Plant Biology

arabidopsisAn Integrated Approach

The department trains graduate students in modern research areas of plant biology concentrating in molecular, cellular, genetic, biochemical, physiological, developmental, and structural biology; as well as plant microbe interactions. Each student's course of study is individually designed. The graduate program features an introductory seminar, a two-semester core course and additional special topic courses and seminars in areas of faculty specialties.

Our graduate program consistently ranks best in the world for Plant Biology. Our faculty is inclusive and engaging, and each graduate student is fully funded for five years.

Admissions Process, Requirements

The Application Process

Plant Biology names an admissions committee made up of faculty, students and staff, who review applications and base admissions recommendations on:

• Grades and coursework at the undergraduate and graduate levels

• Letters of recommendation

• Standardized examination scores

• Written statements of academic and professional goals

• Other documentation of research

• Academic potential and accomplishment


• A basic background in chemistry, physics, mathematics, and biology, roughly equivalent to the Department's undergraduate program in Genetics and Plant Biology.

• Completed online Graduate Application for Admissions and Fellowships. ​Applications for each academic year are available in early September. 

• Transcripts from each college and graduate institution attended.

• Resume.

• Three letters of recommendation, at least two of which should be written by science faculty. All reviewers should be familiar with the student's scholarly abilities.

• General Aptitude test scores of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). The Department recommends but does not require the GRE subject test in biology (B24) or biochemistry, cell and molecular biology (B22). Take the exam(s) early enough so that scores will arrive by the application deadline. To have the scores sent to the Department, note on the GRE order form the institution code R4833 (UC Berkeley) and the department code 0112 (Plant Sciences).

• The Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) score for applicants who have received undergraduate degrees from institutions where English is not the language of instruction. With few exceptions, UC Berkeley requires a TOEFL score of at least 570 on the paper and pencil test, or 230 on the computer-based test and 90 on the Internet-based TOEFL. Take the TOEFL by November. Note on the TOEFL order form the institution code 4833 (UC Berkeley) and the department code 37 (botany). Please read the Graduate Division's Evidence of English Language Proficiency for more information.

• If you have additional questions, please contact Graduate Student Advisor Rocío Sanchez at or call 510-642-5167.

• For more information regarding the application process for Fall 2017, please refer to our 2017 Graduate Application Instructions.

Graduate Studies Plan

The first year

Before the beginning of the fall semester, new students discuss their background and interests with the graduate advisors, who help plan academic programs. During the first semester, all new students enroll in a two-credit seminar in which faculty members summarize their current research programs. Each student also rotates through three research laboratories for ten weeks each in the first academic year. The rotations give students the opportunity to explore areas of interest as possibilities for Ph.D. research.

Student with plants

All students must take a two-semester core course comprised of six modules, which cover the following topics: plant developmental genetics, genomics and computational biology, plant diversity and evolution, plant cell biology, plant biochemistry and plant systems biology. All graduate students must enroll in two graduate-level seminar courses during their first two years. With their emphasis on student presentations and discussions, these courses further introduce faculty and students. At the end of the first year, each student will select a permanent Research Advisor (major professor) and will begin work on the thesis project.

Graduate Student Instruction (GSI)

Each student serves as a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) for approximately 20 hours per week for two semesters. Students participate in the GSI training conference sponsored by the Graduate Division and the Graduate Assembly and enroll in a two-credit teaching workshop. Students are appointed as a GSI for a lower-division course before being a GSI for an upper-division course sponsored by the Department. International students educated in schools where English is not the language of instruction are required to pass the Test of Spoken English (TSE) before they serve as teaching assistants.

