Information for Prospective Students

Applying to the Plant Biology Graduate Group (PBGG) at UC Davis

The PBGG is designed for students who wish to pursue advanced degrees in plant biology. It is a respected program that prides itself in rigor, interdisciplinary training and a high degree of faculty-student interaction. Our students go on to successful careers in academia, industry, government agencies and non-governmental organizations. As a PBGG student, you will make scholarly contributions to the field of plant biology and after completing the program, be prepared and competitive for the diverse opportunities in a career in plant biology.

Entering into graduate studies is a big commitment financially, socially and emotionally. This website is developed to help students better understand the application process.

Disclaimer: The content provided here is for informational purposes only; this is not an official guide.

How do I begin?

Plant Biology is a large and diverse field, ranging from genomic science and developmental biology to fundamental questions about food security and environmental sustainability.

What interests you? Fascination with a particular topic may occur in the classroom, a childhood experience, an assigned project, and inspirational seminar or Professor. You may be subject-, technology- or career-driven to attend graduate school. The most important decision you will make is in the selection of your potential mentor.

The PBGG offers you the opportunity to rotate through 4 different labs in your first year to ‘try out’ potential Advisors and labs.  Finding a good match is made easier because of the large number of plant biologists on campus. Joint supervision bridging different disciplines is also a possibility.

  •  Peruse the PBGG webpage to see the scope of research conducted within the group. Most students have a few areas of interest and identifying 3 or more professors is desirable.
  • Get to know the research of the faculty. For faculty that interest you, read one or two of their papers on the topic that you find interesting. Which of the faculty best fits with your interests and career goals?
  • Think about questions you would ask the faculty that intrigue you. What is their mentoring philosophy? What is the culture of their lab? The possible career options ahead? These are questions you can ask directly once you have interacted with them.
  • Contact the Professor. Most professors like to hear from enthusiastic students who are interested in their field of study! But also be aware faculty tend to be very busy so be direct and concise with your communications. If you choose to email them, it should be professional, simple, and honest, and convey your passion and ideals. It should also be pragmatic – what can you do for the Faculty member?

Introduce yourself. State why you are interested in their lab. Highlight areas of overlap between the science in the faculty member’s lab and research you are conducting or interested in. Mention papers you have read and what you found interesting about them. Conclude by asking if they are currently taking students and by saying that you would like to discuss the possibility of working in their lab by telephone, skype etc. What next? Some Faculty members may take a long time to reply due to multiple commitments. Follow up with another email after a week elapses.

The PBGG website lists Professors who are interested in taking new students. For a variety of reasons, some may indicate that they are not. If you believe you would be an asset to that lab, contact them anyway. Strong students who could potentially transform a research program are always considered.

Your application.

The deadline for application is December 1st 2014. The online application form is found at

This is what is needed:

  • Official transcripts.
  • A curriculum vitae.
  • Three letters of recommendation.
  • Official GRE scores.
  • Statement of purpose.
  • Personal History

Incomplete applications may not be reviewed, so be sure to include all of the required materials!

How are applicants evaluated?

You application will be evaluated by a committee of faculty from the PBGG. Here are a few things that the Admissions Committee consider when assessing your application:

