Abstract Background Undergraduate research experiences are becoming essential for pursuing future opportunities in science, but little has been done to identify what factors predict which students get to participate in research and which students do not. In this manuscript, we propose “scientific research capital” and specifically “scientific research cultural capital” as constructs to explain what students may need to know and do in order to successfully engage in an undergraduate research experience. We begin to articulate what comprises one component of scientific research cultural capital, embodied cultural capital, by identifying the knowledge that students may need to have in order to obtain an undergraduate research experience at a large, research-intensive institution where there are many more undergraduates vying for research positions than opportunities available. We interviewed 43 researchers, defined as undergraduates who had participated in research, and 42 non-researchers, defined as undergraduates who were interested in participating in research but had not yet successfully obtained a position, in a biology department at an R1 institution. We analyzed the data using inductive coding. Results We identified 10 “rules of research” or aspects of scientific research cultural capital that undergraduates reported about finding and securing undergraduate research. We used logistic regression to test whether undergraduate researchers were more likely than non-researchers to know particular rules. Researchers were more likely than non-researchers to know rules about securing research opportunities. Conclusions Since researchers were more likely than non-researchers to know rules related to securing research, educating students about how to secure research experiences and encouraging faculty to re-examine the criteria they use to admit students into their labs may be a key step in leveling the playing field for students who are vying for research positions. We propose that the construct of scientific research cultural capital can help publicize the hidden curriculum of undergraduate research so that students can more equitably gain access to undergraduate research.