Graduate FAQ

Students in the field. Photo courtesy of the Cornell Lab.
Photo courtesy of the Cornell Lab.

See also the Undergraduate FAQ. Some of the following answers may also apply to undergraduates.

Can I obtain an M.S. or Ph.D. in Ornithology at Cornell?

Cornell does not offer any degrees specifically in ornithology. Instead, our many students and faculty who work on birds fall within more general academic disciplines, most commonly the Graduate Fields of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Neurobiology and Behavior, or Natural Resources. Additional graduate opportunities are also available in the field of Animal Sciences and several fields within Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

What graduate degrees are offered by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology?

The Lab hosts a robust group of M.S. and Ph.D. students, but we do not admit those students directly. Instead, all graduate students are admitted through a Graduate Field. Various faculty based at the Lab are members of the Graduate Fields of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Neurobiology and Behavior, Natural Resources, and Zoology. Their students form the core of the Lab’s graduate student community. That being said, many additional Cornell graduate students take advantage of opportunities and resources available through the Lab.

Are all Cornell ornithologists based at the Lab of Ornithology?

No. The Lab is home to many of Cornell’s faculty ornithologists, but there are additional Cornell faculty based in other departments who regularly or sometimes work on avian biology. Don’t confine your search for graduate opportunities solely to people based at the Lab.

What is a Graduate Field?

Graduate Fields are an organizational level that is unique to Cornell. They arose as a tool for integrating faculty and students with common interests who are based in separate academic departments. Many Graduate Fields have the same name as their most closely associated department (for example: Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Neurobiology and Behavior, Natural Resources), but the Graduate Fields also include relevant faculty from other departments. For example, an ecologist whose academic appointment is in the department of Natural Resources might also choose to be a member of the Graduate Field of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She could then potentially take graduate students through that Field. There are also some Graduate Fields that are not directly associated with a similarly named department (for example, there is a Graduate Field of Zoology, but not a Department of Zoology). All graduate students are admitted into a particular Graduate Field. As an applicant, the most important consideration is that your future advisor must be a member of your Graduate Field. All Graduate Fields have websites that list their member faculty. More about Graduate Fields.

Which Graduate Fields offer M.S. opportunities in ornithology?

Among the Graduate Fields most closely associated with the Lab, only Natural Resources commonly accepts students seeking an M.S. degree. (Natural Resources also accepts Ph.D. students.) Nearly all students in the fields of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Neurobiology and Behavior work directly towards their Ph.D. Roughly half of those Ph.D.-track students come to Cornell after having completed an M.S. elsewhere; the other half simply skip over the M.S. stage altogether.

What are the application deadlines for graduate admissions?

Application deadlines and processes differ somewhat by Graduate Field. Check the website of the relevant field for details. Many fields have an application deadline of December 1 for the cohort of students that will enter Cornell in the fall of the following year, but this application timing is not universal.

What about graduate degrees related to birds outside of biology?

Cornell’s motto is “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” Fittingly, Cornell graduate students from many Graduate Fields work on projects related to birds. Recent examples include students in the Fields of Psychology, Computer Sciences, Applied Math, Education, and others. Also note that the faculty of Natural Resources (one of the Fields with particularly close ties to the Lab) consists of both life scientists and social scientists. Many graduate students in Natural Resources work on projects related to conservation issues, or on how humans interact with the natural world.

How can I tell if a Cornell professor is able and willing to admit new graduate students?

Graduate students are advised by a primary faculty advisor, and eventually also by the graduate committee they convene as their research program develops. To serve as a primary faculty advisor, a faculty member must be a member of the associated Graduate Field—so checking the Field membership list is the easiest way to check for their eligibility as a potential advisor. Graduate faculty usually have the titles of Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, or Professor. Cornell academic researchers who are not members of a Graduate Field are often eligible to serve on graduate committees, but not as major advisors.

It is harder to determine whether a particular advisor might have openings in their lab group in a given year. The best way to find out is to ask them.

What can I do to make myself a compelling candidate for graduate admission?

Your academic record matters, but in most fields your experiences, accomplishments, and goals matter more. Relevant research or work experience is always a plus. Try to take advantage of opportunities to write about your work, including undergraduate honors theses as well as formal scientific publications. Developing relationships with supervisors or mentors who can then write strong letters of recommendation is important. As relevant to your area of study, apply for competitive outside fellowships like the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (applications are due in November) in the same year you are applying to graduate schools.

Is it okay to contact potential advisors before I apply?