  • Your Undergraduate and Graduate GPA. Rarely will you be accepted into the PBGG with a GPA of less than 3.0, and the average is higher than this. Good grades in upper division courses and subjects related to the graduate program of interest are more important than those in other subjects. Extenuating circumstances that affected your overall GPA can be outlined in your Personal History.
  • Solid Graduate Record Examination (GRE) Scores.  Quantitative and Analytical scores of 79%, 76% and 4.3% respectively are common. Lower undergraduate GPAs may be offset by convincing GREs or where possible, higher Graduate GPAs.
  • Research experience. Most applicants have laboratory experience prior to applying to Graduate school. Working independently on a discrete research question is ideal. You should be knowledgeable about the research you conducted, the hypothesis tested and the rationale for the approach taken. This is better than simply being familiar with lab techniques.
  • Recommendations made by your References. Seek individuals who can comment on your research such as a Research supervisor (preferred) and academic ability e.g. a course Professor, in the letter of recommendation (LOR). 
  • Evidence of publication and presentation of your research data.  This would enhance your application but will not be decisive factor in acceptance. If you are currently in the final year of your undergraduate degree look for all opportunities to present and publish your work.
  • Your academic and professional goals. This can sometimes indicate if you have the ‘right’ motivation for graduate school, are realistic in what can be accomplished, and if the PBGG is the right fit for you.
  • Evidence of active participation in lab meetings and graduate level seminar courses. This may be highlighted in your statement of purpose, or by your Professor in one of the LORs.
  • Your ability to write. Your statement of purpose and personal history may convey this, but comments from your Recommender may also be helpful.

Please note: this is not a checklist that determines acceptance. The factors controlling admissibility are complex and do not follow a strict formula.

Good academic grades and solid research experience are important, as they may indicate your scholastic aptitude and potential for scientific research, but the PBGG Admissions Committee will consider all the parts of your application in making a decision.

Scores on standardized tests are not definitive: do not obsess over your grades. Your personal statement and the letters of recommendations are extremely important to the Admissions Committee, as they communicate who you are as a potential student, so pay attention to these.

In exceptional cases, lower grades and scores may be offset with extensive research experience especially in an area that a faculty member may value. Still, research experience is not an automatic substitute for poor grades.  The PBGG program of study is broad and rigorous. We need evidence that you will be able to thrive in that environment.

For International students, being the recipient of a fellowship or full scholarship from your home country can indicate that you are a good candidate. You will also need to be proficient in the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL). A score of 550 for the paper test and 80 for the internet-based test is required. For the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), a score of 7 or higher is essential.

If there are weaknesses in your undergraduate preparation or you have concerns about the commitment required for a Ph.D., it may be wise to apply for a Master’s program and use that as a launchpad for a Ph.D. later. If you have questions please contact Diane M Beckles

Letters of recommendation

Seek these out early. Give your letter writer at least 6 week’s notice (no later than mid-October) and follow up 3, 2 and 1 week before the deadline. Your letter writer should be familiar with you academically, and should be able to speak to your ability to complete a Ph.D. Cultivate a relationship with potential referees early in your career.

Aim to have all of your letters written by scientists willing to write strong letters; failing that, at least 2 of them should be. Ask him/her if they need pointers for the letter i.e. for your professors: dates you interacted, quarter and year of the class you took, and your grade. For your internship advisor you may include the specific dates you worked, duties, and accomplishments.

Statement of Purpose and Personal History

Each section of your SOP and personal history should be seamlessly interconnected to form a continuous narrative. Invest a significant amount of time writing each, developing it through several iterations. Ask your professors for feedback on your writing. Some elements of the SOP may overlap with the personal history; for example, both may include obstacles to academic progress e.g. illness, working full-time.

Two important pieces of advice: (i) Be honest: do not try to reinvent yourself or inflate the importance of your accomplishments. (ii) Be specific: avoid platitudes and give examples. Show how you have turned a negative into a positive or how it now becomes a driving force to for you to be a scientist. UC Davis students and alumni can have their personal statements reviewed by the Student Academic Success Centre.

(1) Drafting your Statement of Purpose. This allows you to tell the Admissions Committee directly, why you should be admitted to the program. It should be concise (500- 1000 words), informative and well-organized, and present yourself as one competent to successfully complete the graduate program. There are several online resources available to help you, but here are few tips:

