Doctoral Qualifying Exams

These requirements apply to the Physics, Astrophysics, and Physics Education tracks. The Chemical Physics track has separate requirements.

Basic Proficiency Requirement

The doctoral candidates in our PhD program must demonstrate proficiency in the core areas. There are four common core areas for the Physics, Astrophysics, and the Physics Education Track: Classical Mechanics, Electricity & Magnetism, Quantum Mechanics, and Statistical Mechanics. Students in the Astrophysics Track must demonstrate proficiency also in the Astronomy area (AST121, AST122) in addition to the aforementioned areas.

Proficiency in a given area may be demonstrated in one of two ways: (i) By passing the relevant course(s) with an average grade of A- (3.67) or better; or (ii) By passing a special examination in the subject (i.e., the written qualifying exam). In addition, a student who achieves an overall average grade of A- or better in Classical Mechanics (PHY131) and Electricity & Magnetism (PHY145, PHY146) will be exempt from the examinations in both areas, and a student who achieves an overall average grade of A- or better in Statistical Mechanics (PHY153) and Quantum Mechanics (PHY163, PHY164) will be exempt from the examinations in both of those areas. For students in the Astrophysics and Physics Education tracks, the Electricity & Magnetism and Quantum Mechanics components will be based on grades in PHY145 and PHY163. A student in the Astrophysics track who achieves an overall average grade of A- or better in the astronomy courses (AST121, AST122) will be exempt from the examinations in the Astronomy area.


Suppose a student on the regular physics track receives the following grades:

  • Phys 131 Classical Mechanics B+ (3.33)
  • Phys 145 Electricity & Magnetism 1 A (3.67)
  • Phys 146 Electricity & Magnetism 2 A (4.00)
  • Phys 153 Statistical Mechanics B (3.00)
  • Phys 163 Quantum Theory 1 A (3.67)
  • Phys 164 Quantum Theory 2 A (4.00)

Because the overall average for 131, 145 and 146 is 3.67, this student is exempt from the examinations in both Classical Mechanics and Electricity and Magnetism, even though the grade in 131 is below A. The overall average for 153, 163, 164 is 3.56, below the threshold for exemption from both exams. The average in 163 and 164 is above A, so the student is exempt from the examination in Quantum Mechanics. But because the grade in 153 is below A, this student will need to take an examination in Statistical Mechanics.

If the student does not achieve a satisfactory grade in the relevant areas, a written qualifying exam in the area will be delivered to assess the proficiency of the doctoral candidate. At the end of each semester, it is the responsibility of the Director of Graduate Studies of the department to identify the students in need of the written qualifying exam(s). The Director of Graduate Studies will then notify the students, their advisors, and the relevant qualifying exam committee. The students and the qualifying exam committee have three weeks to schedule the written qualifying exam, which will normally take place within six weeks of the start of the next semester. Any postponements must be approved by the Director of Graduate Studies.

For each core area, there will be a qualifying exam committee appointed by the Chair of the department. The members of the committee will typically be selected from the faculty members who have recently taught the associated courses.

The content of each exam should be consistent with the requirements of the degree tracks in which the students taking the exam are enrolled, and should test the student's general understanding and command of the concepts, principles, and phenomena of the topic, focusing on the fundamental understanding, and including questions at a range of levels from advanced undergraduate to graduate level. The written qualifying exam is not intended to be the equivalent of a final examination for the graduate course(s). The qualifying exam committee is responsible for writing an exam consistent with these goals. The chair(s) of the qualifying exam committee(s) may solicit draft questions from the entire Physics and Astronomy faculty body for possible inclusion in the exam. This will be amended and incorporated at the discretion of the committee(s). The Department Administrator shall maintain a collection of past exams given for each subject. A sample of three past exams in each area will be made available to students.

At the time of scheduling, the qualifying exam committee will inform the student(s) of the format, content, and duration of the examination. The duration of exams should be no less than two and no more than four hours if it deals with material from a single course, and no more than six hours if it deals with material from two courses. The qualifying exam committee will inform the Director of Graduate Studies of the results of the exam, and whether or not the student has met the proficiency requirement. The Director of Graduate Studies will communicate the outcome to the student and his/her advisory committee, and will discuss future developments.

Ordinarily, a student will have only one opportunity to pass the examination in any given area. Under exceptional circumstances, a student who does not pass may appeal to the examination committee for an opportunity to take a second examination.