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Student Research

Students at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are exposed to a wide variety of learning experiences. One of the best ways for a student to gain knowledge beyond the textbook is to engage in original research.

Types of Research

An amazing variety and quantity of research is conducted in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Study areas include basic and applied research in agriculture, food and nutrition, life sciences, environmental sciences, and the social and behavioral sciences. Scientific investigation takes place in laboratories, in greenhouses, and in the "field," under controlled environmental conditions; researchers can also be found collecting information in settings as diverse as food superstores, media organizations, farms, and tropical rain forests. Whatever the type or setting, all research conducted in the College is motivated by its relevance to society and designed to lead to improved human well being in New York State, the nation, and the world.

Team Oriented

CALS undergraduate students are often active participants in the research process, joining teams composed of faculty members, graduate students, post-doctoral students, and others. Some students hold paid positions, others participate in honors research, and still others take part through credit-bearing courses. In the latter case, hundreds of CALS students enroll in Undergraduate Research 4990 and Individual Study 4970 each year. The experience is positive for undergraduates in many ways: students become valuable members of a research team while designing and conducting their own projects; they integrate research with course work and career plans; they experience the excitement of discovery; and they have the opportunity to develop stronger ties to faculty members, promoting a sense of collegiality and leading to mentoring relationships that last for years. Some students have even become co-authors of significant papers published in refereed journals, co-inventors on patent disclosures, and speakers at national conferences.

Plan Ahead

While the overall outlook for undergraduate involvement in research activities is very positive, there are some limitations. For example, positions are not always available in a given facility or with a particular professor. Also, students must often work into their desired positions, perhaps by taking prerequisite courses or by starting in a very routine role in the laboratory (e.g. performing setup or cleanup). The most exciting positions are usually awarded to the students who are very active in identifying, pursuing, and preparing for them. Students must take initiative but help is available.

The following information is meant to guide students in their preparation for securing an exciting research position, whether with individual professors, research centers, or institutes. The focus is on opportunities and general guidelines within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; however information is also available to CALS students who wish to explore possibilities across campus as well.

Undergraduates who become involved in faculty research either receive academic credit for their involvement and learning, receive pay for their research contributions, or volunteer their time to a project. Individual students and their faculty mentors should determine the best course of action based upon the needs and interests of both the student and those in the research setting.

The following information describes each of the potential options.


Courses that provide an academic framework for undergraduate research are offered in each CALS academic department. Typically, the department's 4990 course is reserved for undergraduate research and the 4970 course for individual study. To explore the option to receive research credits, students should consult with their faculty advisors and the Courses of Study. Research for credit usually lasts one or two semesters, and the number of credits is assigned by the involved faculty member.


Many research positions are paid. Recent data show that 16 percent of working Cornell students are employed in research-type positions. While students who are eligible for work-study funding have an advantage, there are paid positions that do not require such eligibility. The Office of Financial Aid and Student Employment can provide additional information.


A student volunteer receives neither pay nor credit; however, a volunteer position may be a first step toward a more advanced paid or credited position. Students, especially underclassmen, must sometimes work their way into an appealing research setting or project by first committing time in a more routine role or developing basic skills that will enable them to become more qualified for the research work they eventually want to do. Volunteering can also be a great way for a student to demonstrate enthusiasm for the research work of a professor.

Finding the Right Professor

Any CALS student may explore research opportunities by identifying research efforts they find intriguing and professors whose work they admire. Selecting the right research project and faculty mentor can be an arduous task requiring a fair amount of investigation, but there are many resources designed to assist students with their search:

  • The course descriptions provided by various academic departments can help students identify appealing subject matter that aligns with their interests. Contacting the professor(s) is a great first step in networking and finding potential research opportunities.
  • Most academic department web pages provide information regarding faculty research; many also include current research projects and interests, as well as a list of recent publications.  Students should explore faculty within their own major and in any others that interest them.
  • Students should read publications authored by professors whose work they find appealing. Such preparation shows initiative and makes a good impression.
  • Academic advisors are a great resource, especially with regard to research conducted within their own departments. Often, they can either direct students toward faculty whose research interests are complementary or enlighten them to previously unconsidered possibilities.
  • Departments routinely host symposia and seminars during which students and/or faculty present their research. Interested undergraduates should attend sessions that focus on their area(s) of interest and connect with researchers with whom they might want to work. Notices of such events are commonly found on bulletin boards in the various departments.
  • Students interested in biological research should visit the Biology Center in 216 Stimson Hall and review the notebooks containing faculty research statements and the possibilities for student involvement. Other helpful information includes: advice on the best way to set up an appointment, types of research activities available, and possibilities for summer research. Additionally, prospective research students often find helpful the notebook of comments from undergraduates who have done or are presently doing research.

