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The purpose of the graduate program is to educate professional scientists at the Ph.D. level. Our training prepares students for careers on university and college faculties; in industrial research and development facilities; in government laboratories and research centers; and in a variety of other scientific and technical venues. Scientific training at this level is achieved through classroom study in the core areas of the discipline common to all subfields of physics and astronomy, as well as in specialized areas (see Research) at the advanced level. With this foundation, you will continue your training by engaging in a program of research, in partnership with one or more faculty members, which results in original work of scientific scholarship in the form of a doctoral dissertation. This research may consist of experimental, theoretical, observational, or computational work; or may combine elements of several or all of these. Thus, in our graduate program we aim to produce highly-trained professionals prepared to take on the scientific and technical challenges of the future, and at the same time advance the frontiers of our understanding of the universe and its components.

A typical path toward the degree is outlined below. Your specific path may differ in the details. Also outlined below are the requirements at each step toward obtaining your degree, followed by detailed information. You will need to submit required material via the Physics & Astronomy Graduation System on Sakai.



Year 1

This is academically the busiest year. Four core courses and two electives (3 in fall, 3 in spring) will prepare you academically for your thesis work. Instead of electives, you can take research credit in consultation with your research advisor. A graduate seminar will introduce you to our graduate program, our Department, and our resources. The TA seminar (which can be deferred) will provide you with the tools to work efficiently as a TA. By the end of the first year, you should have passed your doctoral written exam 1, and you should have chosen a research advisor. To help you navigate the various elements of the first year, the department offers pre-candidacy advising. For more details, see the sample schedules.

Year 2

By the beginning of your 2nd year, you should have acquired NC residency status.
In your 2nd year, more electives for your specialty field will be available. You will take research credit. By the end of the second year, you will need to have assembled your thesis committee, and you should submit your doctoral written exam 2.

Year 3

The department encourages you to get a Master’s degree on your way to the Ph.D. The 3rd year is a good time for this. You also should plan your thesis proposal presentation in your 3rd year. You still might want to take electives in consultation with your research advisor, but most of your time will be spent on research.

Beyond Year 3

This is the time when you will mostly focus on research, publications, and completing your degree. Keep in mind that, in years without exams, you will need to submit a progress report. The median degree duration at our department is 6 years. Degree requirements need to be completed by the eighth year (see details, and time limits).



Doctoral Written Exam 1

  • Passing of four core-course finals;
  • Eligible core courses (see also sample schedules):
    • Classical Dynamics* (PHYS 701)
    • Quantum Mechanics I** (PHYS 721)
    • Statistical Mechanics (PHYS 741)
    • Electromagnetic Theory (PHYS 712)
    • Atomic and Radiative Processes in Astrophysics (ASTR 711)
    • Astrophysical Dynamics (ASTR 712)
    • Astronomical Data** (ASTR 719)

    (*) PHYS 701 is always required as DWE 1 subject.
    (**) For astronomy students, both PHYS 721 and ASTR 719 are required, but only one needs to be taken as DWE 1 subject.

Doctoral Written Exam 2

Master’s Degree

  • 24 credit hours course work, 21 of which must be in Physics and/or Astronomy;
  • 6 credit hours research (3 must be PHYS 992, working with research group);
  • Passed the doctoral written exam 1;
  • Assembly of an exam committee consisting of at least 3 faculty members;
  • 1 semester of teaching experience or equivalent;
  • All course work completed before final examination;
  • Advertised Master’s defense department-wide via email to physics-all and by scheduling on departmental calendar two weeks before defense date.

Thesis Proposal Presentation

Progress reports

  • Submission in years without exam;
  • Meet with committee and receive feedback on the report;
  • Acceptance of report before the end of the Spring term.

Thesis defense

  • 2 semesters of teaching experience or equivalent;
  • Passed the thesis proposal presentation;
  • Submitted written thesis two weeks before the defense date;
  • Advertised defense department-wide via email to physics-all and by scheduling on departmental calendar two weeks before defense date.


More information

Pre-Candidacy Advising

The department offers pre-candidacy advising during your first year in the program. Your pre-candidacy advisor will be a faculty member different from your research advisor, and will serve as a point-of-contact and additional resource.

Doctoral Written Exam 1

The DWE 1 consists of the finals of the four core courses, independently graded by two faculty graders. You will need to pick four out of the seven core courses, PHYS 701, 712, 721, 741, ASTR 711, 712, 719 (see DWE 1 requirements for limitations, and course descriptions for course content). You can find a selection of exams from previous years at the Physics & Astronomy Graduation System under Resources/dwe1.

Research Advisor

Your research advisor will be your main contact during your degree work. No matter whether you already know whom you’ll work with when you enter the program, or if you are still exploring options during your first year, it is always a good idea to understand what your advisor is expecting. We strongly recommend you discuss opportunities and expectations early on (starting in your first semester), so that you are decided on a research advisor by the end of your first year. The advisor-advisee form can help you to start a conversation with your research advisor about expectations.

Thesis Committee

Your defense committee consists of five faculty members, the majority of which must be members of the department. For details on the composition and possible exceptions, see the information provided by the Graduate School. You will need to have assembled your committee by the end of the spring term of your second year. When you have assembled your committee, enter the information in the Physics & Astronomy Graduation System.

