Graduate Program

Who We Are

The Graduate Program in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology provides its students with rich opportunities to study organic diversity, including its origins, maintenance and consequences. Our students' research questions address fundamental issues in basic and applied sciences, span large and small spatial and temporal scales, and apply experimental, observational, theoretical, statistical, molecular and chemical approaches. Some students in the program focus on Discipline-Based Education Research, to develop evidence-based knowledge and practices to improve STEM education.

The program emphasizes broad thinking and encourages students to be both interdisciplinary and independent. While students work with an advisor, many of our students develop research themes that are not derived directly from those of their advisor. Our program may be particularly well suited for students who can therefore take full advantage of Cornell's expansive intellectual and technological resources in the life sciences and related fields.

The Graduate Field of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Prospective graduate students apply to Graduate Fields of Study at Cornell rather than departments. Most Graduate Fields are more inclusive than any one Cornell department. Graduate Fields are, in a sense, virtual, and bring together faculty and students with shared intellectual interests, irrespective of their departmental homes.

Students in the Graduate Field of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) are all advised by Faculty in the Field of EEB, which include faculty based in 12 departments, including Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Entomology, Natural Resources and the Environment, Neurobiology and Behavior, Molecular Biology and Genetics, and the School of Integrative Plant Science. Any member of Cornell's Graduate Faculty, from any department, can serve on students' dissertation committees.

Every graduate student will also have a departmental home, which is generally the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, at least the first year. Afterwards, students have the same departmental home as their primary graduate advisor. Incoming students are guaranteed five years of support, including four years of summer support. Our program has a few standard requirements and milestones on the path to the awarding of the Ph.D.; please seeFunding and Program Requirements.

EEB is home to approximately 60 students at any time, coming from a variety of US and international backgrounds. We value diversity in all its dimensions and our student body reflects that! You can further explore program statistics in this useful and interactive dashboard maintained by the graduate school. Make sure to filter the information by the graduate field of EEB.

Why EEB?

A diversity of studies

Graduate students in EEB explore biological diversity from a range of perspectives: from genes to ecosystems, organisms to populations, in the lab and at sites across the globe. Graduate study prepares students for careers in both research and non-research contexts, with evidence-based transferable skills that include project management and problem solving, collaboration and teamwork, written and oral communication, and data analysis and interpretation.

What careers do our graduate students pursue?

Our graduates are interested in a range of academic and non-academic careers, most of which are science related. Many students pursue postdoctoral opportunities as their first position out of graduate school. Over time, students generally move into other positions, including faculty jobs across a wide range of institutions, from R1 universities to 4-year colleges. Other graduates have gone on to professions inside and outside of government, working in environmental conservation organizations and other non-profits, tech, consulting, science communication, medicine, research administration, and other areas.

Graduate student alumni spotlights

We take pride in the accomplishments of our students --  learn more about our graduates by meeting a few alumni from our Ph.D. program.

Funding and Program Requirements

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

Teaching

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.

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 dissertation committee.

Advisory Committees

Launch Team

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.

Dissertation Committee

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.

Finishing Seminar

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.

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.

Application Process

General Admissions Information

The annual admissions cycle starts when students submit an application by the December 1st deadline. Offers of admission and funding decisions are made in February and March, with student acceptances of offers due by April 15. Most students enter the program in the following Fall semester, though under rare circumstances may arrange a deferred admission for the Spring or subsequent Fall semester.

Masters or Ph.D. degree: Virtually all students enter directly into the Ph.D. program. While we have a Masters degree on the books, we very rarely admit Masters students through external applications. If a Masters program is better for you, then we recommend looking into one of the other graduate fields at Cornell with long established Masters programs, such as the Field of Natural Resources & the Environment.

Students are initially admitted to work with one or two faculty advisors, though some later switch advisors as their interests or research themes change. Admission decisions are made by a faculty admissions committee, but it is important for prospective students to identify and establish a connection with potential advisors prior to applying. It is wise to contact faculty whose work interests you, explaining your interests and background and inquiring whether they are actively seeking new students and might have an interest in supervising you. Admission to our program is highly competitive, as we typically admit fewer than 10% of applicants.

Students are accepted from a range of undergraduate majors from the natural sciences, physical sciences, mathematics and humanities. Backgrounds of our students are correspondingly varied: some enter the program directly following their undergraduate degree, others with a Masters degree or other post-undergraduate experience in research, consulting, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, etc.