Conferring with Faculty

Once some of the exploratory activities described above have been completed, the next step is to schedule a meeting with one or more faculty members identified as possible mentors.  Students should make the purpose of the meeting clear when they arrange the appointment. Students who are certain that they want to work on a particular professor’s research should view the meeting like a job interview, where they aim to make a great impression and convince the professor that they should be part of his or her team.  Other students may still be exploring possibilities and simply want to gather information such as: a description of the research, the possibility of undergraduate involvement, the likelihood of an available position, requirements, etc.  Students should be candid about nature of the meeting when the appointment is made.

When scheduling the appointment, students should respect and adhere to the professor's preferences; some may want a support staff person to arrange a day and time, others may prefer using e-mail, and still others may suggest a visit during office hours. Whatever the procedure, students should not feel reluctant to approach faculty; most enjoy having undergraduates involved in their research! Courtesy and polite persistence are keys to success.

The following are some additional suggestions to help lead to a productive meeting:

  • Students should bring a polished and up-to-date resume. The Career team in the CALS Student Services Office, 140 Roberts Hall, can assist in producing a well-written resume that conveys strengths and helps to make a good impression.
  • Initially, students should be pragmatic about the role they might serve on the research team; many students start by performing routine tasks, such as data entry, before working their way into more challenging roles. Specific prerequisite coursework or background knowledge may also be required.
  • Professors expect and accept that students explore many different research options; they appreciate students who are courteous and direct with their intentions. 
  • Students should not be discouraged by rejections or disappointments, as they are often part of the process. Persistence and creativity will lead to a fruitful research relationship.
  • Research teams are often composed of many individuals, including graduate and postdoctoral students.  Undergraduates may not always work directly with the faculty member, but the main goal is to gain experience by working on exciting research with a team of great people.
  • When considering a research position, students are encouraged to request a meeting with the person who will supervise their work and discuss the criteria upon which they will be evaluated. A comfortable relationship with the research supervisor is key to a productive experience.
  • For laboratory-based research, students are encouraged to visit the lab prior to accepting a position. Talking to student workers and asking questions will help to determine if the type of research and working environment are an appropriate match.
  • Not all research takes place in laboratories! Students may also want to consider field-based or social science research.

College and University Funding Sources

While Cornell offers a variety of funding opportunities for undergraduates, they can be difficult to locate, given the complexity of the University. The following list of sources and ideas encompasses offices and information from across the university, though it is not exhaustive.


Fellowships are endowments used to provide financial support to individuals pursuing advanced study or training. They can be for schooling, travel to certain countries, or projects within a given organization or group. See the Cornell University Fellowships Program for more information.

Financial Aid Office

The financial aid office is a great resource for outside scholarships and grants, though usually applicable for tuition assistance. Access the Financial Aid Office web site for more information.

CALS Research Funding

Several funding opportunities are available through the College. Access the Student Research tab for details, including proposal development instructions and deadlines.


Olin Library maintains an extensive and helpful section on grants and scholarships. For assistance, contact the reference desk librarian.

The “L” section of the Mann Library reference area is also helpful. It contains great resources, such as: Free Money for College from the Government.

Minority Research

Research funding is available to underrepresented, minority students in CALS for the academic year and summer. Average funding is $500. Contact Dr. Don Viands in 174 Roberts Hall for an application, or download the application in the Undergraduate Minority Research tab.

Office of Academic Programs*

The Office of Academic Programs provides research grants to eligible Cornell students. The Undergraduate and Graduate Student Grants pages provide details of funding eligibility and proposal deadlines. Contact drv3 [at] (Dr. Don Viands) at 607-255-3081 for more information.