  • Be clear on why are you applying to the PBGG. Provide a context for your personal motivation i.e. state how you became interested in a particular topic and why you wish to pursue this question in the PBGG. This should be brief but well thought-through.
  • Describe your past academic and research experiences. State succinctly, the importance of the research question, the specific objective of your project, your general approach and the significance of your results.
  • Discuss your current research interests. Devote most of your essay to this segment. Describe how your classwork and research experience (described above) converge to make you a good candidate for your field of study in the PBGG. Some students wish to continue in the same research vein, while others, may wish to switch fields, or approaches.Here you will identify multiple faculty members you would like to work with including a clear justification for such. Avoid listing names unless you have established communication with those persons. In this segment, the Admissions Committee will be able to assess your depth of understanding of the field. It should be written after you have read several papers, including those written by PBGG members.
  • Map out your potential career plan. Where do you see yourself as a Researcher in the next 5 – 10 years? There should be a logical flow of your past and current experiences and how the expertise within the PBGG and UC Davis would permit to continue your development as a Plant Biologist.

Give yourself ample time to write your SOP. The Admissions committee can easily spot hurried and poorly thought out writing and this will have a negative effect on your evaluation. Secondly, your statement should be specific to the PBGG. Generic letters used to apply to multiple institutions where faculty names are simply interchanged can be detected.

(2) Drafting Your Personal History. This should provide the Reader with a clear perspective of the circumstances that shaped you, how it is interconnected with your academic pursuits, and how it prepares you for success in the PBGG. It is a chance for self-introspection: what are the specific driving forces or the single transformative event that propelled you to this point, where pursuing graduate studies in the PBGG is the next logical step in your development as a Plant Biologist.

The personal history section can be used to:

  • Fill-in the gaps about inconsistencies in your application, such as low grades.
  • Highlight how you were able to persevere and excel academically in spite of any economic or social challenges you have faced.
  • Give examples of leadership, service, teaching and tutoring during your academic career.
  • List any successes you achieved and what you learned from them.

Underrepresented students & diversity

The PBGG welcomes applications from academically strong individuals who are first generation college students, are underrepresented minorities, or who belong to socially or economically disadvantaged groups. Students trained through the McNair’s, BUSP, UC LEADS, MURALS are especially welcomed. If you are a sophomore who is just beginning to think about graduate school, we recommend determining your eligibility for these programs. They provide a high intensity immersion into research and year-long training on how to successfully enter and navigate graduate school.

Why you should apply to the PBGG at UC Davis


Daniel Caddell

5th year Ph.D Student                                                                                                                    
Plant Genetics and Molecular Biology with a Designatred Emphasis in Biotchnology
Advisor: Pamela Ronald
B.S. UC San Diego                                                                                                                 

As an undergraduate I became concerned with global food security, which in my opinion, is one of the most underappreciated issues facing human well-being in the 21st century. I therefore wanted my Ph.D. research to focus on better understanding the plant pathways regulating stresses such as drought and disease that reduce crop yields. While there are many Universities where I could study these topics, UC Davis attracted me thanks to its small college town atmosphere, diverse plant science community, large network of graduate students, mild weather, and of course easy accessibility to amazing California locations including San Francisco, Napa, Yosemite, and Lake Tahoe.

Lucas McKinnon

2nd year Ph.D. student
Biochemistry and Molcular Biology
Advisor: Kentaro Inoue
B.S. UC Davis

One of my favorite things about the PBGG is the diversity of the research conducted by its faculty, students, and affiliates, which broadens our perspectives on the significance, diversity, and societal impacts of plant biology research. In addition, the bounty of resources for experiments, career development, and funding opportunities, as well as the collaborative atmosphere, all make it exciting, enjoyable, and was a huge plus for me in deciding to continue my education at UC Davis. My experience as a graduate student has been greatly enhanced by the faculty and administrative staff who are dedicated to preparing us for each step of the long and arduous journey that is completing a Ph.D.

May Thitisaksakul

6th year Ph.D. student
Biochemistry and Molecular Physiology
Advisor: Diane M. Beckles
BSc. Khon Kaen University, Thailand; MSc. UC Davis PBGG

I would like to encourage International students to join the PBGG. During my time here, I have been able to significantly expand my knowledge of plant biology in ways that I could not foresee. The program is dynamic and emphasizes linkages between diverse topics ranging from plant cell and molecular biology, to whole plant canopy physiology. My interaction with students, professors and researchers, who come from many countries, have further broadened my view of how plant biology affects socio-economic issues, which is important to me. In addition to the world-class teaching and research done here, UC Davis is located in a really great part of the world with lots of opportunities for learning and exploring outside of the lab. 

