Graduate students may choose either Plant Breeding or Plant Genetics as a concentration within the Field of Plant Breeding. In general, students are required to complete appropriate course work, conduct high quality research, and submit an M.S. thesis or Ph.D. dissertation presenting their research. Opportunities for research in other countries are also available while enrolled at Cornell.

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.

Residence units are awarded for each successfully completed semester of instruction or research. M.S. students must earn a minimum of two residence units, while Ph.D students must complete six residence units.

Ph.D. candidates in the Field of Plant Breeding are required to participate in a teaching activity for one semester. This requirement may be fulfilled in a variety of ways, including assisting in teaching or setting up laboratory sessions for courses, developing a new course, grading papers, or developing computer software for a course.

Requirement Details

Minor Subjects: 1 for MS, 2 for PhD

Exams: B exam for MS, A and B exams for PhD

Residence Units: 2 for MS, 6 for PhD

Required Teaching: none for MS, 1 semester for PhD

When students complete the Ph.D., they should be able to:

  1. Conduct original, publishable research in plant breeding/genetics
  2. Demonstrate in-depth knowledge about plant breeding/genetics and at least one other area of study (i.e., their chosen minor field(s)
  3. Write and speak effectively to professional and lay audiences about their research and current issues in the discipline

When students complete the M.S. they should be able to:

  1. Assist in conducting original, publishable research in plant breeding/genetics
  2. Demonstrate broad understanding about plant breeding/genetics
  3. Write and speak effectively to professional and lay audiences about their research

Research Masters/M.S. Milestones


  1. Chair nominated - By the end of the 3rd week of the 1st semester.
  2. Committee formed - By the end of the 2nd semester.
  3. Masters Exam - By the end of the 8th semester. 
  4. Thesis - By the end of the 8th semester.

Research Doctoral/Ph.D. Milestones


  1. Chair nominated - By the end of the 3rd week of the 1st semester.
  2. Committee formed - By the end of the 3rd semester.
  3. A Exam - At the end of the 3rd year, before beginning 7th semester.
  4. B Exam - By the end of the 14th semester. (At least 2 semesters between A and B exam)
  5. Dissertation - By the end of the 14th semester.

This listing is intended to assist in selection of suitable courses toward the plant breeding Ph.D. degree, not to provide rigid requirements. Students must also complete appropriate course work for their minor fields. Some of the courses listed below will contribute to specific minor requirements.

All students should have basic mastery of current knowledge in background areas that form a foundation for Plant Breeding, as listed in Table A. Many students will have done some relevant course work recently in their B.S. or M.S. studies. Those who have not should take the courses that fit their particular needs.

Important background knowledge for all Ph.D. candidates in the Field of Plant Breeding

Strong course in modern genetics

  • BIOMG 2800 (Lectures in Genetics and Genomics). NOTE: This is the same as BIOMG 2810 (Genetics) but without the lab. Fall, Spring, Summer, 3 credits

Biochemistry (4 options)

  • BIOMG 3300 (Biochemistry, individualized instruction). Fall or Spring, 4 credits
  • BIOMG 3310 (Proteins & Metabolism), Fall, 3 credits PLUS BIOMG 3320 (Molecular Biology), Spring, 2 credits
  • BIOMG 3330 (Proteins, Metabolism, & Molecular Biology). Summer 8-week session, 4 credits
  • BIOPL 4620 (Plant Biochemistry). Spring, 3 credits

Soil science

  • CSS 2600 (Soil Science). Fall, 4 credits, includes lab

Plant Pathology

  • PLPA 3010 (Biology & Management of Plant Diseases). Fall, 4 credits

Whole Plant Systems

  • BIOPL 3420 (Plant Physiology). Spring, 3 credits

Recommended Cornell courses directly relevant to plant breeding

Overall current breeding information

  • PLBR 6220 (Plant Breeding Seminar), Fall & Spring, 1 credit. Graduate students must sign up and attend each semester unless they are taking a course in another department scheduled at the same time or are working off campus

Basic plant breeding

  • PLBR 4030 (Genetic Improvement of Crop Plants). Fall, 3 credits. REQUIRED, unless student recently took an equivalent course at another institution.

Plant breeding methods

  • PLBR 4080 (Methods of Plant Breeding Laboratory) Fall, 2 credits.
  • REQUIRED, unless student recently took an equivalent course at another institution.
  • PLBR 6100 (Practicum in Plant Breeding) Fall, 1-3 credits. NOTE: This course is strongly recommended for students whose program does not have a field component

Advanced plant genetics

  • PLBR 6060 (Advanced Plant Genetics). Spring, 3 credits.

