Independent Research

"There's only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving,
and that's your own self." -Aldous Huxley

"I'll play with it first and tell you what it is later." -Miles Davis


The Gettysburg College Physics Department's curriculum of lectures and structured laboratories provides the framework for the systematic study of physics; at some point, however, students should challenge themselves through independent study and research.

Physics 462, Independent Study in Physics and Astronomy, is required for BS majors and recommended for any physics major. It provides valuable training for work after graduation, whether that work is in graduate studies or in employment, technical or non-technical.

Physics 462 is normally taken in the spring of senior year. Departmental approval is required, and students are expected to begin developing project ideas and receiving Physics Department approval in the spring term of junior year. Project results are submitted as a paper (for inclusion in the Physics Library collection) and presented as a brief talk/colloquium by April of senior year.

Steps in Pursuing Independent Research/Physics 462 include

  • Identifying a project advisor;
  • Researching potential projects;
  • Formulating a draft of the proposal (including any budgetary needs);
  • Submission of the draft to the respective advisor for review;
  • Submission of the proposal for full departmental review; and
  • Once approved, beginning work on the project/apparatus by fall of senior year, prior to formal enrollment in Physics 462 in the following spring semester.

This process typically takes two months to complete - and unforeseen problems are the rule rather than the exception in research, which is why students are advised to begin searching for a topic soon after the beginning of spring term of junior year.

Independent research is often pursued off-campus, but can take place on campus, too.  For example, students working on undergraduate research projects often use the Observatory; one previously unknown eclipsing binary was actually discovered independently at the Gettysburg College Observatory!

  • In recent years, students have designed computer hardware and software and used it to measure the physical properties of binary stars that eclipse one another. Students have reported on this work at national meetings of the American Astronomical Society.
  • Upperclass research projects in astronomy include nights spent collecting data on the College telescope or at the National Undergraduate Research Observatory (NURO) in Flagstaff, Arizona.

It is not necessary to be an upper-division student or to be enrolled in a course to do independent work in physics. Most of the professors in the Physics Department have projects in which students may participate. To find out more, speak with the department chair and/or other faculty members for help in choosing a project advisor, and for information regarding requirements/parameters. 

Physics 452 Tutorial: Special Topics.  While it is impossible to offer a course in all physics disciplines, every effort is made to accommodate student interests; if a student wants to investigate another topic than those taught in the department's standard courses, it may be possible to do so on a tutorial basis.  Physics 452 is designed for one or more students to pursue a given subject under the guidance of a professor; speak with the department chair and/or other physics faculty for details.

Physics 473: Summer Internship. There are excellent opportunities for employment and participation in a summer research program on campus or at an off-campus research laboratory.  While Physics 473 does not satisfy any requirement for the physics major, if a program of study/research meets proper standards, Gettysburg College grants one course credit under the S/U grading system (and counts it as one of the five courses permitted as a full load in the subsequent fall semester).  Such an internship requires full participation, keeping a comprehensive journal during that internship, submitting a paper, and presenting a brief talk on the project in the fall semester following the internship.  Such participation makes an excellent impression on future employers and graduate school admissions officers!