Geoffrey Benn

6th year Ph.D. student
Molecular Biology with Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology
Advisor: Katie Dehesh
BSc. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Regardless of where you choose to go to graduate school, getting a Ph.D. will likely be one of the most challenging things you have ever done. To be successful, it is critical to have a good support network in place. I think that the culture and structure of the PBGG ensures that our students have what they need to succeed – specifically a close-knit community of grad students, access to scientists with a huge range of technical expertise, and professors that are willing to take the time to talk through problems with grad students. These resources were invaluable to me during some of the more difficult stages of my Ph.D. and are sure to be helpful to you if you decide to join the PBGG.

Nicole Soltis

2nd year Ph.D. student
Plant Ecological Genetics
Advisor: Daniel Kliebenstein
B.A. UC Berkeley; MSc. Tufts University

UC Davis is exceptional in its breadth of plant research faculty. I knew that coming here, I would find excellent resources in plant genetics, evolution, ecology, and functional biology. The first-year core offers a foundation across these areas, and an introduction to many of the faculty in a small-class setting. Whatever projects students pursue, they are likely to find collaborators on campus who are experts in that field. UC Davis also has strong ties to industry, allowing graduate students to explore a variety of career paths.

Mitch Harkenrider

5th year Ph.D. student
Molecular Biology, Biochemistry and Genomics with Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology
Advisor: Pamela Ronald
B.A. Purdue University

I chose graduate school at UC Davis to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology program. This unique program requires coursework and an internship that exposes a student to careers outside academia. The support and skills I gained through my participation in the program have enriched my Ph.D. experience

Leonela Carriedo

6th year Ph.D. student
Advisor: Julin Maloof
B.S. Middle Tennessee State University

When I was considering graduate programs, the PBGG stood out because it was a highly regarded program known for its diversity of research, on-campus resources and support for graduate students. When I visited the campus during recruitment week, I was impressed with how engaged the faculty appeared with the current and prospective students and the willingness to collaborate in an interdisciplinary fashion. After joining the program I quickly felt "at home.” The program is rigorous, but crafted with much care, and is designed to prepare you for the milestones of graduate school and beyond. One of the best things about being a student here is that I have always been able to find the resources and the support I needed in order to take my research in the direction I felt that would best address the scientific question. Finally, Davis is a small, safe, eco-friendly university town, that fosters intellectual discussion and creativity, but there is also a lot to explore in the surrounding areas that will satisfy both city and nature lovers.

Natasha Worden

5th year Ph.D. student
Cell and Developmental Biology with a Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology
Advisor: Georgia Drakakaki
B.S. Smith College

I chose to attend graduate school at UC Davis in the Plant Biology Graduate Group because the amount of amazing plant scientists and the breadth of diversity of research areas is unmatched by any other program. UC Davis fosters a great community for those of us that love plants, from exciting research to supportive fellow graduate students. UC Davis also has strong ties to members of the plant biotechnology industry including the Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology and monthly Seed Central meetings with members of industry.

Jenna Gallegos

3rd year Ph.D. student
Molecular Biology with a Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology
Advisor: Alan Rose
B.S. University of Colorado at Boulder

Having grown up in an agricultural community with a passion for basic science, my goal is to use biotechnology to help farmers improve crop yield and quality. Initially, I was unclear whether to apply for graduate programs in molecular biology or agriculture. The interdisciplinary graduate group structure at UC Davis took the difficulty out of the decision by allowing me to rotate in labs from multiple departments ranging from plant pathology to engineering. Collaborations with top notch faculty provide me with excellent training in molecular biology and genomic techniques. Small collaborative classes and seminars cover an incredible breadth of plant biology. The PBGG is really the best of both worlds in terms of preparing students to understand and practice basic science and then apply that knowledge to important issues in health, energy, agriculture, and the environment. Plus, UC Davis ranked first in the world for agricultural teaching and research in 2013 and 2014. Combine that with a collaborative, laid-back community in a beautiful college town and you can’t go wrong!


