Ph.D. Qualifying Procedure for Advancement to Candidacy

There are two components to the qualification procedure, written and oral.  This page contains a summary.  For a complete description, please see the Physics Graduate Program Handbook.

Written Component

The purpose of this written/coursework component of the qualification procedure is to assure that all students admitted to candidacy in the Department have a certain core competency necessary for success in a physics career.

To qualify for candidacy, students must demonstrate competency in 4 of the following 5 core courses: Classical Mechanics (601), Electrodynamics (606), Quantum I (614), Quantum II (615) and Statistical Physics (602).  Competence in any particular course shall be demonstrated using either of the following methods (both are not required):

  1. Passing the course with a B or better.
  2. Passing the qualifying exam for that course with 55% or better.

Four out of five courses must meet the standard above.  The fifth course is then considered adequate for qualification if the grade is B- or better or the qualifying exam is scored at 45% or better.

Regarding the Qualifying exams. 

  • When offered, the qualifying exams take place shortly before the start of the corresponding core course.
  • Because they are optional, Students must request a qualifying exam by [date TBD].
  • Qualifying exams are written by the members of the Graduate Curriculum Committee.
  • Students may request a qualifying exam without taking the corresponding course, although this request must be approved by the Graduate Program Director and is not generally recommended.
  • A passing grade on the qualifier (55% or better) will generate an automatic waiver from the Graduate Program Director for the corresponding core course requirement.
  • Qualifying exams are graded double-blind, meaning that faculty do not know whose paper they are grading, and students do not know by whom their exams were graded.  All problems have at least two graders for quality control.

In rare cases, and under exceptional circumstances, the department may opt to offer a student a "Q exam."  The goal of the Q exam is to help a student advance to candidacy when their course or final grades are close, but not quite sufficient to merit qualification.  In this case, the Graduate Curriculum Committee (GCC) will pose a question or questions to aid in focusing the student on their perceived areas of weakness. The student will prepare solutions to these problem and then be questioned on them, and related topics, at the Q exam.

Complete details of the coursework/written component of the quals can be found in the Physics Graduate Program Handbook.

A note about the role of the Graduate Curriculum Committee (GCC)

The GCC consists of faculty teaching graduate courses, plus the Graduate Program Director.  They have primary responsibility for both graduate curriculum and the qualification procedure.  Their responsibilities include the following:

  • Providing guidelines for the the core graduate courses. This includes creation of a list of required topics to be covered in each course and ensuring that the guidelines are followed.
  • Writing and administering mid-semester and end-of-semester student surveys for the core courses. The surveys will ask questions about coverage of material specific to the course and student understanding. The data are collected and reviewed by the GCC.
  • Preparing and grading the final exams of all core courses, except for Math Methods (that exam is written and administered by the instructor). The exams are administered to students during the final exam period and will consist of three problems, to be completed in four hours. Students who are registered with Disability Services and require specific accommodations when taking exams should contact the Graduate Program Director to ensure compliance. Instructors of the respective core courses will review a draft of the final exam for their course and provide feedback to the GCC, although course instructors do not write the questions.  The exams are graded in a double-blind manner (anonymously, and by two independent graders who must reconcile any difference in their scores).
  • Recommending to the full faculty a pass/fail decision for each individual exam administered by the GCC, with 55% as a guideline for the passing threshold.
  • In rare cases, administering the Q exam as described in the Physics Graduate Program Handbook.

Impact on Financial Support

Failure to pass the written component of the Qualifying Procedure prior to the end of the fifth semester in the program 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.

Oral Component

The purpose of the oral/research component of the qualification procedure is to help students transition from formal coursework to engagement in research, and to develop specific skills necessary for success in research. This component can be scheduled any time after the completion of the coursework component, but no later than the 5th semester in the program.

With mutual consent of the student and research advisor, the Research/Oral component of the Quals may also serve as a Dissertation Prospectus presentation. In that case, the full dissertation committee must be formed and a written prospectus document prepared on the same timeline as above, but in the format and with the content of the prospectus (see Sec. II.9). Students are strongly encouraged to use this opportunity to complete their prospectus by the end of the fifth semester. However, the Research Quals must not be postponed if a prospectus cannot be completed by the end of the 5th semester.

To satisfy this requirement, students must do the following:

  • Choose a Chair. Before the first day of the 5th semester, students shall choose a faculty member to serve as Chair of their Research Qual Committee. Except in rare cases, this should be the same faculty member who serves as the Dissertation Committee Chair.  Identifying an appropriate chair is the responsibility of the student.  The chair will select one other faculty member to serve on the Research Qual Committee. The name of the chair will be communicated to the Graduate Program Director No later than September 1 before the beginning of the fifth semester.  If a student has difficulty identifying a chair, they must speak with the Graduate Program Director before the beginning of the fifth semester. Note that the role of the Research Qual Chair is not to supervise the study, but to be a source of advice and help.
  • Propose a topic for the presentation. The student shall identify in consultation with the Chair, a research topic that is related to the anticipated subfield. They shall consult with the Chair of their Research Qual Committee to ensure that the topic is reasonable and the proposed presentation is of appropriate nature and scope.
  • Schedule a presentation.The presentation is expected to reflect careful study of a current topic and to demonstrate that the student has understood both the important physical concepts, and the larger scientific context of the topic under investigation. A key element is the requirement that the student consult multiple research papers to put together a cohesive discussion of contemporary work or an open problem in physics. In other words, summarizing a textbook discussion is inappropriate, as is simply giving a summary of research that the student has already completed.
  • A list of references used in the study must be provided to the Research Qual Committee.
  • The length of the presentation should be 30-45 minutes, and students should expect additional time, typically 15-20 minutes, devoted to discussion with the committee. It may be scheduled any time after completion of the written component of the qualifying procedure and no later than the end of the fifth semester in the program.
  • Following the presentation, the Chair of the student’s Research Qual Committee will send a completed Research/Oral Qualifying Exam Checklist to the GPD. 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.