The basic requirement for the Ph.D. degree is the successful completion of significant, original research in physics. This research is presented in a written dissertation and defended in a final oral examination. To prepare for this work, Ph.D. candidates are required to take courses in core areas [classical mechanics (CM), quantum mechanics (QM), electromagnetism (EM), and statistical physics (SM)] as well as electives in other areas. Completion of the Ph.D. program requires passing three formal examinations described in detail below.

In addition to the formal requirements, students are encouraged to participate in departmental activities. These include a departmental colloquium and weekly seminars theoretical physics, nuclear physics, atomic, condensed matter physics and astronomy as well as social events such as departmental picnics and social gatherings before colloquia.

Specific Requirements Starting Fall 2017:

  1. a) A bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited institution.
    b)Fulfillment of core courses: Classical Dynamics (PHYS 701), Quantum Mechanics I (PHYS 721), Statistical Mechanics (PHYS 741) and Electromagnetic Theory I (PHYS 711). Fulfillment of two more courses chosen from Quantum Mechanics II (PHYS 722), Electromagnetic Theory II (PHYS 712), Stellar Processes and Interiors (ASTR 701), and Cosmology (ASTR 704).
    c)Three advanced courses (i.e. courses for which core courses are prerequisites, other 700-level ASTR or PHYS courses, or 700-level courses in related departments with approval of the Director of Graduate Studies).
    d)One course in an area of physics other than the student’s specialty area as approved by the Director of Graduate Studies (can be one of the courses in c) above).
    e)If any of the courses in b) above were completed prior to enrollment, mastery of the material must be demonstrated by passing the corresponding section of the Doctoral Written Exam.
    f) Additionally, students should register for PHYS510 and PHYS885 (the TA Seminar and Introductory Graduate Seminar) in the fall of their first year, except if the student will not be a TA in the fall due to an RA or fellowship, then PHYS510 should be deferred.
  2. The equivalent of two semesters teaching experience is required of all Ph.D. degree candidates.
  3. Theory students are required to complete practical training in an experimental or computational project. There is flexibility as to the content of the project but it must be approved by the Director of Graduate Studies.
  4. All work credited toward the doctoral degree, except transferred coursework, must be completed within a period of eight years from the date of first registration in the program. If more time is required, the student must submit a request for extension of time to the Graduate School for approval.
  5. Three exams are required: A doctoral student must pass the following examinations:
    • The Doctoral Written Examination (DWE);
    • The Thesis Proposal presentation (TPP);
    • The Final Oral Examination (“final exam” or “defense”).

The first two exams constitute a comprehensive examination to assess the extent and currency of the candidate’s knowledge of physics and/or astronomy and to determine the candidate’s fitness to continue to work toward the doctorate.

Below are brief explanations of each exam; further details can be found here (link to document).

As part of this exam, students must pass the in-class course finals for the four core courses
(CM, QM, EM, SM). In addition, a written research paper is to be submitted to and approved by the student’s thesis committee. The DWE research paper is intended to assess the candidate’s readiness to proceed with their PhD research. It also serves as a measure of their writing ability. It will be used as a diagnostic and source for student feedback and guidance. It can be independent from the thesis proposal presentation. This research paper can be turned in at any point, as long as it is done before the thesis proposal presentation (TPP). Students are required to form their thesis committee by the end of their second year and are required to meet with this committee at least once a year, providing a written progress report in years without exams. The progress report will include a written summary of the past year’s activities. The thesis committee will provide feedback to the student.

A student may not register for Doctoral Dissertation (PHYS 994) until he or she has passed the DWE (see above). The DWE can be passed subject by subject, and all subjects must be passed within two attempts. Deferral (caused by lack of undergraduate prerequisites, etc.) of an individual subject exam is allowed with department approval.

The TPP is a presentation of the candidate’s proposed research project to a faculty committee in order to receive broader guidance than that which is available solely from the research advisor. Before the student takes the oral exam she or he must have fulfilled (or will have fulfilled by the end of the semester in which the examination is to be taken) all core coursework and the minimum residence requirement for the doctorate.

Whether or not a student passes the TPP is decided by the Doctoral Dissertation Committee, composed of at least five members of Graduate Faculty, which is appointed by the Director of Graduate Studies in consultation with the student’s Dissertation Advisor. The majority of members of the committee must be permanent faculty members of the Physics and Astronomy Department, while one member must be from a research group outside the candidate’s specialty area. The Dissertation Committee Chair must be a tenured or tenure-track faculty member of the department.

Ten days before the oral exam, the candidate should submit to all committee members a self-contained prospectus of her or his research project. This summary should include a detailed description of project’s goals and list methods (experimental, computational, etc.) intended to be used to accomplish those goals. The summary should state clearly why this project is important and what it will contribute to the general body of knowledge. Easily accessible references to relevant previous work, and the timeline leading to the completion of the project, should also be part of this summary. Experimental projects should include an adequate description of relevant theoretical models.

The “final exam” or “defense”

The final oral exam completes the student’s work and includes a presentation of the main points of the Ph.D. candidate’s dissertation and other topics as the examining committee may determine. The text of the dissertation should be submitted to members of the committee 2 weeks before the scheduled date of the exam.

Typical sequence
The following chart exemplifies a typical sequence that students may follow. Note: you are not required to follow the timing of this particular sequence; for instance, you may very well do the TPP in your 4th year instead of in your 3rd year.

Year Courses Doctoral Exams/Reports Notes
1 CM, EM, QM, SM, 2 electives DWE Course Finals
2 Electives Progress report (or DWE Research Paper) Thesis committee formed by year’s end
3 Electives Thesis Proposal Presentation DWE Research Paper must be done before TPP
4 Electives Progress report
5 Electives Final Oral Exam


Thus, in a typical sequence the student would pass the TPP by the end of the third year of studies, then have his or her research progress meeting by the end of the fourth year, and have the final oral exam one year later. After the meeting the student should write a brief summary of the discussion and of the research plans for the next year, which will be given to the members of the student’s committee and to the Director of Graduate Studies to be placed in student’s file. Once the TPP is completed, the student should meet every year with his/her Doctoral Dissertation Committee to discuss progress towards graduation. Each student must notify the Graduate School and the Director of Graduate Studies of their plan to graduate by submitting an application for graduation no later than the deadline shown on the University Registrar’s Calendar for the semester in which they expect to graduate.

Other notes
The M.S. degree is research oriented and oral presentation of results is required. The M.S. degree may be taken with or without thesis. However, even if a thesis is not submitted, a student must work with a research group for at least one semester, in order to learn the research techniques in a field of physics or astronomy. Students are encouraged to obtain a
M.S. degree on the way to a Ph.D. Those students who bypass the master’s degree should be evaluated by their Doctoral Dissertation Committee no later than at the completion of 30 hours of coursework and recommended to the Graduate School for work beyond this level.