Research, Honors, and Coterming in Symbolic Systems: Get Started Early!

For Stanford undergraduates: Some practical advice about doing research, applying for the Honors Program, and applying to coterm in Symbolic Systems

by Todd Davies, SSP Associate Director
November 16, 2016
updated April 25, 2017

Assisting faculty with their research projects, or working on a student-initiated project, are great ways to experience what Stanford is most known for, which is cutting-edge academic research. Undergraduates can get involved in faculty-supervised research in the Symbolic Systems Program in several different ways:

  • Academic-year research with faculty. Faculty affiliated with and/or doing research relevant to Symbolic Systems often provide opportunities for undergraduates to contribute to new or ongoing research while classes are in session (during Autumn, Winter, and Spring Quarters).  Opportunities are sometimes posted on our website, or on the Undergraduate Advising and Research office's list of Research Opportunities, but they may also be found through individual faculty. Reading a faculty member's website, for example, may reveal current undergraduates who are working with that faculty member. This is a sign that opportunities may be available for additional undergraduates, although of course you would need to contact the faculty member for find out if they have current opportunities to offer. Research may be done either for units (e.g. by signing up for an independent study course number such as SYMSYS 196, with the supervising faculty member as instructor), or for pay, on an hourly basis. Funding for assisting in a faculty member's research may be available through individual faculty members' grant funds such as VPUE Faculty Grants  (if they have funding available), or Federal Work-Study funds (if a student is Work-Study eligible). Some faculty prefer to work with a student on a for-credit basis before supervising a student on a paid basis. See also the following:

    • CURIS - Website containing both summer opportunities and a year-round index of current research projects with Computer Science faculty who are looking for undergraduates and masters students. Database is available to students logged in with a SUNET ID.
  • SSP Summer Internship Program. The Symbolic Systems Program applies each year for a Departmental Grant from the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, for funds to support Stanford undergraduates to work with Symbolic Systems affiliated faculty full time for 10 weeks during the summer. The Summer Internship matching process (which we call "Match Madness") begins in early February. Faculty upload internship descriptions and Sym Sys undergraduates upload resumes, and each group is given access to view what the other group has posted. After a First Visibility date, internship matches are restricted to active Sym Sys majors during a Priority Period, after which any remaining funding and positions become available to any Stanford undergraduate. Positions are offered by individual faculty, and students interested in a given internship should contact the offering faculty member directly. Other departments and programs at Stanford also offer summer internships, and some of these are open to Sym Sys students. More info is available at the Symbolic Systems Summer Internships page.

  • Research opportunities outside of Stanford. Researchers at many institutions, including universities, government and independent research organizations, and commercial firms, hire students or offer other opportunities to participate in research. Some of these are listed in the Other Research Opportunities database on this website. The National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program provides opportunities at various locations each year both within the U.S. and in other countries.

  • Independent Projects Mentored by Faculty. The Undergraduate Advising and Research office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education supports undergraduates to do independent research and other projects, under faculty mentorship. These are student-initiated, as opposed to faculty-initiated projects on which students work or assist. Funding is available by application for research (including Honors projects), arts projects, and Senior Synthesis Projects through the UAR Student Grants program, as well as Other Funding sources that are available for certain types of projects or students.

  • Symbolic Systems Senior Honors Program. The Honors Program is a way of recognizing undergraduate research projects that are deemed worthy of the designation of Honors as an addition to the Bachelor's degree. Any student pursuing a B.S. degree in the Symbolic Systems Program can apply to graduate with honors. Entry into the SSP Honors Program is by application, generally at the beginning of a student's senior year (or before). Successful completion of the Honors project then leads to a B.S. in Symbolic Systems (with Honors). To qualify for Honors, a student's project must be approved for Honors by a faculty Honors Advisor, and also by a Second Reader (another qualified faculty member or researcher). Honors projects generally take 2 or more quarters to complete, and require ongoing involvement and advising by the Honors Advisor. Undergraduates can apply for funding for research expenses and summer living expenses associated with an Honors project. More info about the SSP Honors Program  is available here.

  • Symbolic Systems Coterminal Master's Program. Symbolic Systems offers a Master of Science degree program, to which Stanford undergraduates can apply for admission as coterminal students. The program is called "coterminal" because it allows an undergraduate to work on their master's degree while they are still finishing their undergraduate degree, and to finish both degrees at the same time ("coterminally"). The M.S. program in Symbolic Systems requires a Master's thesis, with a Project Area Statement that is endorsed by a prospective Master's project advisor and that must be approved in advance by the SSP office. Coterminal M.S. students in Symbolic Systems study alongside other M.S. students who enter the program with degrees from other colleges and universities. Admission to the program is competitive, and is based on the strength and appropriateness of a student's prior academic work as indications of preparation for graduate study in Symbolic Systems. The application process requires submitting an undergraduate transcript, letters of recommendation, a Statement of Purpose, and GRE test scores. Including a writing sample (e.g. an original research paper or honors thesis) is also recommended. Coterm applicants are generally also expected to include a Project Area Statement (PAS), together with a statement by a qualified Stanford faculty member that they endorse -- and commit to advising the applicant to work on -- a project in the area of the PAS. Info about the Sym Sys and other related coterminal master's programs is available here.

Earlier research facilitates later research. The above research opportunities have a loose temporal structure, in which access to later levels (e.g. Senior Honors and Master's projects) is facilitated by experience at earlier levels (e.g assisting faculty with research prior to one's senior year, in an academic-year or summer internship project). Ideally, an undergraduate who is interested in doing an Honors or Master's thesis in Symbolic Systems should acquire some experience in research prior to that. Both an Honors project and a Master's project require a commitment by a faculty advisor, and faculty are usually more willing to make such a commitment if they know a student, either from teaching the student in a class and getting to know them from class discussions (or office visits), or from supervising the student as part of a research project. Faculty may also be more willing to supervise a student to do an Honors or Master's project if that student has research experience with another faculty member than if the student has no research experience.