Graduate Student Adam Steinbrenner

Qualifying Exam

During the second year, students may take additional courses in preparation for the Ph.D. qualifying examination. This examination usually is taken by the end of the second year. The Qualifying Examination Committee, a four-member committee, including one Berkeley Academic Senate member from outside the Department, is appointed in consultation with the student. The goal of the examination is to assess the candidate's broad knowledge of plant biology as well as to determine in-depth knowledge in the proposed area of research. Each examination covers five of the following eight subject areas: physiology, biochemistry, cell biology, genetics, molecular biology, development, structure, and plant-microbe interactions. The Committee also discusses the student's research topic.

After passing the qualifying examination, the student selects a three- or four-member committee to serve as the student's Dissertation Committee. The chair of this committee is the student's Research Advisor. An adjunct faculty member can serve as co-chair with a regular departmental faculty member as the other co-chair. This committee meets on a regular basis to supervise and assist the student in the research that will be described in the Ph.D. dissertation. All members of the committee must approve the dissertation. The student is not subjected to a formal final examination. Rather, the results of the dissertation project are presented at a departmental colloquium.


Lab Rotations

Girl and petri dish

Incoming students must rotate through three different laboratories during the first year, for about 10 weeks per rotation. The student may select laboratories affiliated with the Graduate Group, or selected a lab outside the Group to learn a particular skill. Students explore opportunities for rotations with the relevant faculty and the Graduate advisor. The rotations give students an opportunity to explore an area of research in which they may have an interest but no direct experience.

In most cases the rotations will involve laboratory work. However, sometimes a rotation could take the form of reading and discussion. Although some incoming students may have interest in particular faculty for thesis research, students need rotations for exposure to research outside their immediate area of interest. The Research Advisor gets chosen after completion of the student's third rotation. Students have the freedom to investigate different opportunities for a suitable major advisor. Whereas students may express interest in any particular laboratory at any time, they may not establish firm commitments before completing all three rotations. The student generally chooses a Research Advisor after the third rotation. In exceptional cases the student may take a fourth laboratory rotation. After formalizing the choice of a research advisor, the student initiates a research project in the Advisor's laboratory.


Graduate Review, Dissertation

Evaluation of first year student progress occurs at the end of the first year. The faculty meet as a group to review first year student grades and core-course comments from instructors, laboratory rotation evaluations from faculty members, and any student comments the student wishes to present.  The faculty discuss each student individually and his/her progress over the course of the year which results in the student receiving a review letter which becomes part of the student’s file.  The review letter summarizes the student’s progress and may include specific recommendations or coursework requirements from the faculty.

• Mastery of a significant body of relevant knowledge

• The capacity to think and write critically

• The ability to apply information learned in the classroom and laboratory to the solution of relevant biological problems


The student invites a three-member committee to serve as the Dissertation Committee. (The student may request a four-member committee, or the Graduate Division may require one in certain circumstances). The student identifies the Committee members in consultation with the Head Graduate Advisor. The Committee must include representatives of at least two academic departments. The Chair of the Committee will be the Research Advisor, who must have faculty membership in the Graduate Group. However, an adjunct faculty member can serve as Co-Chair with a regular faculty Co-Chair. The committee must have at least one Academic Senate member.

At least once per year this Committee will meet with the student and evaluate progress. The Graduate Division requires that a form be sent to the Graduate Division certifying progress made by the student. The Dissertation Committee members will also advise the student about carrying out research.

All members of the Committee must approve and sign the dissertation before the Ph.D. degree gets conferred.

For the Ph.D. degree, students must complete a dissertation based on original and independent research.

A final examination is not required. However, all students must present a finishing seminar to summarize the results of their dissertation project, and must respond to questions from the audience. If the faculty do not find the seminar satisfactory, they may ask the student to present the seminar again to address the concerns.

Most students take five years to complete the Ph.D. program: two years before the Qualifying Examination, and three years afterwards.


The Department makes every effort to understand the reasons for a student's failure to meet departmental expectations. In some instances, it may recommend withdrawal from the program for one semester. In other instances, the student is asked to leave the program permanently. For first year students, the Head Graduate Advisor makes this recommendation, which then gets approved by vote of the entire faculty. For students who have already selected a Research Advisor, the Head Graduate Advisor in consultation with the Research Advisor and the graduate student make this recommendation to terminate the program.

