Questions? Contact Karin Jantz, Graduate Field Coordinator: 607-255-4075 | kpg2 [at]

Plant Biology Ph.D. graduate student guidelines and key events

Plant Biology graduate students will perform three, 6-week-long rotations in Year 1, including two in the Fall semester and one in the Spring semester, ending before March 1. The purpose of the rotations is to identify a possible home lab where they will conduct their dissertation research, and to gain experience in diverse techniques and experimental protocols.  The exact start and end dates of the laboratory rotations will vary slightly from year to year.

Students who are directly admitted to a particular laboratory and are supported by that Principal Investigator (PI) during Year 1 are not required to perform lab rotations, although rotations are encouraged as a way to learn new techniques that may enrich the dissertation research.

In Year 1, all Plant Biology graduate students will take the following courses for grade credit (no audits permitted), which are designed to provide a broad foundation of common knowledge:

  • PLBIO 6831 - Concepts and Techniques in Plant Molecular Biology (biochemistry, genetics, phylogeny), Year 1 Fall, 3 credits.
  • PLBIO 6410 - Laboratory in Plant Molecular Biology, Year 1 Fall, 2 credits.
  • PLBIO 7430 - Faculty Research (rotation talks from PBIO faculty), Year 1 Fall, 1 credit.
  • PLBIO 6841- Plant Form and Function (anatomy, cell, and development), Year 1 Spring, 3 credits.
  • PLBIO 7410 - Problems in Plant Cell and Molecular Biology, Year 1 Spring, ~2 credits.

The following courses are required for all Plant Biology graduate students to be taken for grade credit - in all years of the program (including the first and last years):

  • PLBIO 7440 - Graduate Research Seminar, 1 credit.
  • PLBIO 7000 - Seminar in Plant Biology, 1 credit.
  • PLBIO 9900 - Graduate Research in Plant Biology, amounting to a total of 12-15 credits.

To be taken in any semester, a minimum of 3 total credits from the courses below is required to be taken for grade credit:

  • PLBIO 7420 - Current Papers in Plant Biology, 1 credit (Jian Hua leads in Fall 2021).
  • PLBIO 6560 – Topics in Plant Evolution, 1 credit.

Any and all subsequent courses are taken by student option, or on the advisement of the PI and Special Committee.  Such courses can be in any area of study (i.e., not limited to PLBIO courses); grade-credit versus auditing of these subsequent courses is subject to the advisement of the PI and Special Committee.  

After completing three rotations before March 1 of the first year, Plant Biology graduate students should meet with a Plant Biology Field Faculty member and inquire if that faculty PI agrees to serve as their dissertation Major Advisor, the Chair of their Special Committee.  Note that it is also possible to have faculty Co-Advisors; Chairs of Plant Biology Graduate student committees must be members of the Graduate Field of Plant Biology. Assignment of a Plant Biology Field faculty member as the graduate student's committee Chair must be a mutual agreement between both the graduate student and faculty PI. Before agreeing to join a lab where the dissertation research will be conducted, it is strongly advised that the graduate student and the PI share and discuss a Shared-Expectations agreement. Such an agreement should outline expectations such as:

  • effort hours in research
  • vacation time
  • schedule of periodic meetings and evaluations
  • means of student support (TA-ship, GRF, other?)
  • research meeting/conference attendance
  • research production (manuscripts, presentations, etc)

After the PI is established, student should form their Special Committee.  The Special Committee comprises at least two additional (more than two others are welcome!) faculty members whose ultimate purpose is to advise and guide the graduate student during their Ph.D. training.  The Special Committee members are ultimately selected by the graduate student and by mutual agreement of the faculty member; typically, selection of the Special Committee is done after consultation with the PI.  These additional members of the Special Committee (i.e., aside from the PI) need not be Plant Biology Field faculty, although (if these members are Cornell faculty) they must be members of a Cornell Graduate Field.  It is also permissible to include Special Committee members that are not Cornell faculty, although any non-Cornell Committee members must be appointed members of the Graduate Faculty within their home institution.

The Special Committee must be assembled and registered in the Cornell Graduate School before the end of the 3rd semester.  It is strongly advised to assemble the Special Committee, and organize a first meeting, early in the third semester or during the Summer before the start of the 3rd semester. Regular and frequent meetings (twice per year at a minimum) between the graduate student and their Special Committee are strongly encouraged to communicate progress and as a strategy to identify and resolve any difficulties.

The Plant Biology Graduate Field requires that, before graduation, every student complete at least one semester (i.e., 12-15 hours) of teaching training. For more information about teaching training, see SIPS Teaching Assistant Procedures Policy.

