There are two separate exams that a prospective Ph.D. candidate must pass. The first of these, the Qualifying Exam, is given early in the student’s career and covers primarily advanced undergraduate physics; passing the Qualifying Exam is a requirement for formally entering the Ph.D. program. The second exam, the Preliminary Exam, is given before the dissertation research is begun and is more closely related to the student’s research area; passage of this exam formally admits one to candidacy for the Ph.D.
The Qualifying Exam is given in part each January and August. Students who do not pass by January of their 3rd year are no longer eligible for the Ph.D. (students entering in January have until August of their 3rd year). Passing the Qualifying Exam in a timely way is necessary (but not sufficient) to maintain good academic standing (see §II.A.5.). Entering students are encouraged to take the exam offered at the beginning of their first semester, but, as noted in §II.A.5, there is no minimum performance required to maintain good academic standing until the beginning of the second semester. As an alternative to passing the Qualifying Exam, entering students can submit a Physics GRE score of at least 70th percentile.
The Qualifying Exam is a written test consisting of four parts covering four areas of undergraduate Physics: the January exam covers Electricity & Magnetism (Part I) & Classical Mechanics (Part II); the August exam covers Quantum Mechanics (Part III) & Thermal Physics (Part IV). Each part must be passed separately with a score of at least 70%. Passing an individual part means it does not need to be repeated in subsequent tries (if subsequent tries are necessary). Students can appeal only in borderline cases (if a student makes 65% or more). The committee will review appeals and make final decisions.
The Preliminary Exam focuses on the student’s area of specialization, and may include areas of graduate-level physics related to the research. The student in consultation with his/her research advisor chooses a committee consisting of four faculty members. The advisor will not be a member of the committee but will be invited to observe the examination. The department chairperson must 11 approve the committee. A form to be used in selecting the committee is provided on the department website. No more than one committee member can be from outside the department. Students without a research advisor will not be allowed to take the exam.
The Preliminary exam should be passed as early as possible once the student has finished all core courses and sub-area courses and has begun actual dissertation research (normally before the end of a student’s 7th semester and no later than the end of the student’s 8th semester). The exam consists of two parts: a written research plan and an oral examination. The written research plan (normally 2000-3000 words) developed with the research advisor must be submitted to the committee members two weeks before the oral exam. The research plan should include a description of the problem to be addressed, a literature survey, the approach that will be undertaken to tackle the problem, and a discussion of expected results. The oral examination will consist of a forty-minute presentation of the research plan followed by questions from the committee on the research plan and the application of graduate level coursework to the proposed research. The decision to pass or fail will be based on these two criteria: 1) the student’s knowledge of graduate-level physics and 2) the feasibility of the proposed research plan. No more than one dissenting vote is allowed for a pass.
The Preliminary Exam chairperson will notify the department chairperson in writing of the committee decision after the student attempts the exam. After the student has passed the exam, the Preliminary Exam Committee will sign the Application for Admission to Candidacy form. Only two attempts of the Preliminary Exam are permitted. Passing the Preliminary Exam within four years of arrival is necessary (but not sufficient) to maintain good academic standing (see §II.A.5.). Consequences of not maintaining good academic standing are described in §II.A.5.