Program Overview

According to the American Public Gardens Association, a public garden is “any institution that maintains collections of plants for the purposes of public education and enjoyment, in addition to research, conservation, and higher learning.”

The Master of Professional Studies (MPS) in Agriculture and LIfe Sciences Public Garden Leadership focus area prepares students to lead botanical gardens, arboreta and similar organizations to positively impact the world through plant conservation, education, horticulture and community outreach.

Students complete coursework in organizational leadership, strategic decision-making, and garden management and work alongside world-renowned Cornell University faculty and field professionals in the forefront of garden management and development. Through applied, hands-on learning , students interact with Cornell Botanic Gardens staff and participate in in-depth study tours to public gardens in North America to learn from and network with field professionals.

Focus Area details

Knowledge and skills gained in this focus area provide a foundation for a variety of career opportunities including:

  • Botanical garden educator
  • Outreach coordinator
  • Volunteer manager
  • Fundraising specialist
  • Plant record manager
  • Marketing and communications specialist
  • Horticulturist
  • Greenhouse grower
  • Conservation manager
  • Plant biologist
  • Soil scientist
  • Botanist

Nina Bassuk   

  • Street trees
  • woody plant propagation
  • landscape management

Don Rakow   

  • Botanical history
  • Equitable access to parks and green spaces
  • Public garden management and social impact

Sonja Skelly   

  • Plants and human well being
  • Public garden management School & youth gardening, adult education


View all Integrative Plant Science MPS faculty | Explore all faculty interests and focus area careers

To learn more about these courses,  visit the Courses of Study website.

Coursework is specifically designed to meet the needs of each student. A minimum of 30 credit hours related to the candidate's professional interest is required to graduate.  The student and their faculty advisor decide on a plan of study. Here are some of the classes that are available; there are several more from which to choose:

Integrative Plant Science Core:


  • PLSCI 5500 Cultivating Community through Self-discovery and Skill Development
  • ALS 5900 Master of Professional Studies Project Development
  • ALS 5910 Master of Professional Studies Project Completion


  • ALS 5211 Career Readiness: Engaged Learning for CALS Professional Master’s Students

Public Garden Leadership Courses (recommended):

  • PLPPM 5010 Biology and Management of Plant Diseases
  • NBA 5150 Leadership Theory & Practice
  • PADM 5410 Non Profit Management and Finance
  • EAS 5443 Global Climate Change Science and Policy
  • NCC 5540 Managing and Leading Organizations
  • LA 5910 Creating the Urban Eden: Woody Plant Selection, Design, and Landscape Establishment
  • LA 5920 Creating the Urban Eden: Woody Plant Selection, Design, and Landscape Establishment
  • BTRY 6010 Statistical Methods I
  • PLHRT 5850 Public Garden Management
  • PLSCI 5940 Skills for Public Engagement
  • PLHRT 6020 Plant Propagation
  • PLSCS 6100 Plant Responses to Environmental Stresses

Students are selected for the program based on their demonstrated dedication to the public garden field, their work and life experiences, leadership qualities, and academic excellence. 

  • Online application through Cornell Graduate School
  • Bachelor’s degree
  • For non-science background, at least two introductory college-level science courses, including general chemistry, general biology, and corresponding labs  
  • Current résumé or CV
  • Two letters of recommendation
  • TOEFL/IELTS for international applicants, per Graduate School guidelines

CALS MPS program details

Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) Master of Professional Studies (MPS) program is an accredited, course-based, one-year Master’s degree program that emphasizes professional development and intellectual investigation in the areas of agriculture, life sciences and global development.

Though similar to a Master of Science (M.S.) degree in its academic rigor, the MPS degree differs from a traditional M.S. degree in its structure and focus. An M.S. is research-based, with students building a thesis over the course of two or three years. In contrast, the MPS degree is a one-year, course-based program where students study the intricacies and in-depth questions of their field of study. Instead of a thesis or research project, MPS students complete a capstone project during their final semester. To understand this difference in greater detail, please visit our FAQ page.

MPS students are part of a community of diverse students and faculty who share common goals, connecting research and practice to solve complex problems. 


The Master of Professional Studies program has two main components:

  • Coursework: Students work with a faculty advisor to map out their individualized course of study based on their areas of interest. The majority of courses (20 credits) will be within CALS; however, students have the opportunity to take courses across Cornell.
  • Capstone project: With the guidance of a faculty advisor, students work on solving a real-world problem.
  • Satisfactory completion of a minimum of 30 credit hours related to the candidate's professional interest, as agreed upon with the faculty advisor.
    (a)   Twenty credit hours must be taken within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and at least 30 credits must be in graduate-level courses (5000-level and higher).
    (b)   A maximum of 6 of the required 30 credit hours may be earned through the student's problem-solving project (see third bullet).
    (c)   A maximum of 6 graduate-level credit hours earned outside the program, at Cornell University or elsewhere, may be counted toward these requirements at the discretion of the student's faculty advisor. These credits must be appropriate to the subject of study and completed not more than five years before admission.
  • Completion of a minimum of two semesters. One semester must be earned by carrying a minimum of 12 credit hours. In certain circumstances, the second semester credit may be earned by accumulating the remaining credit hours in the School of Continuing Education and Summer Sessions at Cornell University or through transfer of credit (see item c above).
  • Satisfactory completion of a problem-solving project under the supervision of the faculty advisor. This project may be an action program, the development of a plan to address a pertinent problem, the development of materials or methodology suited to the student's situation, or the development and execution of research appropriate to the profession. A formal project report must be submitted to and approved by the candidate's faculty advisor. 
  • A minimum semester grade point average of 2.5 (minimum of 18 credit hours with letter grades at Cornell).
  • Completion of the degree within four years of admission. Some fields of study may have special requirements, so students should check with the field's director of graduate studies for specific details.

Students work with top-ranked faculty who are leaders in their field on an experiential project that fosters professional skill development through the creation of solutions to real-world problems.

Next steps

Deadline to apply: February 15*

*For regular Fall Semester start. Late applications may be accepted under exceptional circumstances.  Contact Tara Reed for more information: tln2 [at]

Student showing rhododendron blooms to others

Meet some of our Public Garden Leadership faculty

Faculty spotlight

Don Rakow

A global authority in public garden leadership, Don literally wrote the books on the subject, including Public Garden Management. A Complete Guide to the Planning and Administration of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta and Public Gardens and Livable Cities Partnerships Connecting People, Plants, and Place. He also directs the Nature Rx@Cornell program and the nationwide Campus Nature Rx Network, and is the author of Nature Rx: Improving College-Student Mental Health.

don rakow with rhododendrons in the background
Nina Bassuk
Nina Bassuk

Emeritus Faculty

School of Integrative Plant Science

Horticulture Section

Nina Bassuk
Urban horticulture
Woody plants, landscape management and propagation,
Cornell Structural Soil
Donald Rakow
Don Rakow

Associate Professor

School of Integrative Plant Science

Horticulture Section

Don Rakow
Public garden management and social impact
Botanical history
Equitable access to parks and green spaces
sonja skelly
Sonja Skelly

Director of Education, Cornell Botanic Gardens and Adjunct Associate Professor

School of Integrative Plant Science

Horticulture Section

Sonja Skelly
  • sms92 [at]
Public garden management
School & youth gardening, adult education
Plants and human well being