The A Exam is intended to ensure that the Plant Biology Ph.D. student is making appropriate progress toward those goals. Thus, the exam has both a backward-looking and a forward-looking purpose, assessing mastery of material already covered and preparation for continuing and completing an independent dissertation research. Upon passing the A Exam the student is admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D.

The A Exam should be taken before the end of the fifth semester of the Ph.D. program. By special arrangement with the Committee, the exam may be taken in the summer before the third or fourth year. By Graduate School rules, the A exam may not be taken before two semesters of registration as a doctoral student, but it must be taken before the student begins the seventh semester of registration. Students must schedule the A Exam with the Graduate School at least seven calendar days in advance, by filing the proper examination scheduling form (Forms pages).  The A Exam may not be scheduled if there are any outstanding incompletes or missing course grades.

The format of the A Exam in Plant Biology may differ slightly among different Special Committees.  Typically, the student will submit a written research proposal describing their research plan and results to date to their committee before the scheduled A Exam and begins the A Exam by presenting from this proposal.  The Special Committee asks questions as they wish, about the proposal and about other topics in Plant Biology. Students are strongly encouraged to meet with every Special Committee member before the exam is scheduled, whereupon the Committee member may direct the student to prepare for questions from a particular topic area.  All members of the special committee are expected to participate in the examinations and evaluate you, the candidate. Other members of the graduate faculty are encouraged to attend exams and may question you only during the time allocated by the chair.

At the discretion of the Plant Biology Graduate Field, as demonstrated by permission from the DGS and with the agreement of all members of the committee when scheduling an exam, one or more committee members may participate from a remote off-campus location via appropriate, high-quality electronic audio and video conferencing as described on the Graduate School's Taking Exams webpage

There are four possible outcomes of the A Exam:

  • Pass. All members of the Special Committee report this outcome to the Graduate School within 3 business days.
  • Conditional Pass.  The Special Committee provides the student and the Graduate School with specific conditions for passing.  Once conditions are met, the student passes the A Exam.
  • Failure – reexamination permitted. Reexamination after a failed A Exam is only permitted by approval of the Special Committee. Reexamination is only permitted at least three months after the failed exam.
  • Unanimous Failure..  If the Special Committee unanimously fails the student on the A Exam, the student will leave the Plant Biology Ph.D. program.  The student may petition the Graduate School General Committee to continue study, whose decision is final.

Note:  The Plant Biology Graduate Field program does not include a Master’s Thesis program, if a student fails the A exam, or otherwise decides to discontinue pursuit of the Ph.D. degree, the student may petition their Special Committee to receive a Master’s Degree in Plant Biology.

An important component of the Plant Biology Ph.D. training is learning to present original research data in the seminar format.  As noted in the course requirements above, graduate students are required to take PLBIO 7440 - Graduate Research Seminar in each semester. During Year 1, Plant Biology graduate students will attend and ask questions during seminars from more senior Plant Biology students (Year 2 and beyond). In Year 2, students will deliver a 20-minute seminar during PLBIO 7440. In Year 3 and in all subsequent years, students will present one 45–50-minute seminar.

Plant Biology Graduate students are required to give a final seminar – the Exit Seminar - prior to taking the B Exam.  Note that the Exit Seminar need not occur immediately prior to the B Exam (see below). It is strongly encouraged that students schedule their Exit Seminar to comprise part of the Plant Biology Seminar series on Friday afternoons to ensure maximum attendance.  The Exit Seminar must be publicly announced at least seven calendar days before it is held. 

The B Exam is an oral defense of your thesis or dissertation. This exam is taken after completing the Exit Seminar and all degree requirements, but not earlier than one month before completing the minimum registered semester requirements. The Exam need not immediately follow the Exit Seminar; many students present the seminar well before the B Exam is scheduled. At least two semesters of successful registration must be completed between the passing of the A Exam and the scheduling of the B Exam.  Students must schedule their B Exam with the Graduate School (Forms pages) at least seven calendar days before the exam is held.  The precise format of the B Exam is determined by agreement with the Special Committee, although the B Exam cannot take place until a fully completed draft of the Graduate Student Dissertation is submitted to all members of the Special Committee. Typically, the student fields questions from their Special Committee concerning the Exit Seminar and the dissertation research

A conditional pass, pending successful edits to the dissertation and electronic approval of the dissertation by the Special Committee, is typically the outcome. Upon passing of the B Exam and approval of the final dissertation, the graduate student is awarded a Ph.D. in Plant Biology. 

The maximum elapsed time from first registration to completion of all requirements for the Ph.D. is seven years. Extensions may be granted by submitting a General Petition to the Graduate School.