Graduate Program Requirements

Sequence of Study

The Ph.D program milestones are:

  • 1st through 4th semesters: Complete the proseminar and required courses.
  • End of 3rd semester: Select the Special Committee chair and two members
  • End of 5th semester: Complete the A exam, which includes two area concentrations and the oral defense of the qualifying paper
  • End of the 8th semester: Submit at least one external fellowship proposal, and defend the prospectus
  • End of the 12th semester: Defend the dissertation (i.e, complete the B exam)

Most of these steps require that the student submit a form to the Field or the Graduate School. The relevant forms are listed in the corresponding sections of this webpage.


The grad program requires a minimum of seven courses:

  • Soc 5010: Basic Problems in Sociology and Soc 5020: Basic Problems in Sociology II
  • Soc 6010: Statistics for Sociological Research and Soc 6020: Intermediate Statistics for Sociological Research
  • Soc 6080: Proseminar in Sociology 
  • Soc 6130:  Logics and Methods of Sociological Research (effective AY 23-24 for incoming students)
  • At least one graduate-level substantive seminar

In addition, you are strongly encouraged to take a third methods course in Sociology or an allied social science field. Methods courses taught by members of the Field include:

  • Soc.5070: Research Methods III
  • Soc.5080: Qualitative Methods
  • Soc.6090: Causal Inference

The Special Committee may suggest other courses, depending on your interests.

Students who have completed graduate research methods classes at other institutions are still required to take the Cornell methods sequence. Exceptions can be made for students who choose to enroll in advanced methodological training offered in other fields (e.g., the advanced econometrics series offered in Economics). Other exemptions are unusual and require the permission of the instructor of the course(s), in consultation with the Director of Graduate Studies and the student’s Special Committee.

The A Exam

The A Exam, also known as the Examination for Admission to Candidacy, is required by the Graduate School. It consists of (1) written examinations in two areas of concentration, and (2) an oral presentation of the qualifying paper. These components are addressed in the following sections.

Area Concentrations

All students choose two areas of concentration from the list below, one of which must be chosen from the list of major areas.

Major Areas:

  • Economy & Society
  • Organizations, work & occupations
  • Social demography
  • Race, ethnicity & immigration
  • Gender
  • Sociology of family
  • Inequality & social stratification
  • Community & urban sociology
  • Sociology of education
  • Sociology of health & illness
  • Political sociology & social movements
  • Social networks
  • Computational social science

Minor Areas:

  • Methodology
  • Policy Analysis
  • Social psychology
  • Culture
  • Science, technology & medicine

One Goal of the A Exam is to test knowledge in two key areas of concentration, based largely on written work. Graduate students may elect to satisfy these exams through either (a) individualized written exams administered by a Field member or (b) Field-approved graduate courses with the permission of the Special Committee.

Individualized written exams for the concentration areas (without coursework) vary substantially in their form, depending on the students’ interests and strengths. Often, a student writes a 10–20 page exam over the course of 4–7 days, addressing questions written by a Field member that are designed to test knowledge of an agreed upon reading list.

In order to fulfill the written requirement for a given concentration area through coursework, you must fulfill all requirements of the course at a satisfactory level. As with the required courses, the faculty members offering the A exam courses rotate, and each instructor sets his or her own requirements. However, the requirements usually include a take-home examination. Courses that are currently Field-approved to satisfy one concentration area for the A exam are:

  • Soc. 5100: Comparative Societal Analysis
  • Soc. 5180: Social Inequality: Contemporary Theories, Debates, and Models
  • Soc. 6460: Economic Sociology
  • Soc. 5400: Organizational Research
  • Soc. 6490: The New Institutionalism
  • Soc. 5800: Identity and Interest in Collective Action

Typically, in order to complete an area concentration through one of these courses, you will need to do some extra work (beyond the work done by all of the other students who took the class) in the form of a brief written examination after the course has ended. This can be done with any member of the Field, but should be done with the cooperation of the course instructor.

Other courses, beyond those listed above, may also fulfill a concentration area for the A Exam, subject to Field approval. Generally speaking, in order for the Field to approve a course, (a) the topic must be consistent with one of the existing areas of concentration, (b) the course syllabus must be appropriately comprehensive and indicate broad coverage of the core theories and research paradigms in the concentration, and (c) the faculty must have a commitment to offering the course regularly.

Upon completion of the written examination/course for each concentration area, you must submit a signed Concentration Area Completion Form to the Graduate Field Assistant. The form must be signed by both the faculty member who has offered the examination/course and by the chair of the student’s Special Committee. If you have not yet selected a Special Committee chair, then the Director of Graduate Studies signs the form as the default Special Committee chair.

