Life as a First-Year Student

There's a lot to navigate in your first year as a graduate student in PMB! The resources on this page offer a guide to the first year. Remember that you can always reach out to your advisers if your questions aren't answered here. 

New Student Orientation | Funding & Stipends | Lab RotationsFirst-Year Coursework | Registration

Getting Started

After admissions conclude on April 15th, the Graduate Division will send you instructions on how to set up your account in CalCentral, UC Berkeley’s online portal, which provides important information for newly admitted graduate and professional students to orient them to campus and help them prepare for arrival at Berkeley. CalCentral will direct you to the onboarding process for new graduate students. Please review the onboarding messages and checklist items under “Tasks” on My Dashboard that you need to complete in order to enroll. The Statement of Legal Residence (SLR) is one task required of all new students and is important to complete. 

New Student Orientation

In mid-August when the academic year begins, PMB will host several days of programming for new students to help you acclimate to the department and meet your cohort and the PMB community. The orientation will consist of mostly in-person events through which you will tour the campus and meet the department chair, staff, fellow students, and peer mentors. We will have presentations to give an overview of the program and answer any questions you may have. The faculty will also give their lab presentations, or what we call Professors on Parade. We will take your photos to be used on the website and department directory. The orientation will close with a PMB Community Social for us to hang out and meet faculty, students, postdocs, and research staff. A detailed schedule will be sent to you by your graduate advisor.

We encourage you to also attend the Graduate Division’s New Graduate Student Orientation, which is open to all incoming students.

Funding and Stipends

As a condition of your admission, the PMB department guarantees five-years of full tuition, fees, and living expenses stipend provided you are in good academic standing. Tuition and fees are charged to your CalCentral account and will be paid directly by the PMB department. The stipend is paid to you directly, with the first payment disbursing around September 1st. Students awarded a relocation stipend can expect to receive this in early August. 

More information on funding and stipends can be found here.

Lab Rotations and Professors on Parade

All incoming Plant Biology and Microbiology graduate students are required to perform three five-week rotations in their first semester. At the end of the third rotation, students will need to select and be accepted into a permanent lab. A fourth rotation is possible, if necessary.  

Lab rotations give students the opportunity to explore areas of interest as possibilities for Ph.D. research. The department will work with you throughout the summer to set your initial rotation, although the initiative and responsibility is on the student to make arrangements with faculty members directly. Faculty members will expect that you will contact them about rotations before you arrive and throughout the year. You can familiarize yourself with who is recruiting for their labs by viewing the PMB Rotation and Lab Openings list.

During orientation you will attend the Faculty Research Review, which is also affectionately called “Professors on Parade.” This is where faculty members introduce themselves to you and will give 20 minute presentations on current or future research projects available with their labs. Professors on Parade is held to give you an opportunity to learn about the various research in the program to get you to begin identifying which labs you may be interested in rotating with. There is also a Fall Department Retreat that happens every year that can help with decisions regarding which labs you would like to work in. 

Because each of your three choices for a rotation represents a potential laboratory in which you might pursue your doctoral dissertation research, you should keep an open mind at all times. While you are free to express your interest in any particular laboratory at any time, it is not permissible for you to seek a firm commitment about a position in a laboratory prior to the completion of all three of your rotations. Likewise, it is inappropriate for faculty to make a firm commitment to any student prior to the completion of all three rotation periods.

For each rotation, meet with the faculty at the beginning of your rotation to talk about lab expectations using the Rotation Agreement Form as a guide. Every lab is different and it is very important to understand what you need to do in order to do well. You might consider discussing performance expectations, what you hope to gain from this experience, employee & safety rules, time schedules, vacation schedule, attending and presenting at lab meetings, etc.  

At the end of your rotation the department will require the faculty to send us an evaluation of your rotation with them. Your faculty should also meet with you to discuss this review, and you will be able to add any comments that you wish to make.  

