Information for Prospective Students

Here are some general thoughts on grad studies in my lab. In recent years, I have been very encouraged that most students writing to me about graduate work have been interested in applying their thesis research, at least in part, toward a real-world conservation problem. The research program that I describe elsewhere on this page makes no mention of conservation, and I should probably explain my opinions about pure vs. applied research in my laboratory. I personally have been involved in the Mono Lake controversy in California since my undergraduate days at Davis, and I am increasingly involved in using the Tree Swallow system to try to understand passerine responses to global warming and in trying to figure out why Tree Swallow populations are declining in parts of their range. I think it is very important for all biologists to do whatever they can to halt or slow the decline in the diversity and productivity of the populations of non-human organisms on Earth. But I do not feel that conservation per se need necessarily be part of a student’s dissertation to qualify him or her to be effective in conservation. If you were to become a student in my lab, you would be able to pursue applied research if you were interested in doing so. But I make no strong prescriptions about a student’s “conservation curriculum.” What I do stress is the development of the ability to ask focused questions of nature and to answers to those questions in the field. If the questions asked have conservation implications, then I encourage students to pursue those connections, but I do not feel that the possible applications of a line of research should be allowed to dictate the directions of research in my laboratory.

I do not preclude collaboration with a student on any of the projects I described elsewhere, and there are often aspects of the larger projects we are pursuing that are ripe for independent exploration. I deem independent development of a project as critical to doctoral studies, and the interests of the students are sometimes better served by pursuing a project entirely independent of my own. Still, I am most capable of advising students interested in development and testing the theory of theory with bird-based experiments, but I would consider sponsoring students working with any taxon. What I am increasingly insistent upon is a commitment to excellence in both theoretical and empirical work. For some student naturalists this may mean a few tough math courses once admitted and very likely some time learning the R programming language. For some mathematically well trained students, it may mean a lot of time in the field getting to know a good deal about organisms first-hand in nature. In any event, I look for intellectual ability, curiosity and enthusiasm, leavened with realistic sensitivity to practical constraints. I also look for students that are “self-starting” and independent, ready to take advantage of the prodigious educational resources that Cornell can provide. Part of this reliance on the independence of the student is that students must be responsible for funding their own research. I will, of course, help out with letters of recommendation, advice and criticism of research grants, etc. I will not sponsor a student to whom Cornell cannot guarantee five years of teaching assistance or fellowship support, but the procurement of adequate research support is a critical part of the graduate student’s education, and I expect students to take that responsibility.

Being at Cornell, I have always been blessed with a remarkable pool of young ornithologists for my lab, and my lab seems to be perennially crowded as a result. Because we admit students by the decision of a faculty admissions committee, I can expect to admit a student to my lab less than once a year. Nevertheless, I review all the folders of applicants who indicated an interest in working with me in December, and, if upon reviewing your application, I think there is an extraordinarily good match with our group here, I will call you to have a chat over the phone. In most case, you likely will have contacted me ahead of time and we may already be well engaged in discussions about research at Cornell. In an event, I don’t want to be unduly negative, but it is an unfortunate reality that I cannot admit near the number of graduate students that I would like to if time and resources were unlimited. Please accept my assurance, though, that your application will be given careful consideration.

Some students may be interested in knowing what areas, if any, I would be most interested in recruiting students to study in my lab. In general, I think the actual subject of student research is less important than the way in which it is done. But right now, I am particularly intrigued by students who may be able to seize upon some of the recent developments in functional genomics to work with our system to help us understand better the genetic underpinnings of ecologically important traits in the Tachycinetas of the Americas. Also, I am intrigued by the possibilities of students with tools that would allow them to meld our work in electronics and tag design into productive new research on swallow movements.

Many students who contact me might also be well advised to get in touch with other faculty members here at Cornell. Specifically, André Dhondt (bird population biology and disease ecology), John Fitzpatrick (conservation biology and cooperative breeding) and Irby Lovette (molecular ecology and phylogenetics) are my close and valued colleagues in the Field of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Walter Koenig, Paul Sherman, Sandra Vehrencamp and Mike Webster in the Field of Neurobiology and Behavior are excellent avian behaviorists working with birds; Janis Dickinson and Evan Cooch in the Field of Natural Resources are excellent advisers in the area of avian conservation biology; and Elizabeth Regan and Tim DeVoogd in the Field of Psychology are ideal for students interested in working with the mechanisms of behavioral differences in birds.

If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to drop me a line. And, whether you end up pursuing your educational goals here or elsewhere, I wish you the best of luck in your biological career.