The Qualifying Paper

The qualifying paper is designed to be a major research experience, and sometimes also serves as the first phase of dissertation research. It is usually a relatively short but high-quality exercise in empirical research and theoretical analysis. The paper, which must be read and approved by the Special Committee, typically follows the style and format of an article in the American Journal of Sociology or American Sociological Review.

The Qualifying Paper form is internal to the department, and certifies that the QP meets the committee’s expectations. It must be signed by all members of the committee and delivered to the Department’s Graduate Field Assistant. Ideally, you will receive the committee's approval of the QP before scheduling the oral A-Exam defense (see next section), and obtain all necessary signatures on the QP form at the same time as you obtain signatures on the Graduate School’s A-Exam scheduling form. In some cases, however, the committee may decide that the A-Exam defense itself will be pivotal in shaping and finalizing the QP. In these cases, the special committee may elect to sign off on the written QP only after the A-Exam oral defense has occurred. In such cases, the student has four weeks after the oral defense to revise the QP, submit the revised version to the committee members, and submit the QP form with each committee member's signatures to the Graduate Field Assistant.

Completion of the A Exam

The Graduate School requires that the A exam includes an oral component. Therefore, to complete the A exam, you must present your qualifying paper. The nature and venue of the presentation of your qualifying paper is at the discretion of your special committee. It could be at a brownbag, in a workshop, or in a presentation to your committee. Regardless, the members of your special committee must be present in order for you to satisfy the oral component of the A Exam.

A Schedule of Examination form must be filed with the Graduate School at least seven calendar days prior to the oral presentation of the qualifying paper. Secure signatures from all members of the Special Committee, the Director of Graduate Studies and the Graduate Field Assistant. A Results of Examination form must be filed with the Graduate School within three business days of the examination. This form also must be signed all members of the Special Committee, the Director of Graduate Studies and the Graduate Field Assistant. Once the Special Committee has approved the dissertation proposal, the student is admitted to candidacy in the Ph.D. program.

[See the Cornell Graduate School Forms page.]

Master's Thesis

In lieu of the qualifying paper, you can complete a Master’s thesis, per Graduate School guidelines for theses. Although there is no formal defense of a Master’s thesis prospectus, students should discuss the expectations for their theses with their Special Committees well in advance of initiating their projects. A Master’s thesis fulfills the Qualifying Paper requirement for the Ph.D. program. Therefore, a presentation of the Master’s thesis satisfies the oral component of the A Exam.

Students who choose part way through the Ph.D. program to obtain a so-called terminal Master’s degree should consult with the Director of Graduate Studies about the possibility of obtaining a no-thesis Master’s degree.

The master’s thesis must be defended orally, usually in a two-hour session that is formally open to all members of the Field (although typically attended only by members of the Special Committee). A Schedule of Examination Form must be filed with the Graduate School at least seven calendar days prior to the examination, and a Results of Examination Form must be filed with the Graduate School within three business days of the examination. Both forms must be signed by all members of the Special Committee, the Director of Graduate Studies, and the Graduate Field Assistant.

Dissertation Proposal

Before starting dissertation work, you must submit a dissertation proposal, also known as a prospectus, to your special committee. The proposal should give details on the theoretical problem to be addressed in the dissertation, the methods for collecting and/or analyzing data, and the relevance of the expected results as a contribution to the literature. The dissertation proposal is evaluated by the Special Committee. The proposal needs to be defended, or at least discussed, at a meeting with members of the special committee. Once completed, you must submit the Dissertation Prospectus form.

It is recommended that you submit a written dissertation proposal to all members of the Special Committee prior to any final discussion or defense of this proposal.

The B Exam (Dissertation Defense)

The B Exam is an oral defense of the dissertation. Here, you are challenged to demonstrate mastery of the relevant literature, to justify the thesis, and to defend the data analysis and interpretations. A Schedule of Examination form must be filed with the Graduate School at least seven calendar days prior to the examination, and a Results of Examination form must be filed with the Graduate School within three business days of the examination. Both forms must be signed by all members of the Special Committee, the Director of Graduate Studies, and the Graduate Field Assistant.

Once the Special Committee has approved the dissertation, you submit it to the Graduate School in accordance with its guidelines for dissertations and are awarded a Ph.D. degree. Celebrations ensue.

Development of Professional Skills

In addition to the course work, examinations, the qualifying paper, and dissertation research, the Field expects students to develop a set of professional skills, embodied in the following requirements and recommendations.


All first-year graduate students are required to attend the Sociology Proseminar (Soc. 6080). The proseminar introduces students to aspects of their graduate and professional careers and acquaints them with the members of the graduate faculty and their research and interests.

