Committees and minor areas of study

hello all-  this post is primarily for 2nd years.  It is a foreshadow of what first years will address about one year from now.  for senior students maybe this can be largely ignored.  I will write from the standpoint of ME; AE is largely the same; TAM is different in some details and I urge TAM students to consult with the TAM DGS.

This post will likely communicate a certain stridency, I am not upset with any students but I am concerned about patterns of behavior I see.  I am not sure if these patterns are caused by poor communication on the part of students or faculty or the grad school or me or whomever.  In any case, if the patterns are caused by misunderstandings of our grad program, I hope to clarify some of these in this post.  The language of the code of legislation of the grad school is cryptic, and a large fraction of the web sites at cornell are at least partially wrong or misleading.  I get it.  So let me know whether this helps.


2nd years are in many cases putting their committees together, and I have seen a number of patterns of behavior that probably are well-intentioned but make little sense to me.  This is not true for everyone but true for more than I expected.  I worry that there is widespread misunderstanding of what committees are for and what major and minor Subjects mean.  Also what is the role of coursework in a PhD.

My concerns are:

  1. some students seem to be focusing on minimizing or avoiding coursework requirements when planning for their committee; I find this horribly backwards.  There are few coursework requirements, and for the most part you shouldn’t be avoiding them.  You and your advisor (not me) choose what you will do, but I find this silly.
  2. some students seem to be delaying setting a committee because they “haven’t decided what minor to pursue”; this makes little sense as there is no PhD minor degree program at Cornell, one just pursues a PhD.  The minor Subjects, admittedly, go into some online form on student center, they definitely do not drive the PhD experience.
  3. I am hearing about all sorts of weird machinations to try to get out of this requirement or that requirement, can I minimize the classes I have to take this way or that way, can person X represent field Y or field Z.  Paying attention to field membership makes sense to me only to satisfy the (quite flexible) requirements for the Subject/Field affiliations of the committee members, but makes no sense to me in terms of course requirements.  The faculty on your Special Committee dictate what you need to do to graduate.  This field vs that field should make no difference in what your Special Committee requires except in the rarest of instances.

YOUR COMMITTEE (the so-called Special Committee)

The primary purpose of your committee is to comprise three or more faculty who can guide you in your graduate education, including research and/or classwork. This committee has almost complete control over your graduate experience.  There are processes to oversee this to ensure no abuse, but other than that oversight, the committee sets graduation requirements with no outside input.  The primary thing that controls graduation requirements are the three people on the committee.  Mech Eng has a couple of Field requirements (TAing, taking MAE 7999) but most requirements are set by the committee.

So your first priority is to pick three people you want to guide your research.  I see so much focus being placed on fields and online forms and coursework. I can’t understand why, unless there is some systematic misunderstanding about the grad school or field rules for completing a committee.  These faculty represent three subjects, one major and two minor.  There are grad school rules and field rules that specify where these subjects can come from (for example, in ME, one committee member must be outside the ME/AE fields, your advisor is in the ME field, and the third can be from any field).  This is an incredibly flexible criterion.  Technically you can’t have a committee all from the Sibley School.  Also, your advisor has to be in the field.  That’s basically it, other than tiny administrative details about how you fill out the form in student center.

Your committee is by far the dominant factor in determining your research path and the requirements for graduation.  Virtually all coursework requirements and research requirements are specified for PhD students on an individual basis by their Special Committee.  The system is designed this way so that the Special Committee can craft an individualized course of study for each student.  So pick three people you want to guide your research.


Minor Field– a field that does not admit students and does not offer degrees (some examples include Genomics, Computational Science and Engineering, Water Resources)

Minor Faculty Member of a Graduate Field–a field faculty member that would normally otherwise be ineligible, for example a faculty member without a PhD

Minor Degree Program–this doesn’t exist for the PhD program at Cornell.  It does for the undergraduate program.

Minor Subject–an area of study that a PhD student explores as a secondary area of research or coursework.

Minor Subject member–a member of your special committee who represents a minor subject.

There seems to be a systematic overstatement of the notion of “getting a minor”.  Many students seem to think that there are minor Phd degree programs at Cornell.  There are not.  There is no mention of “getting a PhD minor” in the grad school code of legislation.   Minor degree programs exist at Cornell only for undergraduate degrees (see for example this page).  For the PhD, one does have two minor subjects that are represented by two committee members.  That is part of your PhD in ME.  Your diploma will say Doctor of Philosophy, no matter what your minor subjects are.  Each committee member that represents a minor subject can require you to do stuff if they want (remember that the committee sets all graduation requirements, they can require anything they want).  So a minor committee member can require classes if he/she wants (see p33 of the code of legislation).  They can do this because they deem it good for you, good for your research, appropriate given the minor course of study you are taking (whatever that committee member might think that means).  Whatever.

