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 a Master’s thesis or PhD 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 Master’s students, and two minor subjects are required for PhD candidates. The committee provides advice about recommended courses and research activities and administers the required exams. To qualify for candidacy, PhD students must pass the oral “A-exam,” usually taken after coursework is completed. Both Master’s and PhD candidates must give a public seminar describing their research and “defend” their work (thesis or dissertation) at the “B-exam.”.
Learning outcomes for PPPMB graduate students, as defined by the field faculty include the following:
- Broad knowledge of core concepts and factual information in Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology and mastery of a specialized area of study.
- The ability to think critically and apply the scientific method to create new knowledge.
- Original and substantive scholarly contribution to the field, commensurate with the degree (Master’s or PhD).
- The ability to communicate effectively to professional and lay audiences through writing, speaking, and graphics.
- Teaching competence, developed through TA, seminar, and speaking experiences.
- Awareness of ethics and compliance responsibilities.
- Professional skills, including collaboration, organization, and time management, and, for PhD students, grant proposal writing, mentoring, and project management, necessary to conduct an independent research program.
Students who come in on a fellowship offer are typically able to do rotations; your acceptance offer should detail whether you have been accepted into a spot in a specific lab or will be rotating and any requirements of your rotations.
Rotations give students the chance to try out a research program before deciding if a particular lab is the right fit for them. Rotating students will identify two or three labs they have an interest in and spend anywhere from 3 to 12 weeks in each working on a small project agreed upon by the student and faculty member. Rotations are first and foremost a great way to see whether a certain faculty member would be a good fit for you as an advisor. They are also useful for deciding on a research topic. For example, some students are interested in molecular aspects of plant pathology but aren’t sure if they would rather work with fungi, bacteria, viruses, or nematodes. A rotation is a good way to get a feel for the pros and cons of working with a particular type of pathogen. Even if you already know which professor you want to work with and the topic, you may do a rotation in another lab to broaden your research experience or gain skills you might need for your thesis or dissertation, and to get to know other faculty and people in their labs. Understand your personal goals for rotations and be sure to have candid discussions with faculty you might rotate with. For example, if you think you might want to join a certain faculty member’s lab after a successful rotation, ask them if you would be able to (i.e., if they have funding and bandwidth for a new student). Likewise, if you would like to rotate for the experience and networking but do not intend to join that lab, let the faculty member know. Generally, faculty are open to rotations even if they are not recruiting.
Students have up to a year (two semesters) to complete rotations, but you should try and choose a lab by early Spring semester: recruitment weekend is in February and offers will be made to new students shortly after. Oftentimes the project is not finished when the time is up, but it is not required for you to stay in the lab longer to complete the project. Do not be afraid to assert yourself if you feel you have done what you need to do for the rotation. Very rarely, a student cannot find a lab they like, or one that likes them, after three rotations. Consult with the DGS (Sarah Pethybridge, sjp277 [at] cornell.edu ()) if you need help finding a home lab and advisor that fits your interests and personality. You may be able to do a fourth rotation or be directly admitted to a lab. If not, though, you will need to leave the program, so be sure to put careful thought into your rotation choices, and again, have those candid conversations up front!
Oh and by the way, the DGS will serve as your advisor while you are doing rotations, for uh – advice, and signatures, and such.
Both the Master’s and PhD are research-based degrees. Often faculty members recruit students with a particular research project (or projects) in mind and will bring you in with the expectation that you pursue that line of research as your thesis or dissertation topic. Other faculty members allow you the freedom to choose your own project as long as it is within the scope of the lab. This is an important conversation to have with your advisor. Master’s students need to identify and focus on a project early, in time to complete their thesis research by the end of 2-3 years. Often A PhD student will start by working on many different projects, any of which may evolve into the dissertation project, whereas others will remain side projects. PhD students sometimes don’t settle on a vision and plan for their dissertation research until their A exam (discussed in Chapter 7), which often includes a dissertation proposal as the written component, and even then, the vision and plan often evolve after. This may be different for Master’s students who will likely have an idea of their project coming in. If you aren’t sure what you want to work on, your advisor or the DGS (Sarah Pethybridge, sjp277 [at] cornell.edu ()) may help guide you into a project. Ultimately, the choice, and responsibility, are yours.
