At TAIL, we aim to cultivate a new generation of researchers and engineers that can bring a broad interdisciplinary perspective to topics at the intersection of AI, Cognitive and Learning Sciences, and HCI. Independent studies provides an entry point for students to try out being a scientist by shadowing and working with scientists in our lab. This document describes the independent study process.

How to Apply

The very first thing you should do is review the lab web site (if you’re reading this, then good! you’re off to a good start) to determine if the research you are passionate about is a good fit for the lab. Good entry points are the about and research pages, which outline the research currently being conducted in the lab.

Many students reach out to inquire about reserach opportunities without taking the time to try to understand the research we do first. We receive more independent study requests than we can support each year, so when we receive generic inquiries that do not align with our work, then they are less likely to get accepted, or even to get a response (sorry!).

As you review these projects, consider how your research interests intersect with them and any ideas you have about how your potential independent study topic might build on and advance these projects Also, take a look at relevant publications (usually included on the project description pages) and try to identify the TAIL researchers that are working on them. The folks that are working on the projects you find most interesting, might make good potential mentors for your independent study project. Try to identify at least one researcher besides Chris MacLellan. Chris loves to mentor, but unfortunately has the smallest amount of time of anyone in the lab to do so, so its important to identify others that could serve as your primary mentor.

Once you’ve reviewed the projects, got a good sense for how your work might connect with them, and you’ve identified a potential mentor, then you should review the general lab expectations and responsibilities as well as those specific to students completing an independent study.

Finally, after completing the above, you should proceed to fill out an application to work in the lab. Please fill out this application before reaching out via email and if you do follow up, then please reference your application in your message.

Preparing a Research Plan

If you are selected to participate in an independent study, then you will be paired with a mentor (likely the one you identified above). Your first task as a researcher will be to work with your mentor to prepare a research plan, which you will ideally submit prior to starting your independent study (or by the second week at the latest). When preparing your plan, please try to answer the following Heilmeier questions (a standard set of questions by organizations like DARPA to evaluate proposed research plans):

  • What are you trying to do? Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.
  • How is it done today, and what are the limits of current practice?
  • What’s new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?
  • Who cares? If you’re successful, what difference will it make?
  • What are the risks and the payoffs?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How long will it take?
  • What are the midterm and final “exams” to check for success?

Your plan should also include the key outputs of your project as well as a timeline for when they will be delivered. All independent study projects must include two deliverables: (1) a final report that describes what you did and includes your reflections and lessons learned on your experience and (2) slides for a final presentation that you will give at one of the lab meetings near the end of your independent study. Other deliverables might include source code, models, or design documents that you produce.

Your research plan should be no more than three pages and written primarily by you, with guidance and feedback provided by your mentor.

Evaluation and Reflection

As mentioned before, a key goal for our group is to foster the next generation of scientists and engineers. Towards this end, the following rubric outlines several key skills that enable scientists to be successful. At the middle and end of your independent study, you will conduct a self-evaluation using this rubric, giving yourself a rating along each dimension and provide evidence to support each rating. You will also provide an overall grade (A,B,C,D, or F) for your independent study research activities, with an accompanying justification. Your mentor will review your self-evaluation and provide additional feedback. Although Chris reserves the right to make adjustments, if your grade is well justified, then it will be entered as your mid and final grade for the independent study.

As part of each of your evaluations, you will also be asked to provide feedback on your independent study experience, so we can work to improve it every year.

The form to submit your evaluation can be found here.

Here is the rubric:

Criteria Excellent (4) Good (3) Fair (2) Poor (1)
Project Understanding Demonstrates a deep understanding of the project objectives and research questions, and their significance and relevance. Provides a solid understanding of the project objectives and research questions. Shows a basic understanding of the project objectives and research questions. Displays limited understanding of the project objectives and research questions.
Research Skills Exhibits exceptional research skills, including proficient data gathering, analysis, and interpretation. Applies advanced research methodologies, techniques, and tools effectively. Demonstrates satisfactory research skills, but with room for improvement in areas such as data analysis or methodology. Shows limited research skills, struggling with data gathering, analysis, or methodology.
Autonomy and Initiative Shows exceptional ownership and autonomy in driving the project independently. Takes initiative to explore additional research avenues or suggest improvements to the project. Demonstrates some degree of autonomy but requires more guidance and direction. Relies heavily on mentor for guidance and lacks initiative in driving the project.
Time and Project Management Consistently exceeds project milestones and timelines, demonstrating exceptional time management skills. Makes significant progress towards project objectives and adapts project plan as needed. Meets project milestones and timelines but with occasional delays or minor adjustments. Struggles to meet project milestones and timelines, requiring frequent adjustments or extensions.
Communication and Reporting Communicates research findings with exceptional clarity and effectiveness, displaying exceptional written and oral communication skills. Produces well-written reports, presentations, and other deliverables. Presents research findings adequately, but with room for improvement in clarity or organization. Struggles to effectively communicate research findings, lacking clarity or coherence.
Collaboration and Engagement Actively initiates and leads productive lab meetings, discussions, and collaborations. Consistently contributes valuable insights and knowledge to peers in a constructive manner. Participates in lab meetings and discussions but with limited contributions. Lacks active engagement in lab meetings, discussions, or collaborations.
Problem Solving and Critical Thinking Displays exceptional problem-solving skills, exhibiting advanced creativity and identifying innovative solutions. Applies critical thinking to analyze and evaluate research outcomes effectively. Demonstrates satisfactory problem-solving skills but may require guidance in complex situations. Struggles to apply critical thinking and problem-solving skills effectively.
Professionalism and Ethical Conduct Consistently demonstrates exceptional professionalism, punctuality, and commitment to the project. Adheres to ethical standards, ensuring integrity and confidentiality in research practices. Demonstrates satisfactory professionalism but with occasional lapses in punctuality or ethical conduct. Displays unprofessional behavior or fails to adhere to ethical standards.

I finished my independent study, what’s next?

Once you complete your independent study, there are a couple of possible next steps that you might consider. We have identified three possible pathways to continued engagement with the lab:

  • Paid graduate reserach position: If your mentor and Chris are impressed by your work, and if funding is available to support it, there is a possibility that you could continue on in the lab under a paid graduate research assistantship. Although we cannot always provide this option, you are encouraged to speak with your mentor about this possibility.
  • Master thesis: if you are in a master’s program and are considering a thesis option, this might be another pathway to continued involvement with TAIL. Please let your mentor know if this is something you would like to pursue so the issue can be raised to Chris’s attention.
  • Paid graduate teaching position: Another possible option to continued engagement is to become a teaching assistant in one of Chris’s courses (e.g., knowledge-based AI). Please speak with your mentor (and Chris directly!), if you are interested in this possibility.
  • Unpaid research leading to a publication: Finally, although conducting work without receiving pay or course credit is generally not encouraged at TAIL, we do recognize that sometimes it can be beneficial to engage in unpaid research that results in a publication (published papers can be a strong differentiator in graduate school applications). If this is something you are interested in pursuing, then please speak with your mentor about this possiblity.