Stuff students need to know upon arriving at Cornell

Someone sent me a note saying I should provide information to students upon their arrival, for example the information about assistantships I just posted.


I am trying to use the blog for this purpose, which means that I want the blog to have the key information about field-related matters students need when they arrive, and I want to be able to say “go read the blog” when students arrive.


To this end, if you have suggestions for things you wish you had been told upon your arrival, or key information that you need to know that is currently hard or impossible to find, please let me know, ideally with email reply to this posting.

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.

NSF fellowships due tomorrow oct 29

all- this is for those eligible to write NSF GRFP fellowship applications this year.  apologies to others.

NSF GRFP fellowship applications are due tomorrow oct 29.  this is earlier than previous years.  some quick comments:


nsf rejects applications without 3 reference letters.  we have recently had students rejected simply because one of their letter writers didn’t submit.  I would like to insure against this.

NSF allows students to submit more than 3 names (5 actually) and rank-prioritize them.  to this end, you should be submitting at least 4 references.  even if you have not worked with me or don’t know me well, if, to get a fourth reference, you need to list me, then list me.  I am delighted happy to willing to write a letter for you on nov 6 (I can’t do it sooner). better to have a letter from me (that might be a bit vanilla if I haven’t worked with you) and have a chance than have the fellowship application rejected because one of your letter writers did not submit a rec.  Of course if you have already arranged or can arrange for a 4th reference letter that is topically relevant, that is better than asking me.


I have had some students with matched advisors coming to me and indicating (usually indirectly) that their advisors are not helping them or are unaware that NSF fellowship applications are due.  I hope this is rare or just a miscommunication or both.  Your essays must be your own but you should be interacting with your advisor (or if you are not yet matched, a technical mentor whose group meetings you have been joining), especially in your research essay.  in MAE6949 students have written two essays on scholarship and research experience (with review from me and from peers) that you have presumably combined to make your 3-page NSF essay and you have written a research proposal (which will need review from your advisor/technical mentor) that presumably can become your 2-page NSF proposal.


NSF is rejecting applications that are even one minute late (cutoff is 8pm eastern on 29th).  I recommend students submit at least 90 minutes before the due time.  Last year we had students who logged on 45 min before the deadline but could not get their files uploaded.  I urge you to submit by 6:30pm.

Fall fellowship deadlines (for 2nd years)

1st years will hear more about fellowships in 6949.  2nd years: Note this year’s deadlines for NSERC, NSF, NDSEG fellowships, which some will be eligible for:

NSERC (Canada) – 15 Oct

NSF (US citizen/perm res) – 29 Oct

NDSEG (US citizen or national, NOT perm res) – 12 Dec

The deadlines for NSF and NDSEG have both moved about a week earlier than last year.  I have some summary info at


3rd year and beyond: this is probably irrelevant, can discard

20 Feb 2014 Faculty Meeting Minutes

Excerpts from the 20 Feb  Faculty meeting that are (a) suitable for public disclosure and (b) perhaps of interest to the broad student community follow.
Unlike meeting minutes, which are official and approved by faculty vote, this summary is mine alone and has not been vetted or approved by the faculty.


Approval of the Minutes
A motion was made by the speaker, Professor J. Burns to approve the minutes of the faculty meeting on
December 19, 2013. The motion was seconded by Professor E.M. Fisher and passed unanimously.
Remarks and Announcements by Director Mark Campbell
The department’s five-year strategic review was discussed, including facilities, hiring, and mentoring.  Two potential searches were discussed.  The faculty were reminded of information they were supposed to send to the director but hadn’t all sent yet.  A Faculty Committee on Program Review is scheduled for Fall 2015.  Joint faculty searches with NYCTech were discussed.  The college and department budget were discussed.
Report from Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies, W. Sachse
Mid-Semester Surveys were discussed, as were upcoming prizes and awards nominated or judged by faculty.  A Report on the CCGB meeting was presented.  Final grades are due 27 May 2014.
Announcements from Associate Director of Graduate Studies, Professor B. Kirby
The admit offers went out around Feb 7th, 2014 and the visit weekend is March 7-8, 2014. Professor Kirby announced that soon after the admit weekend, denials will be send out. If Faculty wants to stop Professor Kirby from sending denials to any student, let him know by March 3rd, 2014.

Sibley Graduate Research Symposium: The first symposium is scheduled for March 6th/7th. Professor Todd Humphreys is scheduled as the keynote speaker.