Quantitative genetics

  • PLBR 7170 (Quantitative Genetics in Plant Breeding). Spring, even years, 3 credits.

Basic statistics

  • BTRY 6010 (Statistical Methods I), unless well covered in previous studies. Fall, 4 credits.

Research credits: students sign up for appropriate number of research credits each semester

  • PLBR 8900 (Master’s-Level Thesis Research). Fall & Spring, variable credit.
  • PLBR 7900 (Graduate-Level Dissertation). Fall & Spring, variable credit. For Ph.D. candidates pre-A exam.
  • PLBR 9900 (Doctoral-Level Dissertation Research). Fall & Spring, variable credit. For Ph.D. candidates post-A exam.

Advanced plant breeding Several courses from the following list: Ph.D. candidates to take more courses than M.S. candidates. Course selection will vary according to student’s areas of work, background, minors, etc.

  • PLBR 4070 (Nutritional Quality Improvement of Crop Plants). Fall, 1 credit.
  • PLBR 4091 (Molecular Basis of Phenotype in Plant Breeding and Genetics). Spring, 1 credit.
  • PLBR 4092 (Introduction to Scripting and Statistics for Genetics Data Management). Spring, 1 credit.
  • PLBR 4093 (QTL Analysis: Mapping Genotype to Phenotype in Practice). Spring, 1 credit.
  • PLBR 4826 (Genetically Engineered Crops: Products, Policies & People). Spring, alternate odd years, 1 credit.
  • PLBR 7160 (Perspectives in Plant Breeding Strategies). Spring, odd years, 3 credits.
  • NOTE: PLBR 7160 is strongly recommended for all students.

Additional important areas. Courses chosen will depend on student's background, interests, minor fields, etc.

Other advanced courses about plants

  • BIOPL 4220 (Plant Development). Fall, 2 credits.
  • BIOPL 4620 (Plant Biochemistry). Spring, 3 credits

More statistics

  • BTRY 4140 (Statistical Methods IV: Applied Design). Spring (alt. years?), 4 credits
  • BTRY 6020 (Statistical Methods II). Spring, 4 credits.
  • BTRY 6030 (Statistical Methods III). Spring, 4 credits.
  • BTRY 6700 (Applied Bioinformatics & Systems Biology). Fall, 4 credits.
  • BTRY 6820 (Statistical Genomics). Spring, 4 credits.
  • BTRY 6830 (Quantitative Genomics & Genetics). Fall, 4 credits.
  • BTRY 6840 (Computational Genomics). Fall alternate years, 4 credits.

More genetics, evolution, etc.

  • PLBR 4831 (Concepts/Techniques in Plant Molecular Biology). Fall, 3 credits
  • BIOEE 1780 (Evolutionary Biology & Diversity). Fall, Spring, 4-5 credits.
  • BIO EE 3690 (Chemical Ecology). Spring, 3 credits.
  • BIOPL 4470 (Molecular Systematics). Fall, 3 credits.
  • BIOMG 4810 (Population Genetics). Fall, 4 credits.
  • PLBR 4831 (Concepts/Techniques in Plant Molecular Biology) Fall, 3 credits

Areas in which plant breeding students should gain experience, either by course work, rotations, internships or other methods

Field & greenhouse experience with plants

  • PLBR 6100 (Practicum in Plant Breeding). (see Table B)

Lab experience

  • Rotations or internships for experience with lab-based evaluations of genotypes or phenotypes for students doing field-based theses

International experience: Particularly important for students interested in working internationally

  • IARD 2020 (Perspectives on International Agriculture & Rural Development). Fall, 3 credits.
  • IARD 4020 (Agriculture in Developing Nations I). Fall, 2 credits.
  • IARD 6020 (Int. Agriculture in Developing Nations). Spring, 3 credits. Research-related travel.


  • Beneficial for both applied and basic graduate students.

Management, business, etc.

  • Students considering work in the seed industry would benefit from some management or business exposure. Some choose to minor in Business.

