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Graduate School Requirements for M.S. and Ph.D. Degrees

Although each student designs a unique degree program, there is a set of minimum requirements for graduate degrees in Biological and Environmental Engineering. These requirements include the following components:

The Special Committee

Cornell graduate students develop their own programs, including coursework and independent research, through consultation with and approval by their special committees. Each student forms his or her own special committee made up of faculty members that represent the student's academic interests. Committee members determine the courses a student must take based on the student's previous training, experience, and goals. They also counsel the student concerning the selection and completion of a thesis research problem and judge whether the student's knowledge, aptitude, and ability to do research are at levels commensurate with the degree being sought. A student may reformulate his or her committee at almost any time.

Each committee is composed of a chairperson, chosen from the major field, and others chosen from each minor field selected by the student. Co-chairpersons may be selected if the student will work collaboratively in two research programs. Minor subjects and minor advisors are typically chosen in consultation with the committee chairperson. Ph.D. students must have a minimum of two minors, at least one of which must be outside of the Field of Biological and Environmental Engineering. M.S. students must have a minimum of one minor subject, preferably outside of the field. Thus, the minimum number of committee members is three for a Ph.D. and two for an M.S. Additional advisors, who serve as optional members, may be selected from any Field. Any member of the Graduate Faculty, however, may contribute to a student's progress and is available for consultation. Students need to have their special committees in place by the end of their second semester.

Independent Thesis Research

Successful achievement of independent research is central to the M.S. and Ph.D. degrees and is documented by completion of a thesis or dissertation. Research for these degrees is typically conducted under the direction of the special committee chairperson, with additional guidance from the entire committee. The special committee judges whether the student has accomplished scholarly research commensurate with the degree sought.


Students must successfully pass examinations for each degree. For the M.S., the student must pass a final exam based on research presented on his or her thesis. For the Ph.D., students must pass two exams. The admission to candidacy exam - the A-exam - is a comprehensive exam and is designed to test whether the student has the ability and proper preparation to continue to pursue the Ph.D. The A-exam is expected to take place sometime near the end of the fourth semester, and no later than the beginning of the seventh semester. The second exam - the B-exam - is based primarily on the research in the student's dissertation. In all cases, the special committee judges the student's performance; for the A-exam, additional members are appointed by the field to evaluate the student in conjunction with the special committee. Students must fill out and submit the appropriate forms 7 days prior to and 3 days after each of the exams. Please pay attention to the requirements described on the form, or the exam could be invalidated by the Graduate School.


Each student is required to complete two registered semesters for an M.S. and complete six registered semesters for a Ph.D. One registered semester is equal to each semester of satisfactory full-time study on campus.