Example Rotation Feedback Questions:

  • Comments about scientific/technical strengths and weaknesses
  • Comments about work style, work ethic & habits, communication
  • Recommendations for the future:
  • If you were going to assign this student a letter grade for the rotation, what would it be?  
  • Other Comments

Process for Rotating with a PMB and/or Graduate Group in Microbiology (GGM) Faculty Member

Students approach and confirm acceptance into a rotation period with a particular faculty member directly. The student is responsible for reminding PMB and GGM faculty members of the PMB lab rotation schedule.

Once the rotation has been confirmed, the student must complete the Rotation Agreement Form with their faculty member and submit the completed form to and copy the Graduate Advisor.

Microbiology students wishing to rotate with a MCB faculty member in the GGM will need to approach and confirm acceptance into a rotation period with that faculty member directly. The student is responsible for informing the MCB faculty member of the PMB/GGM rotation as it differs from the standard 10-week rotation schedule that the MCB program follows. 

Choosing a Laboratory and Selection Restrictions

After a semester of rotations, you will have an idea of the faculty you like, the kind of lab atmosphere you most appreciate, and the areas you are most interested in studying. The first step in choosing the lab that is right for you is to outline clearly which factors are the most important to you and then proceed to narrow your choice. Below are factors to consider:

  • Which faculty are working in the field that interests you? 
  • How many people are in the lab? What lab size do you prefer? 
  • What are the lab’s resources? 
  • What is the reputation of the lab? 
  • Is the PI interested in helping you find your own project, or does he/she seem to want to steer your work in the direction of his/her interests? Is this what you want? 
  • From where does that lab receive most of its funding? 
  • What does the PI expect from you as a graduate student and how will you relate with the other people in the lab? 

The decision about which lab you will join will be one of the most important decisions you will make in graduate school. Seek out advice from others about how to make this decision.  

In the rare case that a PMB or GGM student chooses a laboratory headed by a faculty member not in their major (Example: Plant Biology student selects non-PMB Faculty and Microbiology student selects non-GGM Faculty), all funding for that student reverts immediately to that faculty member. Students in the non-PMB/GGM labs must adhere to PMB/GGM student policies (i.e annual thesis committee meetings, funding requirements, etc.). In any case, a PMB or GGM student with a non-PMB/GGM thesis mentor must also have an academic senate faculty mentor within their major. 

If you have any concerns about the above procedures,or if you experience difficulty in securing a placement, please feel free to contact the faculty Head Graduate Advisor and/or the Graduate Advisor. The Head Graduate Advisor and Graduate Advisor are here to assist students find appropriate faculty mentor(s) and laboratories for thesis research. Both work together to help guide students through this process. 

Process for Lab Placement and Selection 

Once the 3rd rotation completes, faculty and students should discuss issues relevant to making a choice for a thesis lab including potential thesis projects, mentoring style, funding plan, and career development. While faculty and students can indicate their potential interest, no firm offers are to be made until all faculty have met with students.

After these meetings are concluded students should contact specific faculty to indicate their interest in joining their labs. At this point faculty can make firm offers or inform students that they cannot accommodate them in their labs.

If the student’s first choice is not available as a choice they can contact other possible matches from their rotations.

Students and thesis advisors sign and complete the Lab Placement Agreement Form to inform the GSAO ( and HGA ( of thesis lab decisions via email with the thesis advisor also copied.

Students who do not match to a lab can contact faculty for potential fourth rotations during the last week of Rotation 3.

Fall 2023 Lab Rotation Schedule

For a full calendar view (including holidays), visit this page.

Lab Rotation 1
August 21 - September 22 , 2023
Lab Rotation 2
September 26 - October 27, 2023
Lab Rotation 3
October 31 - December 7, 2023
Lab Placement
December 15, 2023

First-Year Modules and Coursework

All first year students are required to complete a series of six Plant Biology and Microbiology course modules. They are divided into five-week sections and cover a variety of topics pertinent to your respective programs. Generally, first year students take 3 module courses in the fall semester and complete the next 3 module courses in spring. In addition to the modules, students are also required to enroll in a lab rotation course, a department seminar course and a scientific reasoning and logic class.

