Ph.D. Qualifying Examination Rules and Procedures

The following summarizes the rules and procedures for the Doctoral Qualifying Examination ('qualifying exam' hereafter). These guidelines have been approved by the Physics Graduate Faculty.

On this page:

Written Component


  1. The qualifying exam will be available for second year students in the Physics Ph.D. program to take each January. This will be considered the standard time to take the exam. In the event that there are second year students who have not yet passed the qualifying exam, the faculty will offer the exam again in late April or early May for these students only.
  2. A student with unusually good preparation (e.g. previous graduate course work) may request permission from the Graduate Program Director to take the qualifying exam in January of his/her first year. Failure to pass such an early attempt will not count against the student, who must still pass the exam at the usual time as given in these rules. There are other conditions that apply to these early attempts — see below.
  3. The exam consists of two parts: Part I: 5 questions in Classical Physics, and Part II: 5 questions in Quantum Physics. Students will have up to 4 hours to complete each part and may submit solutions only to four of the 5 problems.


  1. A student who is in his or her third or fourth semester in the fall and has not yet passed both parts of the qualifying exam MUST take the needed parts of the qualifying exam in January in order to stay in the doctoral program unless extenuating circumstances are present. Under normal circumstances, this would be the first opportunity after the completion of the graduate-level coursework on which the qualifying exam is based (PHYSICS 601, 602, 605, 606, 614, 615, or equivalent).
  2. The two parts of the qualifying exam may be attempted and passed separately subject to the following restrictions:
    1. The first attempt at each part must occur no later than January of the student's fourth semester in the Ph.D. program.
    2. Both parts of the exam must be passed before the end of the student's second year in the program, unless a variance has been granted in accord with item 1) above.

Administration and Grading

  1. The written qualifying exam is prepared, administered, and graded by the Ph.D. Qualifying Examination Committee, hereafter referred to as the exam committee, which consists of at least five members of the graduate faculty appointed by the Department Head.
  2. Each examination is graded by two exam committee members working independently of one another. Neither grader makes any marks on the paper being graded. On each problem the results of the two grades are averaged unless there is a significant discrepancy, in which case the score is resolved in conference. During the grading process exams are identified by a letter code to preserve anonymity.
  3. For the written qualifying examination the Ph.D. pass level is set at 50%. Graders are instructed to grade each problem on a scale from zero to ten, with five representing a minimum Ph.D. passing performance. Based on the total scores on each part, the exam committee will place a student's performance on each part of the exam into one of three categories.
    1. Definite pass at the Ph.D. level (50% or more)
    2. Marginal performance at the Ph.D. level
    3. Failing performance at the Ph.D. level.
    These recommendations will be forwarded to the Graduate Program Director (GPD), and to the Graduate Faculty.
  4. Students with a marginal performance at the Ph.D. level on either part of the exam (category 3-B) will be notified by phone as soon as the exam results are compiled. They will be offered the opportunity to take an oral examination (see below). Students choosing an oral examination have the option to select one of the oral-exam committee members. First year students taking an early attempt at the qualifying exam (see above) will not be offered the opportunity of an oral exam.
  5. The oral exam will cover graduate-level physics, last up to two hours, and be administered by two or three faculty with experience in the graduate program. The intent of the oral is to demonstrate whether the student knows more physics than was displayed on the written portion of the examination.
  6. Final Pass/Fail decisions for each part of the exam are arrived at by a majority vote of the Graduate Faculty present at a meeting called specifically to decide the results of the Physics Ph.D. Qualifying Examination.
  7. The Graduate Faculty may pass a student with a marginal performance at the Ph.D. level on a part of the written qualifying exam. Additional factors that influence the decision are:
    1. how marginal the performance was on the written exam,
    2. the oral exam results,
    3. the student's overall record in courses and research,
    4. whether or not this was the final attempt.
  8. Students who are passed on both portions of the qualifying exam by votes of the Graduate Faculty have satisfied the Ph.D. Qualifying Examination requirement.
  9. Students who fail one or more parts of the qualifying exam at the Ph.D. level can pass at the M.S. level, thus satisfying the M.S. General Examination requirement. There is no set score. The faculty judges the student's overall performance and decides by a majority vote whether or not this requirement has been satisfied. First year students taking an early attempt at the qualifying exam who fail at the Ph.D. level are not eligible to pass at the M.S. level.
  10. At the close of the meeting of the Graduate Faculty, the results will be placed in each student's mailbox. After the results of the examination have been distributed each candidate may contact her/his Faculty Advisor to discuss the details of his/her performance and situation.

Oral/Research Component

For students who have entered the program in 2012 or after, there is a research-based oral component to the qualifying exam, which is to be completed after the written component described above is successfully passed. It consists of a short presentation on a physics research topic that is to be scheduled and completed according to the following guidelines. The goal is to ensure that doctoral students have successfully begun the transition from formal coursework to engagement in research work. The oral presentation is to be scheduled and completed according to the following guidelines.

  • Following completion of the written component of the qualifying exam, each student will choose a faculty member to serve as chair of his/her oral committee. Students are advised to choose a chair whose research specialty is in the area that the student expects to pursue. If the student is already working with, or tentatively working with, a research advisor, that faculty member should be the chair. The chair will select one other faculty member to serve on the committee.
  • The student will identify a research topic of interest related to any of the research fields represented in the department and consult with the chair to ensure that the nature and scope of the proposed presentation is appropriate. The name of the chair will be communicated to the Graduate Program Director no later than 15 July (or if the exam is passed in the Spring, November 15). In the event that the deadline passes without a chair having been selected, the GPD will assign a chair.
  • The presentation is expected to reflect careful research of the topic and to demonstrate that the student has understood both critical points and the larger physics context of the topic under investigation. The role of the chair is not to supervise a research project but to be a source of advice and help in studying the topic. While students that are already actively engaged in research will naturally choose a topic within the field of their own research, they should not simply present a summary of their work. An important aspect of the project is that the student consult several research papers in the field, as this is a key element in doing original research. A list of references is to be handed in.
  • The length of the presentation should be about 30 minutes, followed by 15-20 minutes of discussion with the committee. It may be scheduled any time after completion of the written component of the qualifying exam and no later than 15 November (or if the exam is passed in the spring, 15 March). Following the presentation, the chair of the committee will send to the GPD the Oral Qualifying Exam Checklist. If the presentation is deemed inadequate, the committee may ask the student to perform additional work, such as preparation of a short document or a second presentation, which must be completed by 15 December.

With mutual consent of the student and research advisor, this may serve as a dissertation prospectus presentation, as well. In that case, the full dissertation committee must be formed and a written prospectus document prepared.

Impact on Financial Support

Failure to pass the written exam on the final attempt, or failure to retake the exam at the next opportunity, will result in removal from the Physics doctoral program, but usually allowing one term to complete an M.S. degree, if necessary. Financial assistance cannot be guaranteed during any additional semester used to complete an M.S. degree.