Plant biologists have contributions to make in genetics, medicine, climate change, agriculture and many other exciting and important areas. Students in Cornell's Plant Biology graduate programs are at the cutting edge of basic and translational plant research, tackling some of today’s toughest challenges; from a single strand of DNA to the global scale. Given the breadth of faculty research, students can choose from a variety of research areas and concentrations.

Each student has a Special Committee, which consists of the major advisor and representatives of the minor subjects. One minor subject is required for M.S. students, and two minor subjects are required for Ph.D. candidates. The committee provides advice about recommended courses and research activities and administers the required exams. Ph.D. candidates must pass the oral “A-exam,” usually taken after coursework is completed. Both M.S. and Ph.D. candidates must defend their theses at the “B-exam” and give a public seminar describing their work.

Requirement Details

Laboratory Rotations

During their first year, students carry out short-term (6-8 weeks), experimental projects in the laboratories of three different faculty field members. These rotations provide students with experience in different research areas and various lab environments before selecting a thesis major advisor.

Core Courses

Core courses are highly recommended for all graduate students in the Field of Plant Biology. They provide common experiences for students coming from diverse backgrounds and prepare them for further graduate study and research. They include introductory courses such as  "Concepts and Techniques in Plant Biology" and  "Laboratory in Plant Biology," as well as discussion format courses such as "Current Papers in Plant Biology."

Selective Courses

Selective courses are tailored to students’ research interest. They cover a wide range of topics at an advanced level ranging from "Plant Biochemistry" to "Botanical Nomenclature."  They can be one-semester long or one-month long (named modules). Modules offer in-depth discussion on specific topics such as ‘Signal transduction in plants" and "Proteomics and Mass Spectrometry."


The weekly student seminar series is based on student thesis research (each student once per year), typically followed by a meeting with the student’s thesis committee members. Internationally recognized speakers are also invited to discuss their work as part of the weekly Plant Biology seminar series.

Other Coursework

Students may add other courses as their interests and background dictate; they are not limited to courses offered by Plant Biology faculty. Many students take advantage of courses offered in other departments.


Historically, the Field of Plant Biology has been divided into nine "concentrations":

  • Cytology
  • Paleobotany
  • Plant Biochemistry
  • Plant Cell Biology
  • Plant Ecology
  • Plant Molecular Biology
  • Plant Morphology, Anatomy, and Biomechanics
  • Plant Physiology
  • Systematic Botany

These terms are still used to help define the composition of PhD thesis committees, and are required on the graduate application to the field. Graduate students can study topics in a wide range of research areas as listed below. Faculty members in Plant Biology Graduate Field are listed by their associated research areas; however, many biological questions are now approached at various levels, e.g., integrating molecular genetics data with evolution or integrating biochemistry with physiology and cell biology.

The “A” exam

The A Exam is a comprehensive exam to test your fluency in the field of plant biology and to assess your readiness to conduct research full time. You will defend a research proposal for your committee and should demonstrate that you have adequate breadth of knowledge on the subject to continue your program successfully. You will take your A Exam at the end of your second year, typically after finishing all classes. It is possible to fail this exam, but this does not happen often.

Your A Examination Committee will comprise your Special Committee and a “Field Appointed Member". The Field Appointed Member is NOT a part of the Special Committee, but is a Plant Biology Field faculty member who serves as an “ extra” on the A exam committee, and whose sole purpose is to ensure uniformity among A exams.

The Field Appointed Member is selected by the graduate student, typically in consultation with the PI (Special Committee Chair).

It is the student’s responsibility to initiate and set a date for the A Exam. An official form is due to the graduate school seven days before the exam. You’ll need all of your committee members’ signatures, so don’t leave this for the last minute. Have the GFA sign the form last as they will retain a copy with all signatures.

To prepare, study everything that may be even remotely related to plant biology, your specialization, and your minor(s). You should discuss with your advisor his or her expectations for a research proposal that will be submitted to your committee before the Exam. Typically, your proposal will have a format similar to a grant proposal. Talk to all committee members before the exam to get an idea of their expectations. Some faculty will even tell you the types of questions they routinely ask. Also, talk to senior students for advice and strategies for preparing. Fellow students are usually happy to share copies of their A Exam research proposals. Practicing your talk and answering questions with other students is also a good way to prepare.

The A Exam will be challenging, as you are expected to be conversant and analytical.However, you will probably not be able to answer every question. There is some variation in the format of each student’s A Exam depending on their Special Committee (again, discuss with your Committee members) and the research topic. Plant Biology guidelines currently suggest starting with a 10 -15 minute presentation by the student about their proposed research.

