Frequently Asked Questions About Undergraduate Research
Q: Why should I do research as an undergraduate?
A: Undergraduate research (1) teaches you about a field you are interested in, and (2) helps you define your own style. There is no one reason for doing research; hundreds of students would tell you a myriad of answers. Rather, undergraduate research is an enriching process by which you gain skills.
Q: I’m not a scientist or an engineer. Can I still do research?
One of the greatest myths about research is that it involves supercomputing and lots of test tubes. The truth of the matter is that research is limitless and has unbelievable freedoms. Professors in the humanities and social sciences have supported undergraduate research for years. There are also many interdisciplinary projects that transcend departments.
Q: Do I have to wait until I’m an upper class student to conduct research?
Many freshmen and sophomores decide to explore their options by volunteering in labs and networking. Through this process, they develop the necessary skill set and move on to the positions that really interest them during junior and senior year.
Take your schedule into consideration and allow yourself a nice transition. Get involved in undergraduate research when you’re ready.
Q: What if I have my own project in mind?
A: Make use of Cornell resources and pursue an outlet for your interests.
Your goal is to find someone to help you with your project by first developing your interests.
The first step involves developing familiarity with your field of interest. You’d benefit from taking classes that relate to the project you someday hope to complete. This will introduce you to the elementary material and to the professors who love the subject. Read on your own and pursue your project as the passion that it is. Attend lectures on campus and speak with faculty. Eventually you will find someone who works in your field of interest and may even take you under his or her wing.
Once you’ve proven your interest and commitment, he or she may help you with the project that got you started in the first place. Along the way, you’ll have gained an understanding of your project in relation to so much more.
Q: How do I find out about research opportunities?
A: Keep your eyes open.
If you ask any Cornell researcher on campus where they found their job, chances are they'll tell you a story full of persistence on their part and often, a friend of a friend. Research opportunities are posted on student listings through Bear Access and in different departmental offices. In addition, there are many useful research websites with helpful links, such as this Undergraduate Research website. Positions will often be posted in classified ads.
Students can even find research opportunities through speaking with their professors. They may start out doing background research for the professor, and eventually it could lead to great things. Sometimes professors will announce in class that they need help.
The most valuable resources, however, are fellow students. Networking is a great tool that enables you to learn about the opportunities immediately available. Join student organizations such as the Cornell Undergraduate Research Board to hear about what students do under the leadership of faculty members. They'll be more than willing to share their stories about how they got involved.
Q: How do I find a faculty advisor for my project?
A: Just like finding an opportunity, you must network to find an advisor you are comfortable with.
Your faculty advisor not only has the commitment to help you learn, he or she will become your friend.
Some students work well with constant direction and others work with almost none. You’ve got to identify someone you can trust. Generally, professors that you’ve had in class are a great place to start. You may also consider asking researchers who their faculty members are and consider joining their team.
Q: How do I know which faculty are doing research?
A: Take the initiative to do your homework.
Faculty are involved in dynamic work that changes from day to day. There is, usually, a theme and a particular niche in which a given faculty member will work. This is what you must look for.
Start by visiting department websites. If you're interested in the aerodynamics of winged insects, consider visiting Entomology. At the site, you'll find a list of faculty and brief bios. Read about their publications and in that way you'll learn about what they've done. Occasionally, however, there are those faculty who have research interests that are not so obvious. You probably read articles that pertain to stuff you're interested in already, so keep an eye out for Cornell faculty.
Once again, hone in on networking. 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.
Q: Can I do a project outside of my home department?
Cornell, with a strong focus on research, has ample opportunities to pursue any and all interests. Taking time to pursue research outside of your major and department is a great chance to explore and become a well-rounded student. Often, you’ll learn that the techniques and principles applied in a given field relate to the one you are studying. Interdisciplinary synthesis is a powerful tool that you will develop. It is a skill that will be called forth once you leave Cornell.
Q: How can I get funding?
A: A faculty advisor will be your best resource in this regard.
Well-developed ideas have little problem finding funding at Cornell. A faculty advisor may contribute to helping your project.
Requesting funding is an important skill to develop. Each college offers funding opportunities to all students. It’s a collaborative process that is well worth the experience. Visit your undergraduate field office for specifics regarding programs and application requirements.
Funding can also come from external resources. Professional societies (American Society of Mechanical Engineers, etc.) offer scholarships for student papers and work. A faculty advisor is a great help in applying for these prestigious awards.
Refer also to the Undergraduate Research funding page, which gives lots of links to funding. Funding and opportunities are more plentiful over the summer than during the academic year. Deadlines are often in February and March- so start early!
Q: How much time will a project take?
A: It depends.
When you were initially considering whether to become involved in undergraduate research, you should have considered what level of commitment you are willing to provide. Undergraduate research is a mutual arrangement between you and your sponsoring faculty advisor.
Some students work in excess of twenty hours per week; generally they are working towards an honors thesis or for credit. Students volunteering in a lab may work about two to three hours per week. It is really a decision that you and a faculty advisor must make. There are varying levels of commitment that will fit into you schedule. You must simply communicate what you want to learn and make sure that you are in control of personal time management.
Q: Does undergraduate research help me get into graduate school?
Don't come to Cornell and do undergraduate research if your intention is to get into a great graduate or professional school. You would have missed out on the Cornell undergraduate experience if you did that. Undergraduate research is not a stepping stool. It is not a requirement but rather an opportunity for you to learn about yourself. Clearly, pursuit of research will grant you command of a slice of information. More importantly, you will become more knowledgeable about your research skills and personal qualities.
So yes, undergraduate research will help you get into graduate school by identifying your strengths and interests.
But no, undergraduate research won't simply get you in because you’ve gone through the motions.
Undergraduate research is an invaluable experience that confers understanding more about yourself than anything else.
Q: How do I decide whether to go abroad?
A: Going abroad and undergraduate research are not mutually exclusive.
While they share separate support services and offices, they actually enhance each other.
Going abroad may not necessarily involve literally working in an international lab. Rather you will develop skills in a foreign country that may enhance your undergraduate experience.
Q: Are there any university-wide requirements for doing research as an undergraduate?
All researchers, from students to faculty, must receive safety training. It is important, once you've begun working with your faculty advisor, that he/she makes these trainings available to you. In some sessions, you may learn about standard practices and safety measures. In others, you may be issued protective devices (i.e. a radiation safety badge) and informed on what your responsibilities include. Finally, if you work with humans or animals, more in-depth training will be provided.
Q: What if I no longer enjoy doing my research?
A: Students leave their research for a variety of reasons, such as change in research interests, not enough time in their schedule, or if the dynamics between their advisor or lab group just aren’t right.
Be truthful with yourself. If you feel you can no longer commit to your research for whatever reason, it is ok to either stop or switch to something else. There are several resources you could contact to discuss your situation, such as your academic advisor or research advisor from your college. They are there to help you make your transition.
Office of Undergraduate Research
501c Day Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853