In the Beginning: What to Consider

Before you get started in “research,” it is important to identify your goals and objectives.

Consider these questions:

  • What are your expectations for becoming involved in college-level research projects?
  • How committed are you to a project in terms of time, energy, and enthusiasm?
  • How will you evaluate your experience?

Knowing what you can learn from research will not only help you to find a great position, it will help you make the most of it. The following information should give you a few “thinking” points to consider.

Requirements and planning ahead

In many fields, you will need to take some courses before you understand the work well enough to do research. If you have an interest already, go speak with faculty members who work in your area of interest and ask them what they require from undergraduate researchers. Don’t have a defined interest yet? Don’t worry; take some classes. When you find a topic that is interesting, go see the professor and talk to them about your interest.

Research position availability may not necessarily correspond with your interest and your availability. You may need to be flexible with your interests and open to trying new topics. You may also need to take classes, learn procedures or get more experience before being competitive for a research project with some faculty.

Research can have a number of goals

Many researchers do theoretical work in which they are attempting to prove or disprove a hypothesis. Sometimes theoretical research is defined as research that cannot yet be tested. Other researchers consider themselves to be doing basic research, which attempts to answer questions that are fundamental to the discipline. And finally, applied research involves the practical application of theories and basic knowledge for a specific problem or client. During the course of your research, you may take one or more of these approaches to the problem you are working on.

Research locations are as variable as research projects

When you begin to talk to faculty about projects, be sure to inquire where the work is done. There are a number of research labs and sites in Ithaca that will require you to travel to do your work. Some of them are accessible by bus, shuttle or bicycle. Other projects will allow you to work on a computer in any location in the world. Just make sure that you ask where you need to do your work!

The most exciting research opportunities go to students who are very active in identifying, pursuing, and preparing for research.

Student role(s) in a project

Students are always interested in how much intellectual input will be expected of them. This depends on the faculty member’s personality and needs. In the beginning, everyone needs help and will be trained and closely mentored. Once you have the basics down, it will depend on your ability and interest in the project. There are some projects that are more technique-oriented; once you learn the technique, you will spend your time executing the technique and collecting data. In time, some groups will expect you to function at a high level and to be able to design, carry out and analyze your work. If you are working on a project in the humanities, you should expect to have a great deal of intellectual input.

Research Groups

Working independently or as part of a team

Different research groups are organized in different ways. In some groups, there are researchers who have specialized training in different fields. They will use their very different expertise on a project. For example, the group may be looking at identifying chemicals that will inhibit bacterial growth in aquariums. There may be an expert in the surface qualities of glass, a chemist who is experienced in inhibitory compounds, a microbiologist and a fish expert. In other groups, each person will have their own, separate project that they are entirely responsible for.

Size of the research group

Some research groups at Cornell are very large with 20 to 30 people working there. Some research is done by faculty members working by themselves. What works for you? Are you outgoing and confident enough to ask questions in a large group? Are you more comfortable working with 1 or 2 other people?

Roles in a research group

  • All research projects have a principal investigator (PI). The PI is the head of the research group or lab and serves as a research advisor to any undergraduate student(s) participating in research. Ultimately, the PI is responsible for all aspects of the research group, including training and supervision of all research staff members.
  • The PI is a faculty member. When a faculty member first comes to Cornell, they are assistant professors. They will be defining their research and building their research group. In 5 or 6 years they will go through the tenure process, where their research and teaching will be evaluated. A professor granted tenure is now an associate professor. A full professor is a tenured professor who has been promoted to the most senior rank. Some retired professors continue to do research with undergraduates and are called emeritus professors.
  • Research groups have people with different types and amounts of training. Some groups have a technician or project manager who is responsible for keeping the research going. They may be in charge of ordering, hiring undergraduates, supervising other researchers, maintaining equipment and doing their own projects.
  • Graduate students have finished their undergraduate degrees and are now working full time on an advanced degree, such as a doctorate (PhD) or a masters (MS, MA, or MEng). They may be close in age and experience to the undergraduates in a research group. They will be spending the majority of their time doing research and they can be great teachers and advocates for undergraduates doing research in their field.
  • Post-docs are people who have finished their doctorates and are getting more research experience before becoming a professor. They often have their own project related to the expertise of the research group or lab and are very knowledgeable about techniques and the research field. They may be looking for jobs, and are often interested in mentoring undergraduates to gain experience.
  • When you join a research group, there often will be senior undergraduates that are working on their senior thesis or a publication. They are great to ask questions of and often can help with trouble-shooting problems.

Multiple research projects as an undergraduate

There is no right or wrong path for undergraduate research. You may find the perfect project in the beginning and stay with that project and faculty member for your remaining time at Cornell. Obviously, if you stay in one field or group for 3 or 4 years, it will increase the chance that you will master a project and perhaps publish your data.

On the other hand, if you are considering a career in research, you may want to try a couple of projects so that you can figure out what kinds of research you really like to do. You may be able to work on several projects with one research group or you may want to change your field or project. Faculty will be supportive of you as long as you communicate clearly when you will be leaving. Be responsible in finishing up the project in your current lab.

Finding a Research Advisor

Just like finding an opportunity, network to find an advisor you are comfortable with.

Some students work well with constant direction and others work with almost none. You’ve got to identify someone you can work with. Talk to a number of people about your interests. Generally, professors you’ve had in class are a great place to start. You may also consider asking professors to introduce you to researchers in their department. Graduate teaching assistants can also be good sources of information about faculty who are great mentors for undergraduates.

Cornellians you could talk with to get advice about research projects

  • Your academic advisor
  • Your student advisor
  • Cornell Undergraduate Research Advisors
  • Department advising staff in your major or college
  • Experienced students. Talk with upper-class students you meet. Can your department put you in touch with upperclassmen who might assist you?
  • Graduate Teaching Assistants or Graduate Residence Fellows
  • Cornell Undergraduate Research Board (CURB) Peer-Mentors