Student Handbook

Special Committee

One of the most important decisions made by a graduate student at Cornell involves the selection of the Special Committee. The progress of each graduate student is guided and supervised by the Special Committee, which consists of the thesis research supervisor, also called major professor (Chair of the committee), and two faculty members, one of whom represents the minor subject chosen by the student (see below). Students should assemble a Special Committee early in their 3rd semester, but are encouraged to begin seeking the advice of possible committee members before this, since much of the student’s coursework is taken during the first year. The DGS serves as your Chairperson and faculty adviser until you choose a Special Committee.

Graduate students in the Field of Genetics, Genomics and Development may choose as their concentration either genetics or developmental biology or genomics. In addition, each student must choose one minor subject. Possibilities for minors include biochemistry, genetics, developmental biology, microbiology, evolutionary biology, cell biology, plant biology, plant molecular and cell biology, neurobiology and behavior, biometry (computational biology concentration), or a number of other possible subjects. You are not limited to one minor. Note, however, that you cannot major and minor in the same subject (e.g., genetics). Each year the Graduate School publishes a list of major and minor subjects and concentrations for all graduate fields at Cornell. This list can be obtained from the Graduate School in Caldwell Hall, the Graduate Field Office (107 Biotech), or can be viewed on the Graduate School web site at

The Special Committee system offers great flexibility to the Ph.D. program since it permits tailoring of the program to your specific interests. We encourage you to talk to other graduate students and faculty and to seek as much information as possible before selecting your committee members. Make an appointment to meet with each potential committee member and bring relevant materials to the meeting (e.g., curriculum vitae, course records, and summary of research plans if possible). Be prepared to discuss why he or she would be an appropriate committee member. It is important that both understand each other’s expectations: What courses will they require, can they help with certain experiments, etc.

Once your committee has been selected, don’t panic if you realize as your research program develops that someone else might be more appropriate. Remember, you are responsible for putting together a committee that best suits your needs. A “Special Committee Selection and Change” request is submitted online ( Please note that no changes may be made in your special committee after passing the A-Exam, except with the Dean’s approval.

Special Committee Meetings

You are required to meet with your entire committee at least once a year to discuss progress and plans (see PROGRESS REPORTS). It is the student’s responsibility to arrange the meeting. This meeting should take place as soon as possible after your Wednesday Field Seminar , and certainly within two weeks of the seminar. Remember to notify your committee of such seminars. Regular meetings with the full committee (a minimum of once a year) will help keep your program on track and can help avoid those awful moments at your defense when a committee member asks why you did not do this control or that experiment. You can also meet with them individually along the way. Use your committee for guidance and feedback. That’s why they are there.

Senior students must present a "final-year plan" to their committee, which is to be part of the progress report (see PROGRESS REPORTS). This should include a short outline of experiments that they still plan to do as well as a proposed timeframe for graduation. Students entering the sixth year of the program will be asked to send the DGS a detailed description of their graduation plans and timeline.