Graduate Student Requirements

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Guarantee of Funding

The Field guarantees five years of support (tuition, stipend, and health insurance), including four years of summer support to all of our incoming Ph.D. students. The numbers vary slightly across years, but for 2011-12 our standard Ph.D. stipend support includes a 9-month stipend of $22,230 plus summer support of $4,690. Students are supported by a variety of funding sources, including Teaching Assistantships or fellowships funded by Cornell University. Many students obtain external fellowship support from sources such as the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, or similar sources in their home country. Whenever applicable, we strongly encourage prospective students to apply for these types of fellowships in the same year they are applying to Cornell and other graduate schools. For students that are US citizens, the most broadly relevant such opportunity is the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which has an annual application deadline in November.

All of our students are required to serve as a paid Teaching Assistant (TA) for at least two semesters, working in partnership with faculty to teach undergraduate and graduate courses. We feel teaching is a valuable complement to research, and most teachers realize that teaching is the best way to really learn any subject well. Typical TA responsibilities include leading group discussions, assisting with grading, supervising laboratory or field-course exercises, and providing study assistance to students. Some of our senior grad students take advantage of opportunities to design and teach their own semester-long writing or Freshman seminars. Our graduate TAs win many teaching awards and have earned a University-wide reputation for being approachable, knowledgeable, and inspiring.

Some graduate students are supported by Graduate Research Assistantships (GRA) in which they work with a faculty member on a grant-funded project, usually on a topic related to the student's own research program. The specific responsibilities of these research-focused positions vary depending on the type of work being pursued.


Graduate Core Course

All first-year graduate students participate in BIOEE 7670, Current Topics in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. This course provides an introduction to the breadth of research being conducted by faculty in EEB and the opportunity to survey recent advances in that subject area more generally. Students find that this exposure to a diversity of people, ideas and viewpoints proves valuable in helping them formulate and fine-tune plans for their own research. The course includes a workshop that guides students in crafting their own research proposal, which students often use to apply for fellowships or research grant support.

Other coursework

The graduate core course is the only class required by the EEB graduate program. Students generally take one or two additional courses per semester during their first few years in the program, but these are selected on an individual basis by the student, with guidance from their advisor, launch team, and prescriptive and dissertation committees.

Advisory Committees

Launch Team

Launch teams meet with new, first-year graduate students no later than the first week of classes in the new Fall term. These teams serve to help the student choose Fall semester courses and generally reach a good balance between class work, research explorations and other activities at Cornell and in the surrounding Ithaca area. Another role of the launch team is to help the student integrate comfortably into the EEB community, and to ensure that nobody falls through the cracks socially or intellectually. These teams are comprised of three EEB Field faculty, including the student's probable advisor and two additional faculty members. To help the student get to know the full spectrum of EEB faculty, at least one member is usually drawn from outside of the student's main area of scientific concentration.

Prescriptive Committee

Students convene their initial "Prescriptive" Committee meeting during the Spring semester of their first year - and also at least once in their second academic year - to discuss their evolving ideas, summer research plans, and general progress, and to plan for their A-exam. The Prescriptive Committee includes at least two faculty in addition to the student's advisor(s), and it carries this name because it serves an intermediate advisory function during the interval between the first-semester Launch Team and the student's eventual Dissertation Committee. Although in most cases there is substantial overlap in membership among the Prescriptive and Dissertation committees, it is expected (and normal) for students to drop or add committee members as their research interests evolve, especially in their first several years. The most important functions of the Prescriptive Committee are to: (1) advise the student on A-exam preparation far in advance of the actual exam, and (2) help the student begin to formulate their dissertation research project.

Dissertation Committee

Also termed the "Special Committee." All students select a Chair of their Special Committee within three weeks of registering with the Graduate School. This Chair is their official faculty advisor. It is common for EEB students to be co-advised by two faculty, but in this case one of the people serves as the Chair for procedural matters. Ph.D. candidates must have a full Special Committee no later than the end of their third semester. Doctoral candidates must have one Field faculty member, usually their Chair, representing their major subject and at least two other members, from any department at Cornell or elsewhere, who work together as teams to advise students in their chosen topic of research.


A Exam

Students take their A-exam (admission to Ph.D. candidacy) before the beginning of their 5th semester, or in exceptional cases during the first half of their 5th semester. This exam is administered by the student's self-chosen Dissertation Committee and includes both an oral and written component. Passing this exam is a major milestone on the way to the Ph.D.

Different committees will have slightly different formats for this exam, but it usually reviews the student's general knowledge in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology with an emphasis on the student's own area of research. 

For the written component of the exam, the committee chooses in advance at least one of the following potential writing assignments, as deemed most appropriate and beneficial to the student's progress and training:

  1. A solid draft, submitted, or published research-based paper
  2. A review paper on an aspect of the student's research area
  3. A dissertation prospectus or equivalent, such as a substantial grant proposal
  4. An essay or series of essays on a topic relevant to the A-exam material, suggested by Committee members

The written work should be completed and passed before the oral exam is held, because the official exam-outcome paperwork must be filed within 3 days of the scheduled oral exam date.

Special Committee Meetings

After they pass their A-exam, students should convene at least one committee meeting per academic year that they remain in the program. Steady guidance from the committee is likely to help the student as they design and implement their Ph.D. research, and as they start to pursue their targeted careers. We generally enjoy serving on these committees, as committee discussion of grad student research projects are enjoyable and intellectually stimulating and provide a distinctively rich opportunity for faculty-faculty and faculty-student interaction.

Dissertation Proposal

By the end of their 6th semester, most EEB students write a dissertation proposal and review it with their committee.

Finishing Seminar

EEB graduate students present a finishing departmental seminar on their dissertation work in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (or in another home Department of the Major Professor). The formal requirement is that this seminar be offered sometime in the two months immediately preceding their dissertation defense, but it usually occurs on the same day as the B-exam.


The B-exam (dissertation defense) is the final oral review of the student's dissertation work by their committee. Although it is intellectually rigorous, it is usually also a time of affirmation and celebration for the finishing student, their committee, and their colleagues in the Field.