Fields of Study

The Cornell system of graduate education is organized around two key foundational elements:  graduate fields and the special committee system.

Both represent a belief and tradition grounded in academic freedom that continues to attract outstanding graduate students to Cornell and both encourage students to work across departments, disciplines, and colleges.

As embodied in the graduate field structure, academic freedom is a foundational value for the Graduate School, which is a centralized unit, formally independent of the various colleges of the university.

The Field Structure

At Cornell, graduate study is organized using a field structure.  Fields are composed of faculty members from a number of departments who come together around a shared intellectual interest, and may draw from different campuses or colleges.  Graduate students are admitted to fields of study.  Within each field, they select major and minor subjects, which are research interests or concentrations.

Fields span departments and even disciplines.  It’s possible for a student in the field of economics to include faculty on his or special committee from industrial labor and economics, civil and environmental engineering, and sociology along with the more traditional economics and management.

For example, the graduate field of economics includes faculty from

  • policy analysis and management (College of Human Ecology)
  • applied economics and management (College of Agriculture & Life Sciences)
  • industrial and labor relations (School of Industrial and Labor Relations)
  • management (Johnson Graduate School of Management)
  • civil and environmental engineering (College of Engineering)
  • sociology (College of Arts & Sciences)
  • economics (College of Arts & Sciences)

A complete list of fields is located on the "List of Fields" page.  The complete "Fields of Study, Subjects, and Concentrations"  is available in PDF form as well. 

The Special Committee:

For research degrees, most fields of study have no core course requirements. Instead, students pick a group of faculty members to work with during their coursework and research.  These faculty members comprise the “Special Committee” and will guide students throughout their graduate study.  The advisor, also known as the committee chair, works closely with students to make sure they meet their academic objectives. 

While the committee chair must be a member of the student’s special committee, committee members can be drawn from nearly 1800 graduate faculty.  Cornell encourages graduate students to form a committee whose members cross disciplines. 

Faculty and Staff Support:

Director of Graduate Studies (DGS)

Faculty members in each field appoint a director of graduate studies (DGS) to represent them to the Graduate School and coordinate activities of the field.  The DGS is the primary liaison between the field and the Graduate School.  He or she helps establish academic priorities and allocate resources for graduate students.  The DGS strives to enhance the quality of graduate education and general student welfare.  These individuals also oversee the admissions process and may be the most familiar with admitted students when they arrive. The DGS signs documents required by the Graduate School.

Graduate Field Assistant (GFA)

Graduate field assistants (GFAs) help students, faculty members, and the DGS.  The GFAs serve as liaisons between students and faculty members.  They are familiar with campus resources and can answer many questions about the degree process.  Your GFA also can help you with paperwork and clarify your student status.

Graduate Student Services Office

In addition to the GFA and the DGS, the Graduate School has staff members who can assist students on administrative issues.  The graduate student services staff serve as a resource for issues related to admissions, records, fellowships, and financial aid.