also note that there is a limit on the number of co-curricular courses and activities (e.g. non-law classes, independent studies, externships, etc.) that JD students can pursue. 

Additional (Informal) Information about Independent Studies

Independent studies offer academic credit and can yield a grade at the end of the study.  Independent studies, however, are not really about credits and grades.  Credits and grades are important, of course, but in this context, there are other factors at play.  Namely, independent studies are about the student’s work product and, importantly, the student’s reputation with the faculty supervisor.

Students should take a moment to appreciate this before they embark on this path, and they should remember this tenet when other obligations challenge the priority of this work.  As it is possible for weeks to slip by with this sort of endeavor, students may consider creating a syllabus and, if possible, schedule regular meetings with the faculty supervisor.  With diligence—but only with diligence—an independent study can be one of the most rewarding academic experiences in law school.

Contacts

For initial questions about independent studies, please contact the Registrar’s Office at all-reg@law.upenn.edu

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