Some fields market a “minor” in their field for the PhD, which seems to contradict my claim that there are not PhD minor degree programs (Computer Science and Applied Math are two examples).  For example, Applied Math’s website as of 2 Dec 2014 says “A Minor in Applied Mathematics is earned by successfully completing four courses, drawn from at least two of the Focal Areas, each of which contains substantial mathematical content.”   Applied Math’s webpage is surely well-intentioned.  It is potentially misleading, though, because it uses language reminiscent of minor degree programs (like the undergrad programs) when that language does not apply to PhD programs.  There is no language in the grad school code of legislation about “earning a minor”.  What that language really means is that those fields have faculty that have agreed that when they serve on a student’s committee, that they will require those classes.  It won’t make your diploma say “minor in applied math” or “minor in computer science”.  So, if you want a faculty member on your committee and that faculty member is to represent computer science or applied math, but you don’t want to take those classes, you could ask that faculty member if they will require those classes.  Mech Eng faculty routinely expect classwork when they are minor subject members, but the Mech Eng field has no hard-and-fast rule agreed upon by the faculty and we do not have a website that lists any “requirements”.  The decisions/whims/wisdom of the committee members rules all.


In the Cornell Grad School, a major Field is a group of faculty that administer a graduate degree program (see this page).  Fields can be partitioned into Subjects.  Most fields have only one subject and the distinction between Field and Subject is uncommon for PhD students, so most people have never heard or thought about Subjects (see the complete list here–one example of a Field with multiple subjects is Evolutionary Biology and Ecology, which has an Ecology Subject and an Evolutionary Biology Subject).  The Mechanical Engineering Field’s one subject is called Mechanical Engineering (creative!!).  Each Subject is partitioned into concentrations.  Mech Eng has 7 concentrations: biomedical mechanics,  dynamics and control,  energy and sustainability,  fluid dynamics, micro- and nanoscale engineering, solid mechanics and materials, and thermal science.

The graduate school specifies the constituents of a committee in terms of major and minor Subjects.  Because most Fields have only one subject, most people use the shorthand of describing committee requirements in terms of Fields.

A minor Field is a Field that offers no admission and no degrees, it serves only to provide minor Subjects.  Faculty can represent those field as minor subject members, but not as Special Committee Chairs.


The grad school imposes no coursework requirements for a PhD (see this page).

The ME field imposes one coursework requirement (pass MAE 7999 twice) for a PhD.  (see ME field rules here)

Your Special Committee will presumably impose a number of course requirements chosen to equip you to effectively complete your research.  Your committee members each represent Graduate Fields and concentrations within those fields (these are your major and minor subjects); they may also, if they choose, specify course requirements to satisfy their expectations for study in those minor subjects.



As DGS I have no say in PhD student coursework other than the field requirement that you pass MAE 7999 twice (this is for students that entered after that rule was passed, i.e. entering classes of 2013 and 2014).  However, I am concerned at how much I hear students trying to minimize the classes they take, usually “so that they can get research done”.  On a personal note, I urge you to ask yourself the question–is the research you are trying to accomplish so simple that it requires no training or only one year of training?  is it a five-year long master’s degree?  If so, I urge you to avoid the many training opportunities that Cornell has to offer, including the wealth of graduate courses taught, usually by international experts in their fields.  However, if you want to do deep research, if you want to develop independence from your advisor, if you want to be a deep and impactful scholar, you probably are better off being trained extensively in your area of research.  This means taking classes (among other things).  I have no say in the details of who takes what classes or how many, but every time I hear of someone trying to minimize their coursework, I worry that we are missing the point.  Or maybe the faculty are all horrible instructors and you don’t think our classes are worth the time.  Either one feels like a bummer.



  1. find 3 people you want to advise you in your research because of their expertise and potential to contribute to your research progress.
  2. if those 3 people cannot be made to match field requirements for minor/major areas of study, adjust your list of three people.  This is unlikely unless you want three people all from the Sibley School.
  3. talk to the 2 addl people (one is already your advisor) to see if they will serve on your committee.  Ask them what they expect from you.  Ask them if they are willing to do what you want them to do  (for example maybe you want to meet yearly, quarterly, etc).  If they will do what you want, and what they expect from you is reasonable, get them to sign the form.  If they won’t do what you want (say they won’t meet with you; this has never happened) or they expect something from you that you don’t want to do (for example spurious or tangential classwork), rethink whether you shouldn’t just take the classes they suggest because they probably know better than you do.  If you still don’t want to do what they suggest, then politely say that maybe they won’t work out as a committee member and pick a different person.  I find the spurious-or-tangential-classwork angle to be unlikely.
  4. repeat until committee completed.

Read 1 comment

Leave a Reply