Summer Research Experiences

In 2012, the Field instituted a new requirement for graduate students. As a condition of receiving summer funding, students are required to be involved in a research project sponsored by a Field member during the summer. In the Spring semester, you must submit a brief statement describing your summer research plans, signed by your special committee chair or another Sociology Field member who is willing to serve as the advisor of your project for the upcoming summer. (For most advanced students, this will be the Special Committee Chair. For first-year students, this will be some other Field member. You should then submit the form to the Graduate Field Assistant.

The faculty member who acts as sponsor in a given summer has full discretion in structuring the experience, although the plan is worked out in collaborative discussion with the student. The sponsor may decide to involve you in an ongoing project, work with you one-on-one on a new project, or provide support/feedback on an independent project that you proposed.

The summer research experience should not be regarded as the only academic activity that you should pursue in the summer. Most students will also be preparing for written examinations for the A exam, working on group research projects, and beginning to explore potential dissertation topics by reading the latest published scholarship.

For first-year students, the summer research experience is not linked explicitly to your later selection of a Special Committee, although you will often work with faculty members who later become members of their Special Committees.

Once you nominate a Special Committee chair, s/he will be charged with the responsibility of ensuring that graduate students have summer experiences that develop the research skills necessary to complete a qualifying paper and a dissertation.

Research Assistantship

Understanding the process of research — from formulating the question and arranging funding through evaluating the data, compensating for its deficiencies, and presenting the final results of the analysis — is an essential component of graduate study. It is not only important for students who expect to be employed as faculty in research universities, but also for those who will work in public or private sector organizations where data collection and evaluation are part of the job description.

The research assistantship is designed as a learning experience. By working on a collaborative project, students become exposed to, and learn, the research process and its potential pitfalls under the guidance of a mentor. The research assistantship may take many forms, ranging from working on data collection or management tasks assigned by the faculty member to managing undergraduate research assistants to more co-equal collaboration on a major research work, depending on your prior experience and abilities. Research assistantships often lead to a product such as a coauthored paper.

The Field recommends that students obtain at least a semester’s worth of collaborative research experience, usually with a faculty member in the Field. Students typically work on collaborative research projects in their second or third years, but first-year students are also encouraged to begin working with at least one faculty member.

The Special Committee can help students find an appropriate mentor, but ultimately students are responsible for arranging their own research assistantships. For an updated list of the available projects, students should peruse Field members’ home pages and the web sites of the research centers.

The research assistantship is an opportunity for the student to develop a body of skills that will prove useful in professional life. It is also a service that the student provides to the department. You may, but will not necessarily, be paid for acting as a research assistant. In particular, students who are funded externally should still spend at least one semester as an RA, but cannot expect to receive both the external fellowship and research assistant “pay” for that semester.

Teaching Assistantship

Teaching is a skill that will be useful to many students, whether they intend to become university faculty members or not. The Field requires that all students fulfill a teaching assistantship and, as usual, the Special Committee determines whether the requirement has been satisfied.

The teaching requirement may be met in a variety of ways. The most common way is to serve as a teaching assistant in an existing course that has discussion sessions for which a TA is responsible.

Teaching well is a difficult task. The Field urges students to improve their teaching skills by taking advantage of the University’s resources for teaching assistants offered by the Center for Teaching Excellence and by observing colleagues and faculty members in action.

Professional Paper Presentations

At some point in his or her graduate career, a student is expected to make a public presentation of research findings. Most students present papers at the American Sociological Association meetings. Other presentation opportunities are available around campus, including the ISS theme projects, Graduate Student Association events, and colloquia sponsored by allied academic units and research centers. Graduate students are also encouraged to present a working paper (i.e., a draft of the qualifying paper, a conference paper, or a dissertation chapter) in Sociology 6030, the Graduate Research Practicum.

Participation in the Sociology Colloquia and Practicum Series

All graduate students are expected to attend Department of Sociology colloquia, job talks given by candidates who are being considered for positions at Cornell, brownbags, and practice job talks given by advanced graduate students who are going on the job market. These events are extremely valuable for learning the tone of scholarly discourse, the structure of presentations, and the current state of sociological research in general.

Reports of Student Progress

The Field meets twice per year to discuss collectively the progress of individual graduate students. To inform these discussions, graduate students must submit an Annual Report each Spring that lists their progress in fulfilling the graduate program requirements, specifies the date by which as yet unfulfilled requirements will be completed, and informs the Field of notable achievements from the prior twelve months (conference presentations, grants received, publications, etc.). Fellowship, RA, and TA funding are contingent on submission of this Annual Report and on satisfactory performance in the program. Each Fall, second and third year graduate students who have not yet selected a Special Committee chair must submit a Report of Summer Activity that details the summer research experience that they have just completed.