Independent Research


Are you anticipating that your off-campus studies could become the core of your senior comprehensive exercise?  If so, heed the advice and experience of Carleton students who have done just that.

First steps:

  1. Assess your own level of initiative and motivation – you’ll need plenty of it to successfully research a topic in the field for your comps project.
  2. For a unique comps topic, select a subject that will best be studied off-campus and find the appropriate country and program to research that topic.
  3. Email or call scholars in the US or in your host country to develop a list of possible contacts and contact information; particularly important for a substantive fellowship grant (see #5 below). 
  4. Consider going on more than one OCS program to develop your intercultural and research skills; the cumulative effect builds a better foundation for a comps project.
  5. Consider applying for a research fellowship through the Dean of the College Office as a follow-on to an OCS program and as a way to research your topic in greater depth.

Before you go:

  1. Develop needed language skills including specific vocabulary used in the field during interviews. Seek out nationals in the US to practice the target language and appropriate social interactions.
  2. Plan how you want to use your off-campus studies research for comps. Find programs that support field research. 
  3. Determine resources you should take with you (books, journals, dictionaries, good interviewing equipment, etc.) and resources that you will need on site (printed and electronic materials and access to them, interview contact information, etc.). Practice with your recording equipment and skills prior to departure – essential for interviews in the field!
  4. Determine if you need IRB approval (you will if you use human subjects in your comps research) and get it before you leave campus.
  5. Find a Carleton faculty adviser who can provide concrete advice about the use of your off-campus research in your comps project; also check your major’s comps requirements to determine the parameters and requirements for comps research, and make sure that your OCS plans fit into those requirements. 

While you are off-campus:

  1. Inform your program’s academic director that you plan to do research in the field for use in your comps project; the director can better address your academic and logistical needs with early notice.
  2. Field research can be slow. Be prepared to adapt to closed libraries, unavailable interviewees, bad weather, poor train and bus connections, etc. Schedule accordingly. Use the “down time” to go through materials, transcribe notes, etc. Organization is everything in the field!
  3. Get a cell phone and use it to contact interviewees, etc. 
  4. Be open to the information that you receive in the field; it may be very different than what you were led to understand through literature reviews, other cultural perspectives, etc. Be prepared to address the discrepancies in your comps project; it can actually strengthen your project.
  5. Locate one or two in-country contacts who can help legitimize your requests for interviews and site visits.  They may be built into your OCS program; if you are doing independent research, you will need to make those contacts yourself.
  6. Use a good audio recorder and take notes on interview contact information for later reference. Take time to transcribe notes and recordings while the interview is fresh in your memory. Use file folders or similar to organize materials and notes by topic or theme.
  7. Allow for more time to read in another language; translation and transcription take time.
  8. Use a good dictionary.

When you return and work on your comps:

  1. Work closely with your faculty adviser to determine how your field research can best be used as part of your comps project.
  2. Allow time to readjust to the US, Northfield, and Carleton after being off-campus for a period of time.
  3. Allow time to translate and transcribe information in another language into English, and edit it appropriately.
  4. Be prepared to make choices - your field research may be more extensive than a single comps paper can accommodate. One student said “my comps adviser told me countless times, be prepared to cut! cut! cut! This can mean cutting your favorite interview (and friend!) out of the paper, but it makes for a stronger paper.”
  5. If you have additional stories that you need to tell, use the OCS office and/or campus publications as a resource. Present your field research as an Athenaeum event.
  6. As you develop future research questions as part of your comps project, think about topics that you can explore in graduate school using your language skills and contacts.
  7. Don’t be bashful about contacting other scholars whom you discover while conducting your research; often they are interested in your work and may provide new opportunities to do further research after graduation.
  8. Keep in touch with the people you met and/or hosted you. Send copies of your comps paper and/or thank you notes to interviewees and contacts in the field without whom your project would not have been possible.