If you have questions about the application process, contact the Graduate Field Assistant, Patty Jordan. If you have questions about the graduate program as a whole, contact our faculty Director of Graduate Studies, Alex Flecker.

How to Apply

Deadline

There is a single application deadline each year on December 1.

Identify a Faculty Sponsor

The vast majority of successful applicants to the Field of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology have identified a potential faculty advisor professor long before applications are due and enter the program with the intent of working in the professor’s lab. Several months before applications are due, identify one or more faculty members with whom you are interested in working and send them an email initiating a dialogue regarding your interests and background. Not all faculty will be accepting students in a given admissions cycle. For suggestions on how to reach out to potential advisors, please see our tips for contacting advisors as well as our lists of Graduate Field Faculty and Faculty Considering Grad Students.

Cornell Graduate School Application

Students who wish to apply for graduate study at Cornell must do so using the Cornell Graduate School online application. The deadline to submit the application and all supporting material, including letters of recommendation is December 1.

Application Fee Waiver

We encourage applicants for whom the application fee is a financial hardship or who participated in certain pipeline programs to request a fee waiver.

Statement of Purpose

Please submit a combined Academic and Personal Statement of Purpose that outlines your reasons for pursuing graduate research and explains your academic interests and your broader background, experiences, and skills that can lead to a successful graduate school experience.  This Statement of Purpose should provide the admissions committee with a sense of you as a whole person, and provide insight into your potential to contribute positively to a diverse and inclusive community. General suggestions are available on the Cornell Graduate Student Admissions website.

We request that you use headings for the following four sections for the Statement of Purpose:

(1) Personal background, experience, and motivation (400-word limit): Introduce yourself, what are your personal motivations to come to graduate school, your short and long-term professional goals, and how did you get here? Please describe how your background and experiences influenced your decision to pursue a graduate degree.

(2) Academic background and preparation (400 words): Describe your academic training, skills, research experience, and accomplishments relevant to your future graduate work. You may also provide the context around any perceived gaps or weaknesses in your academic record.

(3) Future research (400 words): What research questions would you like to explore as a graduate student? This is in no way binding - it is only intended to give us an indication of where your research interests and approaches are headed. If you have written a proposal for future research (e.g., NSF predoctoral fellowship), those ideas should be included here.

4)  Importance of community, diversity, and inclusion (400 words): We strive to build a diverse and inclusive community that strengthens our intellectual and collaborative department. Please provide insight into your potential to contribute to a community of inclusion, belonging, and respect where scholars representing diverse backgrounds, perspectives, abilities, and experiences can learn and work productively and positively together. 

Within sections 1 and 4 of the Statement of Purpose, you may also include relevant information on any of the following: 

  • How your personal, academic, and/or professional experiences demonstrate your ability to be both persistent and resilient especially when navigating challenging circumstances. 
  • How you engage with others and have facilitated and/or participated in productive teams. 
  • How you have experienced or come to understand the barriers faced by others whose experiences and backgrounds may differ from your own. 
  • Your service and/or leadership in efforts to advance diversity, inclusion, access, and equity especially by those from backgrounds historically underrepresented and/or marginalized. 
  • If relevant, how your research interests focus on issues related to diversity, inclusion, access, inequality, and/or equity.

Transcripts

Please upload unofficial copies of your transcript(s) from each college or university previously attended. Please include an English translation of your transcript(s), if applicable. Unofficial copies are all that is required at this stage in the application process. For more information, go to the Graduate School Transcript Requirements page.

Letters of Recommendation

Three letters of recommendation must be submitted from people who can comment on your academic aptitude and research abilities. Appropriate letter writers include faculty advisors, professors from whom you have taken courses, professors or employment supervisors with whom you have conducted research. You will indicate who the letter writers are and their contact information when you complete the application. They will be contacted automatically and provided with instructions on how to submit their recommendation letter online. Letters of recommendation are due December 1. For more useful information, see the Graduate School website.

Application Timeline

August - October Contact potential advisors
October - November Line up application, request fee waiver
December 1 Application deadline
December - January Application reviews
February - March Admissions offers
April 15 Offer acceptance deadline

Student Experience

Click here to to explore more details about the EEB graduate student experience and life in Ithaca.

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Learn about how the department is addressing issues around inequity, lack of inclusion and systemic racism in our discipline and beyond.

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