Finding Research Opportunities at Cornell

There are several steps in getting started in undergraduate research. First, take a moment to reflect on your readiness and what you are looking for in a research experience. Second, identify your fields of interest and research opportunities within these areas that align with your personal goals. Then, reach out to potential mentors or programs to obtain more information about available research opportunities. Finally, have conversations with potential mentors about the research experience expectations to determine if the experience is right for you.  

These points are expanded in detail below with helpful guidance, tips, and resources to get you started.

Getting Started in Undergraduate Research

Reflect: What is right for me?

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Before beginning your research journey, take a few moments to consider the questions below to determine if you are ready to get started in research. 

  1. Have you completed at least one semester at Cornell? 
  2. Are you both comfortable with your academic load and confident that adding an additional responsibility will not significantly impact your academic performance? 
  3. Do you have 6-10 hours available each week in at least 2 hour time blocks from Monday-Friday between 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.? 
  4. Are you able to commit to a consistent, weekly schedule for at least one semester? 
  5. Are you excited to do research? 

If the answer to all of the questions below is yes, then it may be a good time to get started. If not, consider how to prepare yourself and your schedule to accommodate research. 

Questions to Ask Yourself When Looking for Research Opportunities

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Before you can find and secure a research position that will provide you with the skills and experiences you need, you must figure out what you want to gain from doing research. Knowing the answers to these questions will help you to 1) focus your search as you look for research groups to join, 2) prepare to approach faculty research mentors, and 3) answer questions when you interview with faculty or research groups.

Writing or speaking out loud are effective ways to turn nebulous ideas into concrete thoughts. Write down or speak your answers to the questions below. If you write them down, you may be able to pull from them later when contacting faculty or writing research-related applications.

Why do you want to do research?

  • Do you expect research to prepare you for a particular career path or is it part of your exploration?
  • What are 3-6 skills you want to gain or improve in during your research experience? Think broadly! Consider engineering or scientific skills, communication, teamwork, leadership
  • Are there technical skills you would like to learn?
  • Are there specific topics or areas of study that you are interested in exploring (e.g., fluid dynamics, clean water, quantum computing, sustainable construction, data science, robotics, medical device development, agriculture)? Thinking about your favorite ideas from courses can be a good way to start.
  • Are you interested in applied or basic research? 
    • Applied research has immediate implications for the world we live in. Applied research can be right for you if you need to know why a topic is useful in order for you to be interested in learning about it.
    • Basic research may or may not have applications. If it does have applications, they may be either in the short term or very distant future. Basic research may be right for you if you are interested in learning about a topic for the sake of expanding your knowledge or deepening our understanding of the world.

Consider Research Logistics

How are you interested in being compensated for your research (select all that apply):

  • Pay 
  • Course credit (and consider graded or S/U)
  • Volunteering

Are you able to commit an appropriate amount of time to get involved in research?

  • How many hours do you want to commit to research each week?
  • Do you have blocks of time available? If so, for how many hours and when?
  • Are you able to commit to a lab for an entire semester (before you decide to continue or not)?

Now that you've identified your motivation to get involved in research and what you would like it to look like, let's take a look at how to find research opportunities. 

Finding Research Opportunities

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Most research opportunities are not advertised. Students find positions by contacting researchers they would like to work with – usually by email. 

Contacting Potential Research Mentors

Once you’ve defined what kinds of projects you are looking for, you must begin talking to prospective faculty mentors. Gather as much information as possible from other students, administrators, and faculty. It’s just like interviewing for a job—you must be well-informed and persuasive when you finally talk to your prospective faculty mentor.

Before reaching out: 

  1. Read the researcher's website or the abstract of one or more papers
  2. Make sure your resume is in good shape when you begin contacting prospective faculty mentors or their graduate assistants. Be sure you show your research experience and/or aptitudes. Highlight jobs in which you have demonstrated transferable skills. Call attention to supervisory experience or experience working on teams. Demonstrate your reliability, initiative, and your leadership skills. And do it all succinctly, in clear language, in a standard format.

When you are ready to contact faculty:

E-mail is often the best way to communicate with a busy faculty member. Mass e-mailing all faculty in a department or field will typically not work well. A personalized, introductory email expressing your specific interest in their research will be the best approach to contacting potential research mentors. Follow the guidelines below to craft a professional message:

  1. Start with a professional greeting (Dear Dr. or Professor X).
  2. Introduce yourself with your name, class year and major.
  3. Explain why you are interested in their research – be specific! Generic emails do not get much attention.
  4. Mass emailing faculty does not work!
  5. Share why you are a good fit for the lab by providing more information about yourself. Describe your experiences (non-research experiences are great!).
  6. Emails should be concise; limit yourself to one to three paragraphs.
  7. End with a question. Ask to meet to discuss their research or getting involved in their field.

If you don’t make contact right away, that's ok! Instead of following up immediately, send a follow-up message in 10-14 days. You can also try to locate the faculty member’s assistant or a member of the graduate research team for advice. Follow-up by going to the faculty member's office hours to introduce yourself in person and ask to discuss opportunities for participating in their research.

It's ok, and encouraged, to contact multiple faculty members at the same time. Consider making it a goal to contact 2-3 faculty members per week. 

Need feedback on your outreach?

Would you like feedback on a draft message to faculty? Ask for feedback from an advisor, professor, TA, or peer with whom you are most comfortable. Schedule an appointment on Chatter with Engineering Advising or the Engineering Career Center. Email or speak with your faculty advisor, professor, and current undergraduate researchers.

