Funding and Program 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 2021-2022 our standard Ph.D. stipend support includes a 9-month stipend of $28,654 plus summer support of at least $6,233. For more information about stipends, go to the Graduate School Stipend Rates page. Students are supported by a variety of funding sources, including Teaching Assistantships or fellowships funded by Cornell University or by external sources. On average, students are supported for half of their program on Teaching Assistantships and half the time on fellowships, but there is considerable variation among students.
Many students obtain external fellowship support from sources such as the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, 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 external fellowship opportunity is the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which has an annual application deadline in October.
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.
Teaching and Coursework
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 First-Year Writing seminars. Our graduate TAs win many teaching awards and have earned a university-wide reputation for being approachable, knowledgeable, and inspiring. Many of our grad students have won department and university awards for excellence in teaching over the years.
Cornell offers considerable opportunities to obtain training in teaching and to develop a teaching portfolio through the Center for Teaching Innovation. The department has been very engaged in developing active learning practices in many of its courses.
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 the Graduate Field of 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. In addition, students are introduced to several topics important to professional development, such as mentoring, reviewing manuscripts, presenting talks, etc.
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 dissertation committee.
Launch teams meet with new, first-year graduate students before the first week of classes in the new Fall term. All EEB graduate students are expected to have basic proficiency in both ecology and evolutionary biology and the launch team establishes a dialog with new students to assess whether there are gaps in foundational areas of ecology and evolutionary biology; if so, the student and launch team discuss a plan to remedy identified gaps. 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.
Launch teams are comprised of three EEB Field faculty (the student's probable advisor and two additional faculty members) and one current graduate student. 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.
This committee is 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. Researchers at other institutions can be added to the Special Committee, beyond the required three Cornell members.
Exams and Milestones
A-Exam and Dissertation Proposal
The purpose of the A-exam is to evaluate a student’s ability and preparedness to successfully conduct Ph.D. level research. Students typically take their A-exam (admission to Ph.D. candidacy) by the end of their 5th semester. The A-exam has both written and oral components. Students write a dissertation proposal and submit it to the special committee two weeks in advance of the oral exam. The oral exam consists of a defense of the proposal, and a broader examination of the student’s knowledge base in areas directly relevant to the thesis. The oral exam begins with a brief oral presentation of the proposal and is followed by questions from committee members. The A-exam is administered by the student's self-selected Dissertation Committee and is a major milestone on the way to the Ph.D.
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. Faculty generally enjoy serving on these committees, as committee discussion of grad student research projects are intellectually stimulating and provide a distinctively rich opportunity for faculty-faculty and faculty-student interaction.
EEB graduate students present a finishing departmental seminar on their dissertation work in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. 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.