Working Independently

One of the abilities that most faculty mentors (and employers, folks!) desire to cultivate in their undergraduate charges is independence. In this section, we’ll discuss some strategies that will help you learn how to become a self-motivated, self-regulating independent scientist. You will find that the principles you learn here are foundational to lifelong learning, professional growth, development, and long term career satisfaction. They will stand you in good stead in your life no matter your specific choice of career or career path.

A good place to begin is by carefully thinking about your own learning style. Useful questions to think about include:

  • Do you like to work independently or do you need a more structured environment?
  • Are you self-motivated or do you need regular feedback in order to make progress?
  • Do you work best at your own pace or when prodded by others?

What does it mean to be independent?

It means:

  • Becoming self-aware, self-monitoring and self-correcting;
  • Knowing what you need to do;
  • Taking the initiative rather than waiting to be told what to do;
  • Doing what is asked to the best of your ability, without the need for external prodding, and working until the job is completed;
  • Learning to work at a pace that you can sustain;
  • Taking ownership of your mistakes without looking for excuses; and
  • Refusing to let self-doubt or negative emotions due to negative past experiences take you off course.

Key to being independent is your:

  • Self-awareness,
  • Self-motivation, and
  • Self-regulation.

We will consider each of these characteristics below.


Self-awareness refers to your knowledge and understanding of yourself – your emotions, beliefs, assumptions, biases, knowledge base, abilities, motivations, interests, etc. As you carry out your undergraduate research project, make a conscious effort to learn about yourself – your abilities, beliefs, likes and dislikes.

Some useful questions to think about in this regard are the following:

  • What kind of science do you enjoy doing? Fundamental or applied?
  • Do you enjoy working in the lab or in an office?
  • Do you enjoy explaining your work? How? Orally? In Writing? Both?
  • Do you like working with others as a member of a team or do you prefer to work by yourself?
  • Are you a good listener?
  • Can you handle personal conflict?
  • Do you prefer delving into a problem deeply?
  • Do you see the “big picture”?
  • Do you prefer to work on short term projects (6 months or less) or long term projects?
  • Do you enjoy using instrumentation? What kinds?
  • Do you enjoy using computers and/or software?
  • Do you enjoy travel? Can you speak one or more foreign languages conversationally? Can you read in another language?
  • Are you self-motivated? Do you require external prompts in order to meet deadlines and/or achieve results?

Your answers to these questions will help you identify your skill set, interests, career path, and motivators.

Personality assessment can also be very useful in helping you gain insight into yourself, your strengths, weaknesses, motivators and provide you with insights into how to grow personally and professionally. Examples of frequently used personality assessment tools include the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBPI), the Caliper Profile, and the Kiersey Temperament Sorter. It is useful to be aware of these tools as private industry often uses these in making hiring, performance appraisal, and team building. A number of these personality assessment tools are available on the world-wide web. The MBPI is used widely. If you ask around, it is highly likely that you will be able to find an office at your academic institution where you can complete the MBPI and obtain your personality profile at no cost.


Self-motivation refers to your ability to identify effective methods of getting yourself to move from thought to action. Everyone is different. Some individuals are highly self-motivated while others require the imposition of external deadlines or some type of reward or penalty in order to move from thought to action. Identifying your specific needs in this area is the first step.

A common barrier to action is often the perception that a task is too large or too complex to accomplish. If that is an issue for you, then a useful practice is to break down the job into several smaller, more “doable” tasks each of which you can envision accomplishing in a set time period.


Self-regulation focuses on your ability to affect personal and professional growth based on your self-awareness and motivation.

Useful questions you should ask yourself in an effort to self-regulate are the following:

  • Who will provide direct supervision or oversight on my project? With what frequency (daily, weekly, etc.)?
  • What are the deadlines, if any, relevant to my research project?
  • What are the formal requirements, if any, for my research? These might include progress reports, oral presentations, a final written report or thesis?
  • What are the outcomes that I desire from my participation in this project? What, if anything, do I need to do in order to achieve these outcomes?

Day planners can be extremely tools facilitating self-regulation. There are a number of commercial companies such as Day Timer and Franklin Covey that sell day planner products and services (books, magazines, and seminars) in support of their planner products. Today a growing number of colleges and universities are providing their students with planners and offer free seminars on how to use them effectively (time management). You will find specific suggestions concerning time management here on WebGURU.

Reflective journaling is another tool that can be extremely useful in developing greater self-awareness and becoming self-regulating. You will find more information on reflective journaling here.