Dialogue with advisors is more than okay; it is close to essential. After doing your homework and identifying a faculty advisor who might be a good match, you should strive to open a conversation with them via email, phone, or a personal meeting. All potential advisors will appreciate you sending them detailed information about yourself, including a CV or resume, along with a well-reasoned description of why you are hoping to join their research group.

How do I make sure my research project meets regulations and has the correct permits?

We have to abide by all laws related to how we conduct research, no matter how much of a hassle they might seem to be. Violations by any one individual put all of us at risk of having our permits or permissions revoked. It is your responsibility to ensure that your graduate research adheres to all relevant laws. Fortunately, we do have some fantastic resources to help you:

  • Collecting, Import, and Transport Permits. Charles Dardia in the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates is a great resource for all things related to these kinds of permits. Always talk to Charles long in advance of collecting or moving any samples, including blood, tissue, DNA, nests, vertebrates or any parts thereof, etc.
  • Animal Care Approvals. Any scientific or teaching activity involving live animals (even simple observation) requires prior IACUC approval. If you are doing ANYTHING with live animals, you need to be on an approved IACUC protocol. Talk to your advisor first, but ensure that this happens, whatever route you need to take to be approved.
  • Hazardous Materials. Talk to Charles Dardia before ordering, mailing, or bringing any potentially hazardous materials to the Lab. Remember that “hazardous” as defined by the regulations includes a lot of commonplace things that you might not consider hazardous yourself, such as dry ice or samples stored in ethanol. We have to keep MSDS paperwork on file for everything that has that documentation.

I am traveling out of the country as part of my Lab work. What do I need to know?

Cornell periodically updates its policies on international travel. Some particularly important things to remember are listed here, but be sure to visit the International Travel page for the most accurate information.

As a graduate student, you MUST pre-register ALL international travel that is in any way related to your Cornell endeavors. The operative words here are MUST and ALL; this is serious stuff that you must adhere to.

Any students traveling to countries considered to have “elevated risk” REQUIRE pre-approval from the Cornell ITART committee. Requests should be submitted 6 to 8 weeks before departure. View the current list of elevated-risk countries here.

Cornell offers free emergency medical and evacuation insurance to all students and staff who are traveling internationally. This is an expensive (though totally free to you!) and potentially critical perk that could literally save your life, but you need to know how to access it in an emergency. Be sure to take the UHC Global Assistance card and calling instructions with you when you travel, and be sure that your travel companions also know those protocols.

Additional and essential protocols apply if you are leading an international group trip or if your international endeavors involve undergraduates. Check the international gateway site for checklists and more information.

How do I get reimbursed for travel or expenses?

At times you are likely to need to order things through the Lab, or get reimbursed from us for travel or other expenses. Cornell’s rules about these payments are complicated. Before ordering anything or embarking on reimbursable travel, be sure to talk to Zhila Sadri or another financial specialist at the Lab. Common mistakes include:

  • not saving itemized receipts
  • requesting reimbursement for items that Cornell classifies as non-reimbursable “personal items”
  • forgetting to turn in packing slips after items arrive in the mail
  • a serious rule is that all travel receipts must be submitted to the Lab business office within 30 days after the trip is completed.

Can I crowdfund my work through sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo?

Crowdsourcing and similar types of fundraising endeavors can be attractive, but they are usually more complicated than they appear on the surface. Many of the same rules that apply to other granting opportunities also apply to crowdsourced fundraising; these include topics like overhead rates, tax implications, intellectual property ownership, and a bunch of other issues that most of us don’t think about.

At the Lab we have a simple rule: you must get advance approval for any crowdsourced fundraising effort, and without this approval you may not refer in any way in your fundraising appeal to your status as a Cornell University student or to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. If you are thinking about some kind of crowdsourced endeavor, the point person at the Lab is Betsy Shrier. Here’s more from Cornell Alumni Affairs on how to go about establishing crowdfunding for small projects.

What resources are available in cases of sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment in any form is never acceptable. Yet it remains far too common generally, and studies further indicate that there is a heightened risk of sexual harassment in situations involving fieldwork at sites away from one’s home and regular support network. This paper is worth reading by every field researcher. If you feel you may be experiencing a form of sexual harassment or know someone who is, please use the many support services that Cornell offers. See Cornell’s Sexual Harassment and Assault—Response and Education (SHARE) site for descriptions and links to these services.

Please be aware that in the Cornell University setting, any sexual/romantic interaction between a teacher/supervisor (including graduate TAs as well as faculty) and the students they teach/mentor (including both undergraduates and graduate students) is considered a form of sexual harassment.