Teaching experience

Students interested in careers in academia are strongly urged to

  1. pursue TA opportunities that will provide experience and build their teaching resumes
  2. take ALS 6015 (The Practice of Teaching in Higher Education). Fall or Spring, 2 credits


The length of a M.S. degree program is much shorter than that for the Ph. D, so fewer courses are expected. Selection of courses will be influenced by the background of the student and the student’s thesis project. The courses recommended are:

  • PLBR 4030 & PLBR 4060: REQUIRED unless student recently took an equivalent course elsewhere.
  • A modern genetics course and a statistics course are also required, if the student has not had one recently.
  • One other course selected from PLBR 6060, PLBR 6180, PLBR 7160, and PLBR 7170.
  • PLBR 6220 (Plant Breeding Seminar) should be taken every semester, unless the student is taking a course in another department scheduled at the same time or are working off campus during a semester.
  • PLBR 6100 is highly recommended to broaden applied experience
  • PLBR 4831 is highly recommended to provide an overview of plant molecular techniques being utilized in modern breeding programs
  • Other courses from the remaining list based on the suggestions of the major professor and the student’s committee.

Student Progress Report

The Student Progress Review (SPR) requirement was implemented in 2017 at the request of students and faculty to support the regular exchange of constructive, written feedback between advisees and advisors. It codifies a process for research degree students and their special committees to have at least one formal conversation per year about academic progress and future plans. Using the SPR form, students are asked to reflect on their recent accomplishments, identify challenges, and set goals. Committee chairs then review their students' SPR forms and enter constructive feedback. Chairs indicate whether progress has been excellent, satisfactory, needs improvement, or is unsatisfactory. Feedback that is documented on the SPR will be made available to the student, all members of the student's special committee, and the DSG/GFA of the student's field.


All members of the graduate faculty are notified of examinations and all are welcome to attend. However, only rarely does a faculty member outside the student’s special committee attend. Students are responsible for notifying the GFA at least two weeks in advance to reserve a room and send a notice to graduate faculty. Students must submit a Schedule of Exam form for all exams to the Graduate School website at least one week in advance otherwise the exam results are not valid. Extensive information on Exams, Doctoral Dissertation and Master’s Thesis production can and should be obtained from the Graduate School. After each examination, a Results of Examination form must be filled out and submitted to the Graduate School within three business days and a copy to the GFA. (Find forms here.)

Field of Plant Breeding: Structured Observation for Oral Exams

A Exam

Exam for Admission to Doctoral Candidacy for Ph.D. students

The A Exam is a comprehensive exam given by the student’s committee to test his/her general knowledge in the areas of plant sciences and related fields relevant to the student’s Ph.D. program in Plant Breeding. It is designed to determine the student’s ability to begin research. It is not to discuss the student’s specific research topic or research results, although it may enter the discussion. Although questions of specific factual nature are common, emphasis is also placed on the student’s ability to utilize and synthesize their knowledge to address more complex problems. A minimum of 3-hours should be scheduled; although there is no time limit, some have gone more than 4-hours. It is typically an oral exam but some written questions are allowed if a faculty member so chooses. It is appropriate and useful to discuss examination expectations with your committee members, either at a meeting of the Special Committee or in individual meetings or both, well in advance of the exam. Other faculty members in the Field are invited to participate, though the rarely do, and are allowed to ask questions, typically do not ask many questions. Each exam is unique. Therefore others’ experiences only represent what can happen, not what will happen.

The student generally provides a list of courses s/he has taken as a graduate student. Questions relating to these classes as well as background information relating to the student’s current research are fair game.

By Graduate School rules, this exam must be taken a minimum of 1 year before the thesis defense exam.

B Exam

Final Defense for Ph.D. or Thesis Defense Exam for M.S. Ph.D. students must have earned at least 2 registration units (RU) between the passing of the A exam and the scheduling of the B exam.

The Doctoral Dissertation, Master’s Thesis, and Advanced Degree Requirements guide has the detailed instructions and procedures. The Graduate School also maintains a resource list of typists, editors, and couriers.

This oral exam will discuss the student’s research and dissertation or thesis manuscript. It is expected that at the start of the exam the student will prepare and give a brief 10-15 minutes oral presentation of the main methods and results of the project to set the stage for the discussion and to demonstrate the ability to present their work. Questions may address the scientific background of the research and hypotheses, the general approaches and specific methods used, the results, and the interpretation of the results. At least 3-hours should be scheduled for the Ph.D. and 2-hours for the M.S. thesis defense. Normally, there are some changes required in the dissertation or thesis after the exam and may require from a few days to a few weeks to complete.