Juan Pedro Sánchez

Research Scientist, Monsanto Company

PBGG Alumnus 2010; Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology
B.S. Universidad Autónoma de Baja California, México

I was initially attracted to the PBGG program by the plethora of available research opportunities, which range from understanding plant ecosystems, to characterizing plant-microbe interactions at the biochemical and molecular levels. This diversity of research truly enriches the development of a Plant Biologist due to the levels of interactions with fellow students and Faculty members. Few other programs in the world can boast on having such diversity of plant-related research.  In addition, UC Davis offers a Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology program in which students can interact with other students and Faculty members from other disciplines (i.e. Engineering, Mathematics) which are strengthen the ability to network and to engage with audience outside your expertise area. Students are required to perform an Internship in a Biotechnology company, which provides them with a unique skill set that can only be obtained through this type of experience. Altogether, the PBGG program truly generates well-prepared Ph.D.’s that have unique abilities that allows them to be successful leaders and scientists in the corresponding fields.

Nancy Hofmann

Science Editor, The Plant Cell

PBGG Alumnus 2005; Cellular and Molecular Biology
B.S. Swarthmore College

I initially chose UC-Davis for its sheer number of top-notch plant scientists.  When I got to Davis, I found that along with the vibrant faculty and strong students was an impressive atmosphere of collegiality and cooperation.  I received an excellent education in plant biology – not only in my lab, but also through interactions with other students, post-docs and faculty (both in classes/journal clubs and in the hallways).  There is no substitute for being able to go down the hall to learn a new technique.  On top of that were weekly seminars featuring preeminent plant biologists, with whom students were encouraged to interact.

The connections I made at UC-Davis have been instrumental in my career as a science editor.  Nearly 10 years after I graduated, I still get referrals and recommendations from UC-Davis folks – their support has helped me get a job as an editor and to build my own editing business.  I remain in touch with many of the people I knew at UC-Davis and my network has since expanded through shared connections. Coming from such an epicenter of plant biology has opened doors for me, and my strong plant background has kept them open. I couldn’t be happier with my choice of graduate programs!

Dario Cantu

Assistant Professor, Department of Viticulture and Enology, UC Davis

PBGG Alumnus 2009
B.S./MSc.Universita’ degli Studi di Milano, Italy

With a degree in Agronomy and research interests in plant molecular biology, genomics, and plant-microbe interactions, I decided to join the PBGG because it represented the ideal multidisciplinary training I needed to develop as an independent scientist. Faculty in the program are all leaders in their fields and provide an extraordinary learning environment for students that, like me 9 years ago, want to study basic aspects of plant biology to ultimately solve practical agricultural problems.  The rigorous training of the PBGG also prepared me well in several tasks that are critical for a career in academia, not only writing of scientific articles and research grants, but also establishing effective interactions with colleagues both inside and outside of my research field.

Siobhan Braybrook

Fellow, Sainsbury Lab, University of Cambridge, UK

PBGG Alumnus 2008
B.S. University of Guelph, Canada

I joined the PBGG in 2003 as a PhD student, having completed my undergraduate degree in Plant Science in Canada. I still remember how amazing it was to have so many plant-specific research groups in one place, within which everyone was ready and willing to help with research questions or problems; you could walk down the hall and find an expert in photosynthesis, to the building next door for a systematics guru. To this day I still have the personal and professional connections that developed during my PhD: I still get advice from my supervisor, I collaborate with my past teachers, several of my friends work in the PBGG, and I host UCD undergrads at my current position in the UK. I cannot think of a better springboard for my career than the education and connections I made at UC Davis in the PBGG; my acceptance into the program kick started my career in plant science research.

