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Undergraduate Major Frequently Asked Questions

What courses count as Materials Applications Electives

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Most of the courses that satisfy this requirement are listed on the MSE website at https://www.mse.cornell.edu/mse/programs/undergraduate-programs/major/major-curriculum/electives

However, new courses are being created all the time. If a new course seems like it might be appropriate, you can petition to have it counted. The rules for this set of courses are that they must (a) allow students to expand significantly on the knowledge they gained in the MSE core curriculum (materials focus), and (b) demonstrate how materials fundamentals are applied in science or technology (applications focus).  

Warning: Note that many courses have already been tested.  If it's not on the list and is not a new course, there is a significant chance that it has already been reviewed and determined to have insufficient materials focus.

Why do I have to take one Materials Applications Elective with an MSE Number and two without? What Happens if I don't do this?

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This is a College requirement. If you do not meet this requirement, you will not be able to graduate. Please note that many classes are cross-listed and have an MSE number and a number from a different Major. Make sure you pick the right ones

Can I petition to have a different course counted for the Advanced Math/Modeling Requirement?

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Yes.  Certainly new courses are being created and existing courses are being modified.  But your petition should clearly state how the course satisfies the intent of this requirement (see below).  Many courses are math intensive, but di not go beyond the basic core requirements of the college (Math 1919, 1920, 2930, 2940, CS 1110). 

The intent of this requirement is that at least one of the electives that you take (advisor approved electives, ENGRD, Materials Applications Electives, Outside Technical Elective) should teach advanced mathematics, numerical computing, programming, or make extensive use of mathematical or computational modeling as a central feature of the course (such as a materials simulation course).   

The "smell test" for what constitutes "advanced" is that it goes beyond MATH 2930 and 2940 and thus it probably lists at least one of these courses as a prerequisite, either explicitly or implicitly. Note that it is not sufficient for a course to simply use the math that you learned in MATH 2930 or 2940. Either the mathematics must be extended, or it must be used to develop models, as a significant component of the course.   

What ENGRD courses do MSE undergraduates typically take?

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The College requires that you take two ENGRD courses. For the MSE major, you are required to take either ENGRD 2610 or ENGRD 2620. Whichever one of these two courses you are not taking for the ENGRD requirement, you need to take as an MSE course, i.e. if you take ENGRD 2610, then you need to take MSE 2620 and vice versa. For the other ENGRD course, any of the other ENGRD courses offered qualify (see http://courses.cuinfo.cornell.edu/CoScourses.php?college=ENG&dept=Engineering+Common+Courses).

However, some of the more common distribution  for MSE students include 2020 (statics), 2700 (probability), 2640 (Computer-Instrumentation Design), 2110 (CS programming) or 2100 (electrical circuits)

Should I take senior thesis or senior lab?

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Both are designed to give you extensive practical research experience. Both have significant reporting and assessment requirements. Senior Lab now involves “open ended” experiments that will challenge you much like research. The main difference is that we generally know that the Senior Lab experiments can be made to work! Students who have not established a relationship with a research group by the end of their junior year may reach out to our contacts at the bottom of this list to make such a connection.

What are requirements to graduate with honors?

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To enter a Major honors program, a student must be on track to graduate with distinction as described in the Engineering Undergraduate Handbook, pp. 159. A student must be in the MSE program for at least two semesters before graduation. If the requirements for (1) distinction, (2) Bachelor of Science degree, and (3) MSE honors program are fulfilled, the faculty of MSE may recommend that the student graduate with the notation of “With Honors” on their diploma and transcript.

To participate in this Honors Program, a student must meet the Major Honors Programs criteria as delineated on page 164 of the Engineering Undergraduate Handbook:

  • Complete at least 9 credits above the minimum required for graduation in Materials Science and Engineering, so that the minimum number of credits for an honors degree is 141. The additional courses must be technical in nature, i.e. in engineering, mathematics, chemistry, and physics, at the 4000 and graduate levels, with selected courses at the 3000 level, which must be approved by the Major advisor.
  • Write a senior honors thesis (6 credits) with at least a grade of A. The extra two credits of thesis (beyond senior lab) satisfy 2 of the 9 extra credits.

  • Timing: Complete a written application by the end of week 3 of the first semester of the fourth year, but it is better to make arrangements with a faculty member the semester before that.
  • Procedures: A faculty advisor must supervise the honors program. Written approval by the faculty member who will direct the research is required.

Is it possible to study abroad in MSE?

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Whether you eventually work with professionals or clients from other countries, accept an overseas assignment with a multi-national company, or teach at a university outside of the United States, your professional opportunities are increasingly global. There are a variety of options available for materials science students interested in studying abroad. For the latest, visit the Cornell Engineering study abroad website. In addition, the Office of Global Learning manages hundreds of programs for Cornell students and can assist you in finding an experience that meets your needs and interests.

The ability of a student in any engineering major to study abroad depends on their advanced placement credit, their affiliation requirements, and which courses they would like to complete abroad. It is recommended that MSE majors planning to study abroad to take MSE 3010 and 3030 in the summer with the Co-op students. MSE will accept a reasonably broad range of lab courses in place of MSE 3110, and design experiences are also relatively easy to find for MSE 3070.  Students may also consider completing requirements early for MSE 2060 and 2620 and taking a semester leave in the spring of their sophomore year.

