Graduate students may choose from one of three concentrations within the Field of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology. 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.

      Requirement Details

      Plant Pathology courses

      By the time of their A exam, each student in the Field of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology will be expected to demonstrate mastery of the content covered in the core courses listed below. Students generally prepare to meet this expectation by taking these courses within their first two years:

      • PLPPM 5010 Biology & Management of Plant Diseases, 4 credits, Fall
      • PLPPM 6010 Molecular Biology of Plant-Microbe Interactions, 3 credits, Spring
      • PLPPM 5020 Systems Epidemiology for Plant Pathology, 3 credits, Spring

      Additionally, students are expected each semester to attend

      • PLPPM 7000, Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology Seminar, 1 credit Fall/Spring

      and to participate in

      • PLPPM 6820, Graduate Student Research Seminar, 1 credit Fall/Spring

      And to register for

      • PLSCI 8900, Graduate Research (MS students)


      • PLSCI9900, Graduate Research (PhD students)

      Active participation in discussions of current literature, e.g., in Special Topics courses, is also expected of students during their degree program. All students are also be required to complete the online tutorial: Responsible Conduct for Research and any other compliance training mandated by their research activities.

      Beyond the core course content in PPPMB, students are expected to master whatever other bodies of knowledge are necessary to meet the primary requirement of the MS or PhD degree, i.e., to advance the discipline substantively through original research. This is an important concept worth rephrasing: degrees are not awarded based on the number of credit hours taken; instead students are evaluated on their ability to create new knowledge through research and on the significance of that new knowledge itself. Coursework is to build the foundational knowledge necessary to identify key gaps in our understanding, craft hypotheses, and design and conduct conclusive experiments to fill those gaps.

      Minor subjects

      Graduate degrees in PPPMB require you to choose minor fields of study, with corresponding minor members for your Special Committee. One minor is required for M.S. students and two are required for M.S./Ph.D. students or Ph.D. students.

      Coursework expectations vary greatly between minors, so check with the department of with your prospective minor committee members to see if there is a list of requirements or suggested courses. You can also check on that Section or Department website.

      For PhD students, up to one of your minors may be one of the concentrations within the section of Plant Pathology and Plant Microbe Biology: Fungal and Oomycete Biology, Plant Pathology, or Plant-Microbe Biology

      Students select minor fields of study to broaden their expertise and support their research and career objectives. To satisfy requirements for minor subjects, students usually must take additional courses determined by the special committee.  Minor fields chosen by Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology students vary considerably. Some common minors are listed in the different program areas. For Ph.D. students, at least one of the minors must be in a subject outside of the Field of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology.

      Seminar presentations

      There are two seminar-presentation experiences required in the Field of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology. The Graduate Student Seminar (PLPPM 6820) is a forum for presenting research proposals and progress reports in which students develop their presentation skills. Presentations are required annually for all students, except in the first and last years of study.  Second-year students present their thesis and dissertation proposals in the Fall semester. During the last year, students give formal presentations on finished research at the Section of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology seminar. One section seminar is required for each degree earned at Cornell.  Students are expected to attend both seminar series throughout their studies.

      Annual student assessment

      By the end of the second semester, each student should have their special committee members identified, and they must convene a special committee meeting. The purpose of this meeting is for the committee to evaluate progress during the past year and for the student to receive guidance for the following year. Note that special committee members can be changed at any time in their Student Center, however, changes after the A Exam require a petition to the Graduate School. Progress is documented in a Student Progress Report (SPR), one part of which is written by the student (a self-evaluation) and the other part of which is written by the major advisor with input from the other committee members. This process is repeated annually, with a deadline in early May. Detailed steps are as follows:

      1. The student schedules their annual committee meeting as well as a follow up meeting with their advisor. The follow up meeting should be within two weeks of the committee meeting.
      2. The student enters their portion of the SPR (Student Progress Review (SPR) Standard 2022-2023 | Student Progress Review (SPR) Short 2022-2023), saves it as a draft, downloads as pdf or prints it out, and shares it with the advisor and other committee members prior to the committee meeting.
      3. Within a few days after the committee meeting, the other committee members send their written comments to the stude nt and to the advisor.
      4. Within 10 days of the committee meeting, using the pdf or printout supplied by the student, the advisor drafts their portion or the SPR, being sure to reflect the comments from the other committee members, and shares their write-up with the student and other committee members.
      5. At the follow up meeting, student and advisor review and discuss the SPR and make any changes necessary, to both the student and advisor sections. Optionally, the document may then be made available to other committee members for further comment or for approval.
      6. Once finalized, student updates their entries to the SPR (Student Progress Review (SPR) Standard 2022-2023 | Student Progress Review (SPR) Short 2022-2023) and submits. This will route the form to the advisor. The advisor then transfers their entries to the online form and submits.

      Field forms:

      Exceptions or exemptions

      A student may petition the Director of Graduate Studies for exemption from any of the requirements stated above. Petitions must be made in writing, with written endorsement from the student's special committee chairperson.

      The A Exam

      The A Exam is The Comprehensive Exam. You will take your A Exam at the end of your second year, typically after finishing all classes. You must pass this exam in order to become a “Ph.D. candidate” and proceed with your program. On your A Examination committee will be your Special Committee as well as one “Field Appointed” examiner (for breadth), giving a total of at least four examiners. You may suggest faculty in the department to serve as your field appointed examiner, but they must be from an area of plant pathology not already represented on your committee. It is the student’s responsibility to initiate and set a date for the A Exam, and an official form must be submitted to the Grad School in advance to schedule the A Exam (which can be found on the Grad School website: https://www.gradschool.cornell.edu/forms). You should also discuss with your advisor his or her expectations for a research proposal that you will probably need to submit around the same time you take your A Exam.