During orientation the Head Graduate Advisor will look at your previous coursework and tell you if he recommends additional coursework beyond the usual requirements. Students do have the option to take other courses outside of the program as long as it meets the university’s unit limit for graduate students (the limit for Phase 1 is 12 units, and for Phase 2 it is 20.5 units) and are in good academic standing. However, we strongly encourage students to wait until they have finished their first year before taking on any extra courses to ensure you can focus and succeed during rotations and first semester in the lab. You may also want to talk with fellow graduate students for additional advice on courses. The Graduate Student Affairs Office can also answer many of the questions you may have about the process. Finally, it is a good idea to sit in on a few classes during the first week of instruction, to further learn if the course suits your academic plan.

Overview of required first year courses

You can view the Berkeley Academic Guide for class numbers, full course descriptions, and scheduling details.

  • PLANTBI 200A-F — Plant Biology Module Courses
    These course modules are to provide you with a basic framework as well as deepen your knowledge to prepare for your second year and beyond. Topics covered include plant development genetics, plant diversity and evolution, plant cell biology, plant biochemistry, plant systems biology, genomics and computational biology.
  • PLANTBI 220A-F — Microbiology Module Courses
    These course modules are to provide you with a basic framework as well as deepen your knowledge to prepare for your second year and beyond. Topics covered include microbial genetics, microbial diversity and evolution, cell structure and function, microbial physiology, microbial ecology, genomics and computational biology.
  • PLANTBI 210 — Scientific Reasoning and Logic
    The objectives of this class are to teach students to critically read and interpret scientific papers. Students will read and discuss strongly and poorly reasoned papers. At the end of the class the student should understand the logic and reasoning which make a paper strong, often classic, contribution.
  • PLANTBI 205A — Lab Rotations Course
    This course will formalize the first-year graduate student research rotation requirement and allow for course credit and a letter grade to be assigned. Students will conduct closely supervised experimental work under the direction of an individual faculty member. It will also provide introduction to experimental methods and research approaches in particular areas of plant and microbial biology.
  • PLANTBI 298 — Graduate Colloquium, PMB Seminar 
    This course is the advanced study of research topics which will vary semester to semester. A different speaker is invited every week to present on their research. This course is attended by all students in the program as well as other departments.
  • PLANTBI 201/202 — Faculty Research Review (Professors on Parade)
    This course formalizes Professors on Parade and gives you credit for your attendance and engagement in learning about the various research presented by our PMB faculty. Plant Biology students should enroll in 201 and Microbiology students should enroll in 202.
  • PLANTBI 299 — Independent Research Student
    This course provides you course credit for the dissertation research and work you do individually with your respective labs.

Enrollment in your first fall semester of classes typically open in early July. Enrollment in the spring semester usually opens in mid-November. View the Registrar’s Enrollment Calendar for exact dates.


It is important that you register for classes before the semester begins or you will be charged a late registration fee of $150. Adding, dropping, and changing courses can all be accomplished through CalCentral. You will need to know the Class Number (Cls Nbr) for the classes in which you wish to enroll. These are available in the Online Schedule of Classes, which can be accessed online through CalCentral. Information about seminars and Cls Nbr for research (PMB 299) units are posted online! You can drop courses without penalty up until the end of the 5th week of the semester. The Graduate Student Affairs Office can drop you from courses after the 5th week until the last day of instruction. If you need to make schedule changes, add/drop a course, please email the Graduate Advisor as they can often make changes easily on your behalf. 

Note: Students who drop courses after the 5th week of the semester will receive an internal “W” noted on their record. While this will not be reflected on the official transcript, the internal “W” will be noted as attempted units and may impact Federal Financial Aid Eligibility.

If you need to make schedule changes, add/drop a course, please email the Graduate Advisor as they can often make changes easily on your behalf.