Frequently Asked Questions

My standardized test scores are good but not great, should I still apply to PBGG?

Yes. Highly motivated students with good academic potential are selected, so while the Admissions committee evaluates GREs and GPAs, your research experience, academic preparation and training, comments from your recommenders, statement of purpose and personal history are also considered. A compelling statement of purpose that shows a deep understanding of your field of interest and illustrates novel insight is highly valued.

What is a Graduate Group?

A “graduate group” is an independent, self-governing organization of faculty members that sponsors a graduate degree program. The Plant Biology Graduate Group aims to provide high quality graduate education in plant biology that covers the breadth from the global to nano-scale. It is highly interdisciplinary.  

The strength of the PBGG is that there are over eighty faculty from nine different departments and three colleges, giving you access to a wide range of expertise in plant biology. There is high degree of collegiality among Faculty, which makes conducting multidisciplinary research feasible.

Do I have to be selected by a Major Professor for admittance?

No. The PBGG admits most students uncommitted to a major professor. You may complete the PBGG rotation program in your first year or, join a major professor’s lab from the outset. Some PBGG students are admitted directly into a major professor’s lab, but this is choice made between the parties.

What subjects should I have completed in order to gain admission?

You should have most of the following: biology, chemistry (inorganic and organic), introductory physics, calculus and statistics. In addition, experience in genetics, plant physiology, cellular and molecular biology, ecology, systematics and evolution, plant development and structure are valuable. If you have deficits in your preparation, you will be able to take undergraduate level classes in the first two years of the program. Your academic advisor will help you to select equivalent UCD courses to meet the requirements.

Can I pursue a Master’s degree in the PBGG?

Yes. There are two options called Plan I and Plan II. For more information see this link. The PBGG does not provide financial support for Master’s students.

Are there fellowships for pursuing research in the PBGG?

Student support comes in a variety of ways: fellowships, research and teaching assistantships. At the time of application you will asked to complete a fellowship application. More information can be found here

When will I know if my application is successful?

Here is a timeline of key events during recruitment for admission in Fall 2015. If you have not received a letter from the program by March 2015, then you were not selected this round.


Plant Biology Graduate Group Recruitment Timeline


Key Events

Online Applications


Application Deadline

Admissions committee review applications

Candidates selected for interview

Interviews- on-site visits

Offers of


Deadline for acceptance of offer


September 3rd


December 1st 2014

December 2014 –March 2015

December 2014 - February


February 5th-7th 2015

February -March


April 15st


I am interested in Plant Genetics. Should I join the PBGG or the Integrative Genetics and Genomics (IGG) program?

This depends on your primary interest. In the PBGG you will be required to take a core course, seminar topics and journal club reading that improves your mastery of plant biology, which will include genetics and genomics. In the IGG, your core courses will be genetics and genomic-focused and will not be specific to plants. PBGG students with genetics-related research projects will select classes related to their specialization many of which may be offered by the IGG. You will therefore have foundational training in plant biology but with emphasis in genetics/genomics.

Members of PBGG are in various departments (e.g., Plant Biology, Plant Sciences, Plant Pathology, Ecology and Evolution, etc) in multiple colleges [College of Biological Sciences (CBS), College of Agriculture & Environmental Sciences (CAES), and College of Engineering]. How would it affect my education/training?

Not much. Indeed, this diversity makes our program unique and strong. Departments in CBS are more focused on basic sciences, while those in CAES tend to be more applied. However, there are many exceptions and collaborations between different departments/colleges are very common. The department provides lab resources, seminars related to your research topic and administrative support. They may also have additional sources of funds for fellowships, travel etc. outside the PBGG. Your ‘home’ department will be determined by your choice of Major Professor. In the first two years you will be preparing for your Qualifying Exams (QE), and your academic activity will be primarily formed by PBGG course requirements. After the QE, you will be conducting research full time and your department will becomes a greater part of your day-to-day activities.