Thesis - Dissertation

Thesis or Dissertation Deadlines (Code VI.G.4) Guide to Graduate Study:

Student’s must submit a complete draft to all members of their Special committee at least six (6) weeks before the final masters or B exam; however, your Special Committee may modify this requirement. At least five (5) days before the exam, the student must provide all members of their Special committee with a complete, formatted, and editorially acceptable copy of the thesis or dissertation for final approval but keep in mind, your examining committee may still require modifications. Final Examinations may not be scheduled until this requirement has been met.

A suggestion: It can be extremely difficult to re-write thesis chapters for journal publications after a student has left to assume new duties elsewhere. It is strongly recommended that the thesis be written in the “manuscript” format where the publishable chapters are in the complete form of a manuscript for submission to a scientific journal. The publisher will then require only minor editorial revisions and it can be submitted quickly.

When you have a finished an approved manuscript:

The Grad School encourages all students to submit their final, approved thesis on-line using ProQuest. This requires you to convert your document to PDF format. The approved digital document is automatically forwarded to a local printer. Any charges, including printing, will appear on your bursar bill.

M.S. and Ph.D. – Submit the thesis electronically through the Graduate School website, ProQuest. Complete details for thesis and dissertation submission requirements can be found in the Thesis and Dissertation Guide.

Publishing Your Research Work

Students are encouraged to publish their research results in professional journals so their work can be widely disseminated. This is easily accomplished if the thesis is organized and written with this intent. Professional journal articles are a source of pride for the student, enhances career opportunities, and reflects well on the reputation of the Section. Few academicians read theses from other institutions, so the only practical way of sharing scientific contributions is through professional journals. If you expect to publish part, or all, of your thesis, you will be required to sign a License to Use Copyrighted Material form with the Graduate School.


Information on degree conferral dates, commencement and diploma distribution can be obtained from the Graduate School, 350 Caldwell Hall, 255-5810, or the commencement website.

The courses recommended for a Ph.D. candidate with a minor in plant breeding are very similar to those for Plant Breeding M.S. students:

  • PLBR 4030 & PLBR 4060: REQUIRED unless student recently took equivalent courses elsewhere
  • One other course selected from PLBR 6060, PLBR 6180, PLBR 7160, and PLBR 7170.
  • A modern genetics course and a statistics course are also required, if the student has not had one recently. (Most students have either already taken these courses or are taking them for their major).
  • Two semesters of PLBR 6220 (Plant Breeding Seminar)
  • PLBR 6100 is highly recommended to broaden applied experience.

TAships and required teaching

All Ph.D candidates in the Field of Plant Breeding are required to gain teaching experience for one semester. A broad variety of activities can fulfill the teaching requirement, though most students choose to serve as Teaching Assistants (TA). Other teaching activities may include developing a new course, developing computer software for a course or other projects associated with teaching that meet the approval of the special committee chair and the DGS.

To formalize fulfillment of the requirement, Ph.D candidates must enroll for one semester in Plant Breeding 6500: Special Problems in Research and Teaching.

In some circumstances, students with extensive prior university-level teaching experience may be excused from the teaching requirement.

See also: SIPS TA procedures and policies


Fellowship information is available from the Graduate School, 143 Caldwell Hall, or visit the Graduate School website. Additional information is usually forwarded via e-mail to the graduate student list in the Section when it becomes available.

The Section of Plant Breeding and Genetics believes that attendance and presentation at scientific meetings is a key component of a graduate student’s professional development. As such PBG provides financial support to assist students in attending scientific meetings. The amount of funding available to support each request depends on the number and dollar value of the requests made each year. We try to honor every request, but funds are limited and not all requests can be approved. In general, the PBG Section can usually only contribute a few hundred dollars per student per request. We use the following criteria to prioritize the allocation of funding:

  • How many opportunities has a student had to present at a scientific meeting
  • Has the student received prior support from PBG for travel
  • Is the student presenting research from their thesis/dissertation
  • What other sources of support are available to the student to support this travel request

There is no deadline for submitting applications and students can file an application at any time. Please allow a minimum of 2 weeks for a decision on funding.

It is expected that students will need to use several sources of support to finance the full costs of attending a scientific conference. Other sources of support include:

Application:  Travel Grant Assistance Application Form

If you have questions, please contact Alicia Caswell (amd33 [at] cornell.edu (amd33[at]cornell[dot]edu))

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