Student pool: 65 students have been admitted with 50 US Citizens and 15 International students; 6 TAM/12 Aerospace/ 47 MAE students have been admitted. Of the 65 admitted, 42 are committed to the visit weekend and 6 are coming on alternative dates. 4 students have been offered fellowships. Dept fellowship funds are expected to be enough this year to support the expected class size.
Discussion of Upson Renovation, Mark Campbell
Professor Campbell discussed the goal to renovate Upson hall and make it a key engineering building for the next 50 years. He presented designs, approximate budget, and key participants in the design.

The speaker, Professor J. Burns, adjourned the meeting at 2:02 pm

19 Dec Faculty Meeting Minutes

Excerpts from the 19 Dec Faculty meeting that are (a) suitable for public disclosure and (b) perhaps of interest to the broad student community follow.
Unlike meeting minutes, which are official and approved by faculty vote, this summary is mine alone and has not been vetted or approved by the faculty.

Approval of the Minutes

The minutes of the faculty meeting on November 21st, 2013 were approved as distributed to the faculty.

Report from Associate Director for Undergraduate Affairs, W. Sachse

ABET assessments are due January 14th/15th. The list of seniors expected to graduate in January was read by Professor Sachse. A motion was made by Professor W. Sachse to approve the list of graduating seniors pending satisfactory completion of their current courses. The motion was seconded by Professor M. Psiaki and passed unanimously.

Announcements from Professor B. Kirby, Associate Director for Graduate Affairs

Student recruiting will be nearly identical to the previous year. Information on prospective students from Professor Kirby around January 6th, with group responses due around January 28th. Letters to admitted students sent out in early February; a visit weekend is schedule for March 7th and 8th.
Graduate student conference scheduled to coincide with prospective student visit. A keynote speaker will speak on March 6th, with student presentations March 7th. Qualifying exams in January, to be scheduled over the next week.

Report from school/college.

Professor P. Dawson informed us of the vote on a motion in the Faculty Senate.

Remarks and Announcements From Professor W. Sachse (representing Director M. Campbell)

Updates were given on renovation and hiring and faculty evaluation/SIP process.

A motion was made by Professor A. George to call the meeting and Professor E. Garcia seconded the motion. The motion passed unanimously.

The speaker, Professor J. Burns, adjourned the meeting at 1:28 pm.

21 Nov Faculty Meeting Minutes

Excerpts from the 21 Nov Faculty meeting that are (a) suitable for public disclosure and (b) perhaps of interest to the broad student community follow.
Unlike meeting minutes, which are official and approved by faculty vote, this summary is mine alone and has not been vetted or approved by the faculty.

Approval of the Minutes

Minues of faculty meeting Oct 17th were approved as distributed to the faculty

Remarks, announcements from Director Campbell

Updates on renovation of Kimball and Upson were provided. A strategic agreement with JPL was signed 8 Nov, leading to new opportunities for collaboration with JPL. The college budget committee is currently addressing issues related to the new budget model.

Report from Wolfgang Sachse, Assoc Director for UG Affairs

Midterm evaluations were discussed. The town hall meeting was summarizes with attention to requests that came from the UG students. The class of 2014 had 152 students; the class of 2015 165, and the class of 2016 is projected as 169. The CCGB meeting was discussed related to physics instruction. Final grades are due Dec 23.

Report from Brian Kirby, Assoc Director for Grad Affairs

SGRS will happen Mar 6/7. Todd Humpreys is keynote. Survey of TAs indicates no clear deviation from grad school policies but some points of concern. Three key areas that correlated with students concerns about excessive time spent include (1) designing problem sets (2) disorganized professors (3) imbalanced efforts for classes with multiple TAs. Admissions and recruiting will be similar in 2014 as in 2013. Kirby will send info to faculty by 7 Jan.

Reports from School/college committees

A report on Skorton’s address to the Faculty Senate was given an discussion ensued regarding a committee informing undergraduate advising.


A motion to approve changes to the syllabet for MAE2030 was made by J Burns and passed unanimously.

J Burns adjourned the meeting at 2:06pm.

September 19 Faculty Meeting Minutes

Excerpts from the Sep 19 Faculty meeting that are (a) suitable for public disclosure and (b) perhaps of interest to the broad student community follow.
Unlike meeting minutes, which are official and approved by faculty vote, this summary is mine alone and has not been vetted or approved by the faculty.


A meeting of the Sibley School Faculty was called to order on September 19th, at 1:05pm by Joseph Burns, Speaker.