Students need to take responsibility for identifying their educational goals abroad (i.e. which degree requirements they would like to complete) and receiving appropriate department pre-approvals for those courses so that they can be assured the credits will transfer. Major courses need to be approved by their department, advisor approved electives need to be approved by their Faculty Advisor, and liberal studies need to be approved by Engineering Advising.

What are the requirements for good academic standing in MSE at Cornell?

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The official description of these requirements is in the Engineering Undergraduate Handbook.

The main points are that you have to earn a semester GPA >2.0 every semester, that you have to maintain a cumulative GPA >2.3, and that you can get at most one grade as low as C– in the Major required courses, materials electives, materials applications electives, and the outside technical elective.

In addition, you have to make steady progress towards your degree (minimum of 12 credits per semester, courses that will lead to graduation at the expected time).

Why do these requirements exist?

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To ensure that the degree you receive from Cornell continues to represent a high standard of quality, and to provide a mechanism for warning students if they are not meeting these standards.

What happens if I don’t meet the requirements for academic good standing?

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You will receive a letter from the faculty letting you know that some academic action has been taken in your case. For minor infractions, the action will just be a warning, advising you of the problem and letting you know what you need to do about it. If the problem is more severe, the best course of action may be a leave of absence to allow you to complete courses in sequence.  In extreme cases, the recommendation may be a withdrawal from the College if no path to success can be identified.  Each action is viewed both by itself and in the context of the overall records.  Because of the sequential nature of many of the required courses, a term leave of absence may well be the appropriate remedy despite the absence of previous actions. 

Can I petition to graduate even if I have more than one grade as low as C- in the MSE Major?

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If the rest of your transcript is in order, it is sometimes possible to petition to have a second C- accepted if it is in one of the electives and other requirements for good standing are met. The likelihood that this petition will be accepted is small.  Petitions for two grades of C- or a grade lower than C- in the MSE core courses (2060, 2610, 2620, 3010, 3030, 3040, 3050, 3070, 3110, 3111, 3120, 4020, 4030, 4050, 4060, or 4070) will not be approved.

What kind of research can I do?

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Cornell faculty members conduct world-class original research in a wide range of areas. Most of this work is funded by government agencies, foundations, or companies. Undergraduate researchers participate in many of these projects. Faculty members provide a basic description of their research on their individual research group websites (linked from the MSE directory) or you can go to a citation index like Web of Science (available through the Cornell library) to find the papers that faculty have recently published.

What will be expected of me as an undergraduate researcher?

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About half of all undergraduate students at Cornell Engineering choose to join research labs, and for students in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, it’s an opportunity to contribute directly to solving some of the world’s most pressing scientific challenges. While some students volunteer or earn credits for their lab work, others are paid through programs such as the Undergraduate Research Awards offered by the Office of Engineering Learning Initiatives.

To generate an undergraduate research project, the faculty member, postdoc, and/or graduate students involved will typically take a small, well-defined chunk of the work they are trying to do that can be accomplished by an undergraduate in a reasonable time. During the semester, undergraduate researchers generally are expected to work about 8-10 hours per week on their research project and to attend research group meetings. You will be expected to participate in the work as a full member of the team. It is likely that you will not have the background that you need to fully understand the project at first, but if you stick with it, you will be able to learn a great deal and become an indispensable member of a major research team. Students who stick with the same research project for several semesters very often end up as co-authors on publications.

It is important to recognize that these research projects are serious funded efforts with deadlines and reporting requirements. If you are fortunate enough to get a research position, faculty, graduate students, funding agencies, and companies may all be depending on you for results. This is not a commitment to take lightly. You should be very clear about the time that you have available to work on the project. If you are not keeping up or if you don’t have the skills needed to work at the needed level, you are likely to be quickly dropped from the project.

Similarly, you will find that every research group has a strict safety protocol for work in their laboratories, as does every shared facility on campus. You must learn all of the safety procedures associated with a particular laboratory before you begin to work there. Many facilities require formal training and certification. Once you begin working in a lab, you must follow safety procedures scrupulously and responsibly.

What are the benefits to participating in research?

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The main benefits to participating in research are:

  • It gives you an opportunity to apply the knowledge that you are obtaining in the classroom to real-world problems, significantly strengthening your understanding of those concepts. This is valuable whether you plan on a career in research or in other areas.
  • It gives you an opportunity to learn new skills that are not covered, or not covered in detail, in the classroom: these include laboratory technique, teamwork, presentation skills, paper writing, and many others. Again, this is beneficial whether or not your career plans include research.
  • By developing a close positive working relationship with a faculty member and the members of his or her research group, you will create a cadre of people who can comment authoritatively on your capabilities in recommendation letters for jobs, awards, graduate schools, and so on.
  • You can participate directly in the generation of new knowledge!

How can I participate in research as part of my Cornell MSE undergraduate program?

