Program Requirements

The graduate program in the Field of BMCB, which offers a Ph.D. degree only, includes lecture and laboratory courses, teaching experience, and front-line research with access to the latest technology and equipment. Most of the faculty are housed in new research buildings and virtually all of their labs are supported by major funding. The faculty take the challenge of graduate education enthusiastically.  The biological sciences are predicted to see enormous growth in the 21st century, especially in macromolecular and cellular biology, and Cornell University will continue to be a leader in these areas.

Getting Started

New students are formally introduced to the Field Faculty and their research in a series of 20 minute faculty talks early in the Fall semester of the first year. Each student chooses three laboratories for two-month rotation projects that start in middle of October and continue to May, at which time students join a lab where they conduct their thesis research.  Some students elect to do a fourth rotation in the summer after the second semester.

Special Committees

The progress of each graduate student at Cornell is guided and supervised by his or her "Special Committee" (thesis committee), which consists of the thesis research supervisor and two other faculty members, one of whom represents a “minor” subject chosen by the student. Each student puts together a Special Committee at the end of the first year. The Special Committee system offers flexibility to the Ph.D. program since neither the Graduate School nor the Field of BMCB demand a fixed course of study.


The coursework is designed to give students a broad appreciation for modern molecular and cell biosciences (see Curriculum for detail). Students generally take several lecture courses during their first year in the program, covering broad areas of protein function, molecular biology, and cell biology. All first-year students participate in a literature reading course where they critically evaluate research papers covering a wide range of topics, and a ”Quantitative Biology” course where they learn basic statistical and bioinformatic skills to process large genomic datasets. All first-year students also participate in a half semester grant proposal writing course, where they put together a fellowship application in the format of an NSF (National Science Foundation) predoctoral fellowship, and critique each other’s application in a series of mock review panels. In addition, an “Advanced Biochemical Methods” laboratory during the first half of the Fall semester gives students hands-on experience with modern experimental methods. The course meets almost the entire day, three days per week for seven weeks, with students teaming up to carry out projects using both basic and advanced techniques. This highly popular, intense but informal course, which is unique to the BMCB program, prepares students for the rotation projects and provides a strong bonding experience. The first year class become fast friends during this period, creating a social network that lasts for the duration of their graduate careers and beyond.

In their second year, most students take one or two more courses to complete the Ph.D. minor requirement, having completed the core requirements in coursework for the Ph.D. major in the first year. In addition, students can choose to take any of the three six-lecture advanced topic mini-courses offered during every semester. These pass/fail courses are given on a rotating basis by all BMCB faculty, and students are required to enroll in at least four over their graduate student careers. These minicourses provide both students and interested faculty the chance to keep abreast of timely and specialized topics.


Throughout the academic year, well-known scientists give formal lectures on their work in the Friday Seminar Series. Students themselves also invite and entertain several of the seminar speakers. The Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics also sponsors the prestigious Class of 1942 James B. Sumner Lecture Series, in honor of Cornell Biochemistry’s first Nobel Laureate, and the Efraim Racker Seminar, in honor of the many scientific contributions made by this former Field member. Numerous other regular seminar series will be of interest including those of Genetics, Genomics and Development, Biophysics, Chemistry, Molecular Medicine, Neurobiology, and many more.

An important feature of graduate education in the Field of BMCB is a yearly formal presentation by each student of his/her own research results, starting in the second year of study. This seminar provides an important opportunity to practice the form of communication most essential for a successful career in research.


As part of the Ph.D. training program, and as a valuable contribution to the teaching effort of the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, every graduate student is required to participate as a Teaching Assistant for at least one semester. Teaching assignments to a lab, lecture, or autotutorial course are based in part on student preference. TA requirements are usually met during the second year of study. Many students elect to teach for one or more additional semesters. The university guidelines for typical TA assignments are 15 hr/week.


Graduate students are required to pass two sets of examinations during their graduate careers. The “A” exam, or entrance to Ph.D. candidacy exam, must be taken before or during the 5th semester of study. This exam is based on the oral defense by the student in front of the Special Committee of an original research proposal, written in the style of a grant proposal submitted to funding agencies such as the NIH or NSF. The “B” exam, or thesis exam, is in two parts. First, the student presents a portion of the thesis work in a seminar to interested students and faculty, including the Special Committee. Next, the student defends the written thesis in an oral exam before the Special Committee. By this time, students have accomplished solid and original research work, usually with several publications in major journals.