Qualifying Exam

General Information 

The qualifying exam is designed to assess students' understanding of core topics in physics at the advanced undergraduate level.  The exam process provides students with an opportunity to collate course work, to gain confidence in skills, and to solidify knowledge underlying advanced course work and ultimately significant advances by UW-Madison physics graduates.  The exam is thus part of the assessment of the achievement of the department's learning goals for both the Master's and Ph.D. programs.

The key component is a written exam that is offered twice a year.  This exam covers four core topics: Classical Mechanics (CM), Electricity and Magnetism (EM), Statistical Mechanics (SM), and Quantum Mechanics (QM).  Each exam topic can be passed independently of the others.  The nominal passing score for each area is 60% for the pursuit of the doctoral degree and 50% for the pursuit of a M.S. or M.A. degree.  Entering Ph.D. students are required to take the exam in their first semester in the program.  Students are expected to consult with their advisor/mentor and the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies following the initial assessment.

All physics Ph.D. students will have four opportunities to pass the written exam at the Ph.D. level.  Physics graduate students that pass the written exam at the Ph.D. level are automatically qualified to