Doctoral Written Exam 2

The DWE research paper assesses your writing ability and readiness to proceed with PhD research. It serves as a diagnostic and source for feedback and guidance. It can be independent from the written part of the thesis proposal presentation. Submit your DWE 2 via the Physics & Astronomy Graduation System.

The research paper can be completed at a time agreed upon between you and your advisor, but it must be completed and submitted to your thesis committee at least 10 days in advance of the thesis proposal presentation.

The exact scope and content of the research paper will be determined by the thesis advisor and approved by the thesis committee. The typical research paper should be about 10-20 pages long (length assumes 1” margins, single-spaced lines, font size of 12. However, the exact format is up to the student and their advisor). The paper must include an overview of the primary topic that incorporates a review of the relevant literature to assess your literature review skills.

The research paper guidelines are intentionally broad to provide flexibility for advisors to optimize the students’ paper based on their research program and expectations.

The following list is provided as acceptable suggestions for research paper contents – other options are possible but should be approved by the graduate studies committee:

  • published paper (written by the student)
  • thesis proposal
  • research problem
  • literature review
  • reproduction of literature calculation(s)

In the event that an advisor and student agree to complete the research paper well in advance of the student’s thesis proposal presentation, the student will request that the committee convenes to evaluate the research paper and provide feedback to the student.

The possible outcomes for assessment of the research paper are:

  • accepted
  • accepted with minor revisions requested
  • failed

Students failing the assessment will be given one opportunity to revise and resubmit their research paper.

Masters Degree

The department encourages you to get a Masters degree on your way to the Ph.D. It serves as a milestone for your achievements, and it also serves as a terminal degree in case personal or professional circumstances (that job offer you couldn’t refuse) make you decide to leave the program early. Two weeks before the scheduled Master’s defense date, you must advertise the defense department-wide via email to physics-all, and by getting your defense on the departmental calendar.

Thesis Proposal Presentation

At the Thesis Proposal Presentation (TPP, “oral exam”), you present your research project to the thesis committee, to provide an opportunity for broader feedback beyond the research advisor. The minimum residence requirement for the doctorate must be fulfilled by the end of the semester in which the thesis proposal is presented. The TPP must describe the project’s goals and the methods to be used to accomplish those goals. The summary should state why the project is important and what it will contribute to the general body of knowledge. Easily accessible references to relevant previous work, and the timeline to project completion, need to be included. The TPP can (and often will) be different from your thesis defense in scope and direction. For more details regarding the presentation, see the guidelines. Any written summary containing the above items needs to be provided to the committee 10 days before the scheduled TPP date. This written summary can serve as the DWE 2. Submit your prospectus via the Physics & Astronomy Graduation System.
The TPP must be completed by the end of your 8th semester. Under exceptional circumstances, you can apply to the Director of Graduate Studies for an extension of this deadline. The application needs to be in writing, accompanied by a supporting statement from your research advisor.

Progress Reports

In years without exams (DWE 1, DWE 2, Masters, TPP, defense), you must submit a progress report to your thesis committee via the Physics & Astronomy Graduation System, and you must meet with your committee, by the end of the spring term. The progress report needs to include a written summary of the past year’s activities, to be sent to the committee a week before the meeting. Expectations regarding length and format are set by your advisor and thesis committee. The thesis committee will provide feedback to the student and a grade evaluating the progress. The grade will be on the graduate (H,P,L,F) scale (see Graduate Handbook for explanation).

Thesis Defense

The defense completes your Ph.D. degree. It consists of a ~45-minute presentation open to the Department, and of a closed exam session with the thesis committee. Two weeks before the scheduled thesis defense date, you must submit your dissertation to your committee, and you must advertise the defense department-wide via email to physics-all, and by getting your defense on the departmental calendar.

Required course work

Required course work consists of your four DWE 1 courses and of (typically) four additional electives. What counts here is the number of credit hours (24), not the number of courses. PHYS 631, PHYS 632, and any courses in Physics and Astronomy at the 700-level or above (except PHYS 510, 885, 901, 992 and 994) count as electives. Any other courses such as courses with numbers below 700, or courses in other departments, require approval by the Director of Graduate Studies. If you pursue a Master’s degree, please note the specific requirements of 21 credit hours in Physics & Astronomy.

Research credit

These are the courses PHYS 992 and PHYS 994. They are the only courses with the “magic power” to count for full enrollment. You need to have completed the doctoral written exam 1 to be able to register for 992 or 994. If you take research credit before passing the doctoral written exam 1, you will need to register for PHYS 901.

NC Residency

All eligible students are expected to acquire North Carolina residency status for tuition purposes by the beginning of their second year. The key in this process is to complete certain “qualifying events” (getting a driver’s license, registering to vote in NC etc) throughout the first year, beginning as soon as possible (i.e. during the orientation week). Since the department pays tuition on your behalf, and since the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition can amount up to $17,000 per year, acquiring NC residency status tremendously helps your fellow students and the department as a whole. International students cannot acquire residency status for tuition purposes, and therefore need not worry about it. If you are eligible for residency, but decide not to pursue it, the department may limit the number of courses you can take per semester in order to protect the tuition remission budget.