Approval of the Minutes

The minutes of the faculty meeting on May 24, 2013 were approved as distributed to the faculty.


Remarks and Announcements from Director M. Campbell (In Absentia, W. Sachse speaking)

Professor W. Sachse gave a brief update on the Upson Mezzanine and Kimball renovations.

Professor W. Sachse informed us of a new financial model for Cornell that gives departments more control of their finances, starting in January 2015.

Professor W. Sachse discussed the status of faculty searches.

Professor W. Sachse informed us that more information will be coming about the direction of the NYC tech campus’s built environment program.


Report from Associate Director of Undergraduate Affairs, W. Sachse

Professor W. Sachse gave an update on the sizes of the 2014 (162 students) and 2015 (163 students) undergraduate class.

Professor W. Sachse informed of us upcoming dates for class surveys (Oct 9-20), a town meeting (Oct 23), brown bag lunch with undergraduates (recurring; Tu 1230-130), grade due dates (Dec. 23), and final exam schedule.


The motion to approve the syllabet for MAE 5150 was called by Professor D. Erickson, seconded by Professor W. Sachse, and passed unanimously.


Report from Associate Director of Graduate Affairs, B. Kirby

An update on graduate recruiting was presented by Professor B. Kirby, DGS for Mech. Eng. and associate director for graduate affairs.  Professor B. Kirby discussed new strategies for recruiting. Discussion ensued.

Professor B. Kirby mentioned that faculty matching lists for graduate students are expected by Oct 18.


Sibley Graduate Research Symposium Summary

Am writing this note to summarize how the SGRS played out this past Thursday and Friday. You probably recall that the SGRS ( is a conference that the graduate students organized, funded, and executed; its goal was to catalyze students’ learning about each others’ work, to increase exposure between current students and alumni, to provide professional practice in speaking at conferences, chairing sessions and conferences, fundraising and organizing conferences, et cetera.


SGRS vs Admit Weekend


SGRS was conceived to overlap temporally with but be largely independent from admit weekend. The SGRS poster session/lunch and the admit weekend poster session were one and the same. SGRS awards were presented at the Saturday happy hour that we have during admit weekend. Otherwise, the two events were independent.




The conference keynote speaker, Todd Humphreys, a PhD graduate from our School in 2008 or so, gave a presentation Thursday afternoon in Phillips 101 to an audience of about 65 following a day of meetings with a few faculty but mostly students and student groups. His travel, accommodations, and honorarium were funded by the students’ fundraising efforts, which culminated in six sponsors (




A two-track series of student oral presentations were featured in 109 and 111 Upson during Friday afternoon. The audience was primarily Sibley School graduate students, about 20-40 students at any one time. Although the conference was open to faculty and admitted students that weren’t busy with meetings, the organizers assumed that faculty and admitted PhDs would be booked with meetings as part of admit weekend.




Both Corporate Relations and the Cornell Chronicle indicated interest in actively advertising/participating in next year’s SGRS.




Awards were presented at the SiGMA Happy Hour on Saturday.  Top oral presentations were selected from each track and awards (in the form of textbooks from Cambridge University Press and Wiley Press) were presented to six students:

Corning Inc. Best Presentation Award: Zachary Manchester

SJB Industries, LLC Best Presentation Award: Ranjith Thirunagari

Cambridge University Press Best Presentation Award: Timothy Lannin
Wiley Press Best Presentation Award: Rodrigo Zeldon
Robert H. Thurston Memorial Best Presentation Award: Frank Havlak
CAEC Best Presentation Award: Abhishek Srivastava
Three best poster awards were given:
Francis C. Moon Best Poster Award: Naigeng Chen
K.K. Wang Best Poster Award: Huichan Zhao and Sanlin Robinson
Edwin L. Resler, Jr. Best Poster Award: Daniel Asselin


The SGRS organizing committee comprised 8 PhD students and one MEng student and is listed below (co-chairs in bold):

Lara Backer

Robert Carson

Stephanie Firehammer

Dan Houck

Bryan Peele

Neola Putnam

Michael Santiago

Meenakshi Sundaram
Bo Yang
Thanks to the committee for all of its efforts, and to Marcia Sawyer and Judy Thoroughman for all of their work to coordinate SGRS *and * the admit weekend.


Interested in helping to organize SGRS 2015?  I’d start by contacting Eddie Bonnevie, Robert Carson, and Stephanie Firehammer.  They probably know what to do next.