First Steps

Invest time in thinking about how getting involved in research can complement your academic goals.

Next, work with Cornell advisors to plan when to engage in research and how to gain the most from the experience. On this page, find general advice, tips for finding a research advisor and project, and tips for communicating with faculty.

General Advice

  1. Adjusting to Cornell can be a tough thing, so get your feet under you, get through your first round of prelims, then think about research.
  2. It’s a good idea to concentrate on your course work in your first two years at Cornell. Good grades will impress faculty and help you get into a lab. Some students spend too much time in the lab and their grades suffer.
  3. Research experience will NOT make up for poor grades when you apply to graduate or professional schools. Research is essential if you are applying to graduate schools, but you will need good grades to be competitive.
  4. Research is not required for medical or veterinary school, despite the rumors that you hear! It will be helpful and will give you something to talk about in your interview, but only if you can talk intelligently about your project.
  5. Research takes time. Research is serious business at Cornell – it’s people’s lives – not a hobby. Don’t get involved until you comfortably can spend 10-15 hours a week in the lab. Many senior students spend over 20 hours a week on their project.
  6. The term “independent research” is confusing to both students and faculty. At Cornell, the term independent means that a student has their own project to work on and think about in collaboration with a faculty member, graduate student, post-doc, technician, or other undergraduates. It does NOT mean you have to have an idea in mind which you expect to negotiate with a faculty member. If you have a burning interest or desire, by all means talk to faculty working in the area, but don’t expect you’ll be able to do exactly what you’ve done some other place.
  7. Look for opportunities to learn something new - that’s why you are in college!

Your research advisor has a commitment to help you learn and may become a lasting connection. Identify someone who is a good fit for your work-style and whom you can trust.

Identifying a Research Advisor and Project

Some students come to Cornell with previous interests; some know they like a particular subject; some have lots of interests. How do you decide which of your interests you want to research?

  • Classes can lead you to your interests. When you become extremely interested in seeking more information about a topic, think about whether or not it might be a research topic. Professors you’ve had in class are a great starting point when looking for a research advisor or research topic. Consider asking professors to introduce you to faculty colleagues whom you might work with. Talk to your student advisor and faculty advisor about their research. Read, read, read.
  • Do your homework. Faculty are involved in dynamic work that changes from day to day. To get an understanding of a given faculty member’s research interests, identify the theme or niche in which they work.
  • Read articles written by the professors whose research appeals to you. This helps you decide if you want to meet the professor and it makes a good impression on the professor if you meet him/her.
  • Talk to your academic advisor. He or she will be an especially good source of information regarding the research being conducted in their department and, perhaps, in other departments and units as well. Your advisor can often steer you toward the people whose research matches your interests or make you aware of possibilities you have never considered. Network to find an advisor you are comfortable with.
  • Talk with Cornell Undergraduate Research Advisors. You’ll find a specialist in your college.
  • Contact the Cornell Undergraduate Research Board (CURB) peer mentoring program.
  • Talk to the Libraries. Library Liaisons are research subject experts. Find Library Liaisons by department.
  • Read Cornell publications: Look at the Cornell Daily Sun, the Cornell Chronicle and Cornell Comcast for ideas of research being done at Cornell.
  • Some disciplines offer programs designed to help students explore facets of the discipline and faculty research.
  • Read course descriptions to get a feel for subject matter that catches your interest. Note who teaches the course(s) that you find most appealing.
  • Attend symposia and seminars focusing on research projects that interest you.
  • Visit department websites. Most sites include information about faculty research interests, projects, and publications.
  • Talk with faculty-in-residence fellows, graduate student TAs and trans-disciplinary centers (for example: the Knight Writing Institute, Einaudi Center). Graduate students and post-doctoral researchers can NOT be advisors.
  • Network; network. Fellow students can be your best resource when it comes to sharing what they find interesting about faculty. You may also get insight regarding who will best match your interests.

Communicating With Faculty

  1. Make the purpose of your meeting clear at the time you arrange an appointment. Write an informative email.
  2. Make arrangements according to the professor’s preference.
  3. Be prepared to arrange the date/time via a support staff person or by email with the professor.
  4. Be prepared to stop by the professor’s office during office hours.
  5. Arrive on time for your meeting. Be enthusiastic and be interested in what they do. Look at their web site and papers, student projects with them, review content from textbooks.
  6. Remember, courtesy and polite persistence are keys to success.

Most faculty enjoy having undergraduates involved in their research work. Don’t be reluctant to approach them!

What will potential research advisors ask for?

  • References: faculty advisor, former employer
  • CV/Resume or information about prior experiences
  • Transcript: have you taken appropriate classes?
  • Time you have available
  • Why you are interested in their work!