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  • Work in a faculty research group: most Cornell MSE students work in a faculty lab at some point for experience, credit, or pay. Working in a faculty research group can be a very rewarding experience. The work will be very challenging, and you will have the chance to get to know and be associated with a world class research team, including a faculty member, postdoctoral researchers and research associates, graduate students and other undergraduate students
  • Senior Thesis: A large fraction of our MSE undergraduates participate in senior thesis research. Contact the undergraduate coordinator.
  • Research for Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Programs: students may participate in REU programs offered at Cornell or at many other universities in the summer. To search for an REU, please visit the National Science Foundation REU Site.

How do I find an undergraduate research position?

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The best way to find a position as an undergraduate researcher is to visit faculty web pages in order to determine whose research you find most compelling. Look at the research descriptions and publications of the faculty to find topics that interest you. When UG research positions become available, they sometimes will be posted around Bard Hall and also on the MSE 1234 blackboard site. However, most relationships are established by direct contact. Knock on a door. A good time to ask is late spring to early fall. In this time, the current seniors will wrap up their projects and faculty and graduate students will be thinking about replacements.

You should update your resume and personally approach the faculty member during his or her office hours. The faculty member will then be able to determine how they can best use your skills and incorporate your academic and career goals into the work you’d be performing in the lab.

Is there a deadline for applying to work in a faculty research group?

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There is no formal deadline, but it is highly recommended that you approach the faculty member the semester before you wish to begin your research. Keep in mind that graduating seniors leave research groups every May and thus January-April is a good time to line up opportunities for the following fall.

When can I start?

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You can start anytime, but you will find that most groups prefer that you get a little Cornell experience and track record before starting on a research position. If you start as a second-semester sophomore, you will be in a good position to judge the effort you are able to put in, and you will still have enough time to become an expert in your research topic before you graduate.

Credit, pay, or volunteer, what kinds of undergraduate research positions are available?

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Undergraduates can participate in research in many different ways, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. You can volunteer, receive academic credit, or work for pay.  Receive  academic credit for research through MSE 2910/2920, 3910/3920, or 4910/4920, or through MSE 4900. Research for credit courses can count as “Advisor Approved Electives” or they can count towards honors.  One semester of research involvement (2910/2920, 3910/3920, or 4910/4920 may be used as a “Materials Applications Electives.” In some (rare) cases you can get paid to do research. Probably the most common path is for students to volunteer for a year or two and receive credit for Senior Lab.

  • Research as a volunteer: Probably the easiest is if you simply volunteer to work in a research group. This is the simplest, most direct, and most flexible arrangement. Together with the sponsoring faculty member, you can adjust your level of effort to fit your schedule, whereas if you are working for pay or for credit, your obligations are generally fixed. This is usually the recommended option if you want to commit some amount of effort other than the 3-4 credits worth required if you sign up for a research for credit course, and don’t need the background offered by those courses. This is the most commonly-used option.
  • Research Involvement academic credit: You can earn credit for participating in research by signing up for MSE 2910, 2920, 3910, 3920, 4910, or 4920. The first digit indicates what year you are in (2 = sophomore, 3 = junior, 4 = senior) and the third digit indicates the semester (1 = Fall, 2 = Spring).  These courses are structured and include written proposals, updates, and reports.  Because of this uniform standard with regard to effort, one semester of research involvement may be used as a Materials Application Elective within the research category.   It is a good idea to sign up for research for credit if you have never participated in research before and you could benefit from the training portion. Note that these for-credit research courses will require a significant amount of effort from you above and beyond your work in the lab—your total effort must be similar to any other 3 or 4 credit engineering course.

  • Special Projects academic credit:  You can also earn credit in the 4900 special projects course.  These courses can only be used as advisor approved electives within MSE.  Requirements and expectations for these project courses are by agreement with the supervising faculty.  The courses are variable credit with 1 credit corresponding to approximately 3 hours per week in the lab (or on related research activities).

  • Research for pay: Many research projects support paid positions for undergraduates. This may be especially useful to help you cover your expenses if you can get a full-time position in the summer.  The Engineering Learning Initiatives (ELI) has limited funding to help cover some of these expenses.  While it is, of course, nice to be able to get paid for work during the semester, like any paid job there will be more deadlines and reporting requirements. Compared with the costs of a Cornell education and the long-term benefits of the experience that you gain and the relationships that you build with your research advisors, the money that you will earn is often negligible.

How do I find an REU experience?

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REU experiences are offered at many institutions and can give you a chance to see how other places do things. A great place to find more information, including a list of REU’s offered around the country can be found on the National Science Foundation’s site.

What is CMS?

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CMS or Cornell Materials Society is a student organization made up of Materials Science and Engineering students. For more information go to the CMS website.

Can current Cornell MSE undergrads apply to the Cornell MSE PhD program?

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Current undergrads may apply or be admitted to the Cornell MSE Ph.D. program; often it is beneficial for students to apply to other programs as well.

Whom should I contact for further information?

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We welcome your questions! If you would like to schedule an appointment to speak with a faculty member outside their regular office hours, please call 607.255.9159 or send us an email.