Operating principles for these decisions consist of good faith and the best interests of the student. A student may appeal the decision. Normally, second year and more advanced students who are asked to leave the program may have the option of obtaining an M.S. degree according to Plan II below.


Students primarily work towards the Ph.D. In general, we do not admit students to the M.S. Program. The M.S. Plan II Program serves students who enter the Ph.D. degree program but for some reason cannot continue, either because their goals change or because their Guidance Committee does not recommend that they continue. This plan allows such students to show they have successfully completed a course of study in the area of microbial biology.

The Program requires a two-hour oral examination, conducted by a three-member M.S. committee. Students passing this examination obtain an M.S. degree. For the M.S. degree, Plan II, students must complete a minimum of 24 units.


Q: Where can I find information about PMB faculty and graduate program requirements?

A:  Please visit these links:

Department of Plant and Microbial Biology
Plant Biology Program Page
Plant and Microbial Biology Faculty Page
Microbiology Program Page
Graduate Group in Microbiology Faculty Page
Graduate Admissions Brochure

Q: How many students are enrolled in the program? How many students are admitted each year?
A: As of Fall 2014, we have 40 students in our Ph.D. in Plant Biology program and 51 students in the Ph.D. in Microbiology program. The number of students we admit varies from year to year depending on funding. For the past several years, the admissions committee for each program has offered admission to 10-18 applicants.

Q: When is the deadline for admission?

A:  The deadline to apply for Fall 2017 admission is December 1, 2016.

Q: Do you offer financial support for your students?
A:  All of our admitted students receive ​five​ full years of funding contingent upon satisfactory academic progress. The annual stipend for 2016-2017 is $34,000.

Q: Do you admit international students? How can international students increase their chances of being admitted?

A: We generally admit one international student per program, per year. Admissions competition is stiffer for international students. International students who have a fellowship from an outside agency that will offset their cost, such as the Fulbright, are included with domestic applicants. 

Q: I already have a Master's degree. May I transfer my coursework to UC Berkeley?
A: Although having your Master's degree may help you in the admissions process, we rarely excuse a student from any of our Ph.D. coursework for this reason. We have minimal coursework requirements, designed not only to prepare you for your qualifying exam, but also to help connect you with the other students in your cohort.

Q: I've already selected the faculty member with whom I want to work. Do I still have to do rotations, or will you admit me directly into a lab?
A: We do not admit students directly into a permanent lab. Each student must complete three required lab rotations during the first year before joining a lab.

Q: I am interested in several different programs at UC Berkeley. May I apply to all of them?
A: No. UC Berkeley allows students to apply to only one graduate program per year.

Q: Is there a minimum GRE (Graduate Record Examination) score that I need to receive in order to apply to your department? What is the average GRE score of your admitted students? 
A: We do not require a minimum GRE score to apply to our department. Your GRE scores make up only one part of your application. We view them in the context of the rest of your application materials.

Q: How do I know what materials you've already received for my file?

A: All required materials will be uploaded to the graduate application. Once you submit your application you will still be able to check for exam scores and recommendation letters via the "application status page" at

Q: May I submit more than three letters of recommendation?

A: Yes, you may submit additional letters of recommendation via the online application.

Q: I have submitted all my required materials and would like to update one of my transcripts. How may I do that?

A: In order to update application materials after submission, please email

Q: I would like to tour the department. Can I drop in on a few faculty members and research labs?

A: All visitors are welcome to take a Berkeley campus tour. You can also drop in or make an appointment to meet with the Graduate Affairs Advisor Rocío Sanchez. Regrettably, the department generally cannot accommodate the many prospective students who wish to drop in to visit faculty or research labs. Students who apply for admission and are invited to our annual interview weekend in late January will meet with faculty and current graduate students, and tour our labs and facilities.