Honors and Master's projects, commitment, and academic credit. Undertaking an Honors or Master's project is a big time commitment both for the student and for the advising faculty member. It should only be done with the intention that the project will be completed, and with adequate planning for the time and resources required to finish the project. For students, this often requires planning several quarters ahead and reducing the courses taken in the quarters when the student is working on the thesis. Students can get credit for work on an Honors thesis through SYMSYS 190 (Senior Honors Project in Symbolic Systems), which may be taken over multiple quarters, and for which a single grade at the completion of the thesis can backfill earlier quarters, during which a student temporarily earns an N (Continuing Course) grade. Similarly, Master's students can get credit for work on an M.S. thesis through SYMSYS 290 (Master's Project in Symbolic Systems). The student's instructor for these courses is usually their faculty project advisor. Building units into one's schedule for thesis work is very helpful as a motivator and and as a way to get credit for the hard work of doing a thesis project. If your class schedule does not leave enough room for thesis units, that is a sign that you may not have sufficient time to complete the project.

Where the idea comes from: Does it matter? Broadly speaking, there are two models for doing research with faculty if you are a student:

  • In the faculty originator model, the student works on a project that is initially conceived by a faculty member, e.g. as a next step in an ongoing line of research. This is the usual model when a research opportunity is advertised by a faculty member, or when the faculty researcher funds student work using a VPUE Faculty Grant. The advantages of this model, for students, are that (a) faculty can apply their deep knowledge and experience in their field to suggest something that is likely to be an important piece of research, (b) faculty are most likely to provide detailed feedback and to spend extra time on research that grows out of their own projects, and (c) such projects sometimes lead to a joint publication, separate from the thesis, between the advisor and the student.

  • In the student originator model, the student initially conceives of a research idea and seeks faculty input and eventual advising to turn that idea into a completed project. Projects of this type can be funded by UAR Student Grants, as well as Other Funding sources that may be appropriate for particular types of projects or students. For a student, this model offers the chance to pursue a personal interest that is self-chosen, and to conceive and explore ideas in their earliest stages.

Once a student has been working with a faculty member for a little while, the line between faculty- and student-orginated types of research can become quite blurry. A student who has worked on a faculty-originated project initially might then get their own idea for research that fits well within the faculty member's research program, or the conception of an idea may be very collaborative. These situations often characterize an Honors or Master's project, when it is undertaken by a student who has worked or studied with their project advisor prior to developing the Honors or Master's project idea. In general, there remains a distinction between (i) research that is of special interest to the faculty mentor, independent of the student with whom they are working, and (ii) research that is of interest primarily to the student. Most faculty are somewhat more likely to agree to advise a project of type (i) than one of type (ii), although many faculty will advise projects of type (i). Additionally, most faculty are more likely to agree to advise a project of type (ii) when it is proposed as an Honors thesis than when it is proposed as a Master's thesis. One consequence is that if you are an undergraduate and you want to do a project that is primarily of interest to you, and not of special interest to a faculty member, you should think about doing that project as an Honors thesis rather than as a Master's thesis.

Some unique factors apply to coterm projects. Applying to coterm in Symbolic Systems typically means (a) coming up with a Project Area Statement and (b) securing the commitment of a prospective Master's project advisor prior to submitting the application for admission to the M.S. program. You can apply without a PAS and advisor commitment if you are expecting to complete your project later than the year following your application. But that is equivalent to applying from another undergraduate institution, and it substantially raises the expectation that the student will be well qualified on other criteria for admission. Because the M.S. degree in Sym Sys requires the completion of a Master's thesis for conferral of the degree, the stakes are somewhat higher for faculty supervising a Master's thesis than they are for an Honors thesis. Failure to complete a Senior Honors thesis, for an undergraduate major, just means that the student's degree will be conferred without Honors, as long as the other requirements for graduation are met. But an M.S. student must complete and get approval from their Project Advisor and a Second Reader for their Master's thesis, or else they will not receive their degree. This puts additional pressure on both the student and the faculty advisor. For this reason, SSP requires a commitment by a prospective faculty Project Advisor as a precondition for approving an M.S. student's Project Area Statement. Faculty are cautious about committing to advise Master's projects, and mere openness to the possibility of advising a student is usually not enough for the M.S. Admissions Committee. A failed relationship between a Master's student and their project advisor creates a crisis for the student, their advisor, and the Program, and finding another project and/or advisor can often be quite difficult. So the Program tries to minimize this risk in its admissions process.

The upshot of that last paragraph is that if you are interested in applying to coterm in Symbolic Systems, you should not expect to be able to find a faculty member who is willing to commit to advising your Project Area Statement unless you have developed a prior research relationship with that faculty member involving substantive work, such as an Honors project, a summer internship, assisting the faculty member on their own project during the school year, a class project, or an independent project mentored by that faculty member. Applying to the coterm program is not the best moment to begin exploring research for the first time. Stanford provides abundant opportunities for undergraduates to get involved earlier than that. If you are interested in coterming, it is usually to your advantage to begin working on the research you want to do for the M.S. project before you apply. For some students, this may mean that the ideal time to apply for the coterm program in Sym Sys is later than you might apply for other coterm programs that do not require a research project as part of the degree.

For all of the opportunities described above, an important piece of advice is this:

Get started early!


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