Student Assembly Summer Experience Grant

The Student Assembly Summer Experience Grant (SASEG) is designed to aid students to complete summer unpaid or minimally paid career-related experiences. It is meant to help students who would not be able to take on a summer career-related experience or would have a difficult time doing so. The funds are drawn from the Students Helping Students fund and are open to first-years, sophomores, and juniors in all seven undergraduate colleges. Each college’s career office will be reading their own students’ applications, but the main administration of the grant will be coordinated by A&S Career Development.

Engaged Cornell

Whether you are an undergraduate, graduate or professional student, there is Engaged Cornell funding to support your community-based travel and research.

Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society*

This society provides grants to undergraduate and graduate research projects in any field. It offers general research funding, especially for travel and equipment expenses. Students may apply to both the Cornell chapter and the national headquarters for funding.

Student Employment Office

Through a number of assistance programs, the Student Employment Office subsidizes wages for students with work-study during the academic year and the summer. The "Develop Your Own Internship Program" provides summer subsidy for students with work-study. Work-study financial assistance is available until the funds are exhausted, so students are encouraged to apply early. Call 607-255-5145 for more information; or visit the office in 203 Day Hall.

No single source, including this one, will identify all possible options. Networking is, by far, the best tool. Students interested in funding opportunities should contact as many individuals in as many different environments as possible; they should ask for ideas and leads and pursue each one. The CALS Career Development Office can provide helpful information sheets on the networking process, and it also maintains a list of Faculty and Staff Career Representatives. The list contains the names of people in the College’s academic departments who serve as official liaisons with the Career Development Office. These individuals are great starting points for networking.

*These offices and programs include graduate study and research.

Students are advised to work with faculty members to develop scientifically relevant and pragmatic proposals.

Internship Guidelines

Several departments in the college offer supervised internships for academic credit. Internships may be granted for pay and/or credit and no more than 6 credits throughout the undergraduate career can be applied for internships consisting of off-campus work experiences that do not have the continued presence of a Cornell faculty member. The number of credits awarded follows NYSED guidelines equal to one semester credit hour awarded for each 45 hours of supervised academic activity. Since the State Education Department requirement is a minimum requirement, departments may require more than 45 combined instructional and supplementary hours of internship experience per credit earned. Fall and spring semesters consist of 15 weeks.

The 6 credit allotment includes transfer credit and credit from other internships in other colleges at Cornell. The 6 credit limit does not apply, however, to secondary, post-secondary, and cooperative extension teaching internships in the discipline of Education. The awarding of credit will not be allowed in cases where a student brings to the college or to a professor a description of a past experience and requests credit.

Note that a maximum of 15 (pro-rated for transfer students) of the 120 credits required for the degree may be taken in internships, individual study courses, and undergraduate teaching or research. For internships not governed by an established internship course, the student must enroll in a 4960 course for the number of credits assigned.

To ensure a straightforward and equitable system to manage internships, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has set forth guidelines to serve as minimum requirements for a student to receive internship credit.

  • Academic Credit: credit can only be awarded during the semester in which the coursework was completed. For example, a student beginning an internship during the summer can enroll in a 4960 course in the Fall Semester ONLY if internship-related work is completed in the Fall Semester. If all internship-related work is completed in the summer, the student must enroll through the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions.
    • Evaluation: Credit will only be assigned or accepted in cases where a Cornell faculty member is directly involved in determining both the course content and in evaluating the student's work.
  • Learning Contract: Before a student begins an internship, a learning contract must be written between the Cornell faculty internship advisor on campus, the supervisor at the location, and the student. This contract should state the conditions of the work assignments, the supervisor contact information, learning goals, number of credits, and methods of evaluation of the work.
    • The internship should be purposeful, provide opportunities for reflection, present a continual challenge to the student, and incorporate active learning, with the student an active participant in all stages of the experience from planning to evaluation.
    • Check to see if your department has their own contract form, otherwise create one with your Cornell faculty internship advisor.
  • Students must keep their faculty internship advisor updated on the progress of the internship while away from campus.

Arrangements should be made with the offering department for assignment of a faculty mentor for planning the program of work, and for evaluating student performance. Individual departments may add more requirements to the internship based on specific needs such as time constraints, faculty workloads, and the relationship of the internship to the goals of the department.


Students must register using the CALS Special Studies form available online.