Undergraduate FAQ

Undergrads in the field. Photo courtesy of Emma Greig.
Photo courtesy of Emma Greig.

See also the Graduate FAQ for additional questions and answers.

What exactly is the Lab of Ornithology and how does it relate to Cornell University? 

We’re much more than a typical research lab: we’re a research facility and nonprofit organization focused on science, conservation, education, and communication. More than 250 faculty and staff work here on virtually every aspect of bird biology, evolution, behavior, and conservation, as well as studying other animals.

Our facility at Sapsucker Woods houses a Visitor Center with an observatory overlooking Sapsucker Woods pond, interactive exhibits, art displays, Adelson Library (a branch of the University library system focused on birds and natural history), an auditorium, classroom space, and a Wild Birds Unlimited store. The 220-acre Sapsucker Woods sanctuary surrounds our facility and hosts a network of maintained trails. Our building also houses the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates, a natural history collection containing over 1.5 million specimens used for scientific research. Learn more in our Visit section.

How can I learn more about the Lab if I visit Cornell as a prospective student?

Come visit us! We’d love to answer your questions and you can also explore our Visitor Center and trails. Join us for early morning guided bird walks and evening seminars. In the event that you can’t make it to the Lab to visit, check out our website, which will give you a nice overview of our facility without having to leave your room. If you’re a high-school student passionate about birds, you may be interested in our annual Young Birders Event. If you are a high school student who might apply to Cornell owing to your passion for birds, be sure to introduce yourself to the friendly person at the Lab’s reception desk in the visitor center.

Can I major in Ornithology?

Cornell doesn’t offer a specific ornithology major, but many majors are bird-relevant; these include Biology, Environmental Science and Sustainability, Animal Sciences, Science and Technology Studies, and more. Although none of these majors are specifically bird-focused, students may choose an area of focus and select from Cornell’s many ornithology-related classes.

What kinds of bird-related research, work-study, or other job opportunities are available for undergraduates?

Dozens, or maybe even hundreds! They vary a bit from year to year, but there are always lab, office, and field jobs available. Often you’ll learn about these opportunities by word of mouth, so be proactive about finding one that’s right for you. Your professors are a good starting point, and may even be looking for student researchers themselves. Asking around about jobs is a great way to find a position. The more people you contact about bird-related jobs, the more likely you are to find an open position that meets your expectations.

Check our Undergraduate Jobs and Funding page for more advice and suggestions. Also keep an eye on the Cornell Lab’s main Job Opportunities page. If you don’t find anything you like, check back later; new positions become available periodically. But always remember that networking is the best way to find a student job at the Lab — we often create jobs to match the student who is looking for one.

Will I be able to find my way in a large university like Cornell?

Cornell may seem like a big place at first, but don’t worry! Many professors and teaching assistants here are very accommodating and are willing to help if you have questions or are feeling a little lost amid the flocks of other new students. If you’re looking for something specific, like an internship or advice on classes, ask around. Your advisor can help you find classes that fit your interests and satisfy your academic requirements, and your professors and teaching assistants can often find you paid and unpaid internships and research opportunities.

If you’re worried about getting physically lost, don’t worry about that either. Cornell is a big university, but you’ll learn your way around quickly. There are also online maps as well as physical maps located around campus, and you can always get your own map from the Tang Welcome Center (located on central campus), or from any of the four traffic booths on campus.

I see that the Lab of Ornithology is a bit off campus. How can I get there without a car?

The Lab of Ornithology is about a 10-minute drive from campus. There are two main forms of public transportation that travel to and from the Lab: the Lab shuttle and the TCAT Bus 41. Here’s information on their routes and schedules.

When evening events (such as seminars) take place at the Lab, rides back to campus can be arranged for those without transportation.

Is it okay to contact professors directly?

Yes. Professors are busy people, but we enjoy answering student and prospective student questions. If you are emailing for general information, be sure to look through this and other web sites first. When sending us a query, please provide us with information on your background and be clear about what you would like us to respond to.

How can I convince my parents that studying birds is a worthwhile career path?

There are many good reasons to study birds. Sharing these with your parents may help them understand what a fascinating and beneficial field of study ornithology can be:

  • Countless career choices, including bird rehabilitation and veterinarian jobs, genetics and evolution studies, wildlife conservation, behavioral studies, education/outreach, and resource management
  • Job opportunities all over the world (even Antarctica)
  • Many different pay levels
  • Opportunities to work with rare and exciting birds, up close and from afar
  • The chance to learn about other environmental issues that affect birds and their habitats
  • Many different work settings (outdoors, in a lab, in a classroom, etc.)
  • The chance to meet new people with similar interests
  • The chance to increase scientific knowledge about birds, their habits, and their habitats, or to teach others about the wonders of the avian world.

How can I meet and socialize with other students who are interested in birds?

There are a number of clubs on and off campus that are bird related, including the Cornell Birding Club and the Cayuga Bird Club. See more on our Birding at Cornell page. Attending guided bird walks and evening seminars here at the Cornell Lab, and taking bird-related classes are also great ways to meet other students who are interested in birds.

If I want to go to Cornell for graduate school in ornithology, should I reconsider applying as an undergrad?

To a person, every Cornell ornithology professor advises against deferring applying to Cornell as an undergraduate for this reason. Our opportunities for undergraduates are unrivaled: You’ll learn about birds in depth from great professors and be part of the largest undergraduate birding community in the world. Many of the courses offered here give students hands-on opportunities to learn about birds in the classroom, in the lab, and in the field. Our students have great success in graduate school applications and in other bird-related career paths.

And, if you defer coming to Cornell now because you think you might want to attend as a graduate student, you are taking a huge gamble that your MS or PhD interests will align exactly with those of a particular Cornell advisor at that stage of your career, and that you will gain admission as a graduate student. When applying to our graduate programs, you are really applying to work with a particular advisor on their very specific area of science.

What if I don’t know that much about birds (or I just started to learn about them)? Can I still get involved?

Of course! There are many opportunities at Cornell to introduce yourself to birds. Many of the introductory biology and ecology classes cover basic birding topics ranging from identification to physiology to evolution. The Cornell Lab offers early morning guided bird walks, seminars, and other bird-related events that are beginner-friendly as well.

Can I get involved with the Lab even if I’m not interested in doing research?

Yes! The work we do at the Lab involves art, journalism, multimedia, documentary filmmaking, education, outreach, web design, computer science, and more. If you’re interested in birds but not necessarily in doing research on them, we encourage you to deploy your talents here in a different way.

Students work or volunteer at the Lab in a great variety of areas. We’re always looking for people to help out in the Visitor Center, lead guided bird walks, and help us out with other miscellaneous things. Are you a writer? We have a writing internship. An artist? We have art internships. Engineer? Programmer? Historian? We have opportunities for you too. You can check out our Undergraduate Jobs and Funding page for more information, but always remember that networking is usually the best way to find an opportunity.

One suggestion is to reach out to anyone who works at the Lab and simply ask that person to help connect you to the most relevant Lab staff and faculty; we are all friendly and we all like to help students find their way.