Meeting with Potential Faculty Mentors

Congrats on getting meetings with researchers! Meeting with a prospective mentor is a two-way conversation where you and the mentor(s) are trying to determine if this research group is a good fit for you. Your goal is not only to find a research group, but the right group for you. Fit matters! The mentor(s) is trying to assess your skills and interests, as well as your compatibility with the research group. You have the opportunity to get a deeper understanding of the research area, research group culture, and the management and mentoring styles within the group. 

Preparing for the meeting: 

Before you meet with your prospective mentor, be sure you can articulate why you’re interested in their work specifically and research in general. Practice saying it out loud. Here are a few questions you may be asked:

  • Describe your previous professional experiences. This could be jobs, previous research (not required!), volunteering, or participation in teams or clubs.
  • How do you balance academics with participation in other activities?
  • How do you respond to conflict, stress, or uncomfortable situations?
  • Give an example of when you learned something independently.
  • Why are you interested in this research group?
  • What are your career goals? (It’s ok to be undecided!)

Prepare a list of questions to ask the mentor(s). These can be about research or the lab structure (e.g., what do undergrads do each day?). Only ask questions you’re sincerely curious about. Here are a few example questions to ask a prospective mentor that have been adapted from the National Institute of Health:

  • Who will I work with in the research group? Is there a specific person in the group that I will go to with day-to-day questions?
  • What will my day-to-day experience be like? What will I do?
  • What might I be working on here? What technologies, approaches, and systems will I learn?
  • Will I have a small project of my own or will I be helping someone with an on-going project?
  • How often do you meet individually with undergraduates?
  • Does your research group have regular group meetings? Do undergraduates attend?
  • What qualities do you value most in an undergraduate researcher? How do you evaluate your undergrads?

If you can, talk to members of the research group such as undergraduate or graduate students. Here are a few example questions to ask current research group members that have been adapted from the National Institute of Health:

  • What are the faculty’s expectations of undergraduates?
  • What is a typical day like in this research group?
  • How often do you meet with the faculty mentor? What are the meetings like? If you do not meet regularly with the faculty, who do you meet with?
  • Do the faculty and other mentors answer email or other communications from members of the group?
  • How was your orientation and initial training handled? Who helped you in the process?
  • What happens when the faculty mentor gets frustrated?
  • What happens when people in the group make mistakes? What happens when the faculty makes mistakes?
  • What do you enjoy about working in the research group? What don’t you enjoy?
  • Does the faculty and others respect the undergraduates in the group? Do they listen to them and offer constructive feedback?
  • How does the faculty mentor deal with conflict between group members?
  • How many hours per week do people typically work? Do people have flexibility in setting their schedules? 

Lastly, be prepared to talk about time commitment. Bring your schedule.
You do not need to understand technical details of their research or have read several of their papers.

Research: Credit, Pay, or Volunteer?

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As an undergraduate joining a research group, you are somewhere in between a student being trained and an employee contributing to the common goals of the research group. Where you fall on that continuum will vary across time. Depending on the policies of your lab group as well as your role in the lab, you may participate in research as a volunteer, for pay, or for credit.

Research Credit

Students can receive credit for conducting research in most engineering departments. After joining a research group and the student and faculty mentor have agreed on the requirements and expectations, the student may enroll in the department course listing for independent undergraduate research. If questions remain, the faculty mentor or student should contact the department’s undergraduate coordinator for additional information. If you join a research group part-way through the semester, it might not be possible to enroll for credit until the following semester. Students receiving credit for research may not receive pay for the same effort.

Consider your course load when starting research during the academic year. Keep credits manageable. Plan your schedule with several 3-4 hour open blocks each week to allow time for research training from your mentor. Working on research 3-5 hours per week throughout the semester is equivalent to one credit hour.

In the College of Engineering, research-for-credit courses include:

  • AEP 4900 & 4910
  • BEE 4990 & BEE 4994
  • BME 4900
  • CHEME 4900
  • CEE 4900 & CEE 4000
  • CS 4999
  • EAS 4990, 4910, & 4920
  • ECE 4990
  • INFO 4990
  • MAE 4900
  • MSE 2910, 2920, 3910, 3920, 4910, 4920, & 4901
  • ORIE 4990

Other departments and colleges will have different research-for-credit. Be sure to review your college's specific research credit requirements. 

Paid Research

Undergraduates in the College of Engineering can be paid for conducting research through faculty research grants, Federal Work Study, the Engineering Learning Initiatives Student Grant Program, or various research scholar programs. Once you have connected with a faculty mentor, you can then discuss options with your mentor for receiving wages for your research effort. As funding is highly variable across research teams and projects, being paid for research might not be possible unless you receive your own funds. If your faculty mentor would like to support you to apply for funding through Engineering Learning Initiatives Student Grant Program, please access detailed information on funding cycles, application processes, selection criteria, and requirements. Those who receive pay for research may not receive credit.

Research Volunteering

Students often get started in research by volunteering in a research group, particularly when the research starts mid-semester and enrolling in credit is not an option. Volunteering can be a way to demonstrate reliability and commitment. However, enrolling in credits or receiving wages requires the students and faculty to enter into a formal agreement where both parties could feel more committed to the experience. For some students and/or faculty, this level of commitment can increase the quality of the experience.