Additionally, prepare a written list of course work completed thus far, as well as paperwork to be signed by the examiners (the “Results of A Exam” form from the Graduate School).

Graduating with a Master’s Degree

If you are working towards a Master’s Degree, there will be no A Exam, just a defense of your Master’s Thesis with a similar format to the B Exam for a Ph.D. (see below). If you are unhappy with your Ph.D. program this is your opportunity to leave the program and graduate with a Master’s. If you are having serious doubts about the program please consider this option. The Grad School website supplies forms required to schedule the exam and record the results.

The “B” exam

The B Exam is the ‘Ph.D. Defense’ and is (almost) the final hurdle between you and a Ph.D. (The actual last step is correctly formatting your dissertation, submitting it to the Graduate School and receiving both their approval and the approval of your committee). Copies of dissertations completed by previous students from your lab or department (field) will certainly be available. All Ph.D. and Master’s Theses are available through the Cornell University libraries.

Hopefully you will have an excellent working relationship with your major advisor, and he or she will work with you to determine what you need to accomplish in order to be ready for the B Exam. You can certainly seek guidance from other committee members as well. Typically, you will have published at least one paper - two if you are lucky - and perhaps a review. These manuscripts can sometimes form individual chapters in your Thesis.

During the exam you will present the research you have accomplished, your committee will ask you some questions (more about the interpretation of your research and how it relates to other published research than about basic knowledge of plant biology), and they will decide if you deserve a Ph.D.

The B Exam itself should (in theory) be less stressful than your A Exam, mainly because you will be able to focus completely on your own research. Because the B Exam itself is closed doors, directly prior to the formal B Exam, students are expected to give an Exit Seminar for department (field) members and general public. This seminar is a summary of your thesis research and gives the audience a chance to ask questions. Email announcements for the Exit Seminar will be sent out to the section beforehand.

In general, the B Exam takes roughly three hours. Similar to the A Exam, there is an official form that must be filed with the Grad School to schedule your B Exam, and there is an official “Results of Exam” form that must be signed by all members of your committee after you complete the exam.

Your first academic year funding source is typically a fellowship awarded by the Plant Biology Field, or a University award such as the Presidential Life Science Fellowship (PLSF), or a Graduate School award such as the Dean’s McNair Graduate Fellowship, or a SIPS award such as the Denison Fellowship. Summer funding is typically the responsibility of the PI, although the PLSF and Denison Fellowships are twelve month awards that cover Summer support.

Second year and beyond:Funding beyond the first year is more complicated. All PLBIO graduate students are guaranteed support by the university for stipend, tuition, and health insurance for five years (pending good standing), but the sources for this funding will vary. Funding sources include fellowships, teaching assistantships, and research assistantships, or support from grants awarded to your PI. Talk to your PI about expected funding sources before you join a lab.

Research Assistantships

If your PI has a grant with sufficient funding for the project you’re working on, you can be paid by a Graduate Research Assistantship (GRA).


  • Applied for and awarded directly to the student
  • Sources include Fulbright, NSF GRFP, NIH, Ford, and USDA NIFA
  • Usually offer funding for 2-3 years and allow more freedom for research
  • Some give one year of support for thesis writing, usually at the end-- these can be found at many society websites

Teaching Assistantships

  • Applied for by the student on a yearly basis (see below)
  • Assigned by semester
  • Usually a 15-hour appointment to a given course
  • Cover stipend, tuition, and health insurance
  • Each student is required to TA for at least one semester; additional TA support is applied for as needed

Graduate students can act as Teaching Assistants (TAs): requirements of the job vary by course, but often include attending lectures, setting up materials, leading laboratory and discussion sessions, holding office hours, and grading students’ work. Most TAships are scheduled for 15 hours per week. TAships provide a stipend, a full tuition fellowship, and student health insurance.

The Field of Plant Biology requires that you TA for one semester but most students TA two semesters. Most students do their mandatory teaching in Fall or Spring semester of the second year; however, if there are many students who need to TA, some may TA in the third year. Students requiring funding can apply for additional TAships in subsequent terms. International students for whom English is not a first language are required to pass the International TA Language Assessment, which is offered three times each year.

The two most common types of TAships available to Plant Biology graduate students are SIPS TAships and General Biology TAships.

The university offers non-competitive support for travel to conferences. It’s also worth checking whether the conference you’re attending offers travel grants for students.

Graduate School Travel Grant Applications are accepted up to 30 days after the START date of the conference.

Forms for Committees and Advisors, Courses, Changes to a Degree Program, Funding and Financial Aid, and more can be found on the Cornell Graduate School site