Undergraduate FAQ

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 approximately 300-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 (currently closed until Spring 2024) and trails. Join us for early morning guided bird walks and evening seminars. In the event that you can’t make it to the Cornell 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 (reopening Spring 2024).

Can I major in Ornithology?

Cornell doesn’t offer a specific ornithology major, but many majors are bird-relevant; these include Biology, Environment & 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.

There is also a growing need for design, computer, and math savvy students interested in birds to help solve technological and analytical challenges in ornithology. Students majoring in Biometry and Statistics, Computer Science, and Information Science work with the Lab and also make major contributions to ornithology.

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 the Cornell student employment lists in Workday and search for “ornithology.” 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.

Is it okay to contact professors directly?

Yes. Professors are busy people, but they enjoy answering questions from current and prospective students. If you are emailing for general information, be sure to look through this and other web sites first.

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

We advise 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 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 conducting research, 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 likely have opportunities for you too.

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.