The Special Committee is a panel of faculty members who will advise and guide you in your research and graduate career. It consists of your advisor (known as the committee chairperson) who represents the PPPMB concentration you have chosen, i.e. your “major,” and at least one other committee member for Master’s degrees and two for PhD degrees. These other members represent your minors (more on minors below). Other experts may be added to your committee as desired, and committee members may also be from outside of Cornell; these are called ad hoc committee members and they may be collaborators or other individuals with relevant expertise. Adding an external ad hoc member to your committee requires special paperwork; the DGS (Sarah Pethybridge, sjp277 [at] cornell.edu ()) can assist you in completing this paperwork. This can take a month or more to approve, so submit the paperwork as soon as possible.
Since the Special Committee plays such an important role in your graduate career at Cornell, keep in mind some of the following pointers:
Take your time in selecting a committee. You have until the end of your first year as Master’s student and your third semester as a PhD student. Seek out the advice of other students who work with or have worked with professors that you are considering for your committee. Get to know professors from the classes you are taking. Ask the DGS for advice. You can even “speed date” professors before you select them for your committee. Tell them you are considering them, arrange a meeting, meet with them, and tell them you’ll get back to them if you’d like them to be on your committee. This way you have time to meet other professors and carefully consider things before adding them to your committee. You will want to be sure that potential committee members are willing and able to provide ideas, and time.
Ensure that all faculty members on your committee will be able to work together – talk to your advisor and other graduate students to determine if certain personalities will mix well in a committee.
Importantly, make sure you know what the committee members’ expectations of you will be – good rapport, with both your advisor and committee is a must! But don’t worry overly much about getting it right, and don’t worry if your needs change. If for any reason you want to change your committee, you can do so easily in Student Center up to your A exam, and with a slightly more involved general petition thereafter.
Schedule a Special Committee Meeting at least once per year. It is best to do this so it coincides with your Student Progress Review (Chapter 14, below). Note that the Field requires that part of the annual committee meeting take place without the Chair present. This allows you to discuss aspects of your advisor/advisee relationship (positive or negative!) in confidence with your other committee members. See also information about conflict resolution in Chapter 10, below.
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 Master’s students and two are required for PhD students. You can select any graduate Field as a minor. Or, you can choose a second concentration within PPPMB as a minor (different from your major concentration; the three concentrations in PPPMB are Fungal and Oomycete Biology, Plant Pathology, and Plant-Microbe Biology). For PhD students, at least one minor must be a different Field.
Course requirements for a minor vary greatly among Fields. You can check the website of the Field to see if there are a list of requirements or suggested courses. However, the final decision of what will satisfy the requirement for a minor is up to your committee member representing that minor, so be sure to discuss their expectations (and your interests) with them. Common minors include:
- Horticulture: often flexible and up to committee members in Horticulture.
- Genomics: requirements have become reduced and there are now two required electives necessary, listed on the Genomics minor webpage.
- Entomology: no formal requirements, typically only requires one course such as ENTOM 2120 or ENTOM 4830, at the discretion of your minor committee member.
- Biochemistry, Molecular or Cellular Biology guidelines recommend 6 hours of advanced (400 or 600-level) lecture courses for PhD candidates, 4 hours for Master’s. These are guidelines only, and the final decision lies with your minor committee member
- Microbiology: Common guidelines can be found here. Typically, 6 credits on courses of 4000 or above, including 3 from the BIOMI 6901-6906 modules. However, your minor committee member has the final say on what is required.
There are many other possibilities - Applied Economics, Behavioral Biology, Computational Biology… – you name it! So, think creatively about what would benefit you most. And remember, you can add “ad hoc” experts to your committee even if they don’t represent a minor. Faculty in International Programs at Cornell, a Professor at Rochester Institute of Technology specializing in lighting systems, an expert in oomycete biology at Oregon State University, are a few examples of ad hocs students have engaged in the past.