We encourage all students to get involved in research as early as possible. Freshman and sophomores who are are interested in research are encouraged to find volunteer, employment, or work-study positions in one of the many research labs at Penn.

General information about lab opportunities across campus and how to get started in undergraduate research can be found on the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowship’s (CURF) website. You are strongly advised to reach out to a departmental faculty member or the Academic Office as early as possible to ensure that you are likely to gain a valuable research experience (not all labs provide an ideal environment for research training) and to facilitate identifying a suitable department co-sponsor.

After gaining some experience in their labs and having completed a minimum of one or two intermediate level Biology courses, interested students should plan to undertake an independent study project during their junior and senior years.

Non-majors with appropriate background in Biology are also welcome to apply.

Please note: Research conducted at other universities or labs that are not affiliated with Penn will not be accepted for independent study credit.


Enrolling in an independent study course

Enrollment in an independent study course is by application. Students can develop a biology independent study project in any of the research labs at Penn. However, if the lab is not part of the biology department, you will need a faculty member in the department to act as a co-sponsor.

Independent study applications for each semester are made available in early August for the fall semester and early December for the spring. In addition to the application, you are required to submit a 1-2 page proposal describing your project and goals for the semester. The guidelines to writing a proposal can be found here.

Please refer to the descriptions below to determine whether your research project should be considered a BIOL 1999 or BIOL 3999/4999 independent study, and to our additional guidelines for more detailed information on independent study courses.

You can find the application for the Spring 2023 semester here. Please submit both your application and proposal by January 13th to the following link. The Academic Office will follow up with you by January 19th to update you on the status of your application.


BIOL 1999

BIOL 1999 (1 CU) may be counted as an elective within the General Biology Major, however there are restrictions on other electives that students may count alongside BIOL 1999. In addition, students who complete BIOL 1999 are NOT eligible to apply for honors within the major. This research course may be taken only once.  

  • Data is typically generated by others instead of directly by student.
  • Includes clinically focused projects that primarily involve analysis of aggregated data.
  • Requires student to work with and interpret data in some novel way; must involve more than simple statistical analyses of small datasets, cataloguing, and/or basic imaging.


BIOL 3999/4999

BIOL 3999 (1 CU) and BIOL 4999 (1 CU) mark the first and second semesters of an independent study project. BIOL 4999 is typically a continuation of the work started for BIOL 3999. While concentrations require that either one or both of these courses be completed, independent study is optional for students within the General Biology Major. Students are eligible to apply for honors after completing BIOL 3999. BIOL 4999 may be taken more than once but only two credits of independent study may be counted toward the major requirements.

  • Data is typically generated by student in conjunction with lab mentors and peers.
  • Includes research paradigms involving benchwork and wet lab techniques.
  • Research scope must be relevant to student’s concentration (when applicable).


Departmental Honors

Students who have completed at least one semester of a BIOL 3999 independent study and have a major GPA of at least 3.25 are eligible to apply for departmental honors during their last semester before graduating. Applications are made available in mid-March for spring graduating seniors and mid-October for fall graduating seniors.

In addition to the application, students are required to submit the final thesis paper used for their BIOL 3999/4999 course. Papers must be submitted before the last day of reading days to be considered for honors. Theses will be read by a faculty committee who will then make a decision on awarding honors based on the research conducted (innovation, originality, etc.).

Papers that consist exclusively of literature reviews are not acceptable. Retrospective statistical analyses of data collected data by others are generally not acceptable. 

Students may NOT use the same work for an honors thesis in Biology and in another department, or for an undergraduate thesis and a Master’s thesis.

Please note: All decisions made by the faculty committee are final.