      It is possible to fail this exam, but this does not happen often. To prepare, review everything that may be even remotely related to plant pathology, your specialization in plant pathology, and your minor(s), before you take the exam. 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 other older students for advice and strategies for preparing.

      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 variation in the format of each student’s A Exam depending on their Special Committee (again, discuss with your Committee members), but PPPMB guidelines currently suggest starting with a 10-15 minute presentation by the student about their proposed research. Graduate students of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology keep an informal collection of previous A exam questions from various professors. These currently reside in a bright orange 3-ring binder and an online Google drive file.

      Once you have completed your A exam, do future grad students a favor and add as many questions as you remember to the notebook. Periodically, material is swapped between the two campuses, but it’s a good idea to check with the other campus when you are starting to prepare for your A exam to see if there’s any new material you can add to the notebook you’re studying from.
      Be prepared to give an oral presentation of your thesis research thus far to inform the examiners who are not part of your committee. Additionally, bring 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 can be found with other forms on the Grad School website: https://www.gradschool.cornell.edu/forms). Finally, bring sacrificial offerings in the form of beverages (coffee, juice) and baked goods.

      If you are 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, which will likely be similar in format to the B Exam for a PhD (see below). Again, check the Grad School website for forms required to schedule the exam and record the results of the exam.

      The B Exam

      The B Exam is also called the ‘PhD Defense’ and is (almost) the final hurdle between you and a PhD. (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.) Ideally, you have had 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. Basically, 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 pathology), and they will decide if you deserve a PhD.

      The B Exam should (in theory) be less stressful than your A Exam, mainly because you will be able to prepare for it more easily and thoroughly than for the A Exam. In general, the B Exam takes roughly three hours and the student is usually expected to provide snacks and coffee for the examiners, which will include your committee and possibly additional appointed members.

      Because the B Exam itself is closed doors, directly prior to the formal B Exam, students are expected to give a final Exit Seminar for department members and general public. The Exit Seminar is a summary of the student’s thesis research and give the audience a change to ask questions. Email announcements for the Exit Seminar and B Exam will be sent out to the department beforehand. 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. Both can be found online: http://gradschool.cornell.edu/forms

      Most graduate students in the Field of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology receive full funding in one of three forms: teaching assistantships (TAs), graduate research assistantships (GRAs), and fellowships.


      A limited number of teaching assistantships (TAs) may be available in the Section of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology or through the Undergraduate Biology Program to assist in introductory courses. Students must apply for these positions well in advance. Biology TAs typically teach two laboratory sections per week, requiring an average of 18-27 hours of work per week depending on which course is taught. Teaching in the biology program also satisfies the teaching requirement for a degree in Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology.

      Each student must participate in the Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology teaching program as a teaching assistant for at least one semester for each degree earned at Cornell.

      See also: SIPS TA procedures and policies

      GRAs may come from section resources or from individual faculty research programs. All of these funding sources include a stipend, tuition and fees, and student health insurance. GRA stipends in the Field of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology for the 2017-2018 academic year are approximately $31,00 per year.

      In addition to these sources of funding, all students are encouraged to apply for external fellowships.

      Section GRAs

      Assistantships may be awarded by either the Ithaca or the Geneva unit of the Section of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology.  Awards are based on each student's qualifications and interests. Recipients are expected to make a commitment to research programs in these respective sections. Students typically have considerable freedom to choose a research program within the section offering the GRA, although some constraints may apply at the discretion of the section chairs.

      Faculty program GRAs

      The faculty member in whose lab the student is conducting research may provide the funding in the form of a GRA. This type of funding is usually from research grants awarded to the faculty member by a government agency or from private sources. Availability of this type of funding is sometimes difficult to predict in advance.


      The Graduate School of Cornell University offers several fellowships specifically for recruiting outstanding graduate students. For example, the Graduate School awards Cornell Fellowships to new students with outstanding academic records, and the State University of New York Fellowship is awarded to underrepresented minorities. In addition, incoming Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology students have been successful in recent years when competing for Presidential Life Science Fellowships, a prestigious award given to a limited number of students annually throughout the university.

      External fellowships

      All students are strongly encouraged to apply for external fellowships. The Graduate School maintains a comprehensive fellowship database available to Cornell students. In particular, all students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents are requested to apply for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship in their first and second years of graduate school. Many deadlines for applications are in the autumn, so early inquiries and applications are necessary.

      Additional information on funding and taxes can be found through the Cornell Graduate School.

      Graduate students are encouraged to attend and participate in conferences and national and regional scientific meetings In the course of a student’s research, the major advisor may agree to reimburse a portion of the expenses for attending a scientific meeting. Additional assistance may be obtained by applying in advance to the Graduate School for a special travel grant, which pays for transportation costs but only when presenting a paper/poster.

      Prior to your trip, give your advisor the following information: destination, departure and arrival time, date, purpose of trip. You must file a “Notice of Proposed Travel” for insurance purposes, and also if you need a travel advance. In order to get reimbursed, you must submit all original receipts and complete an expense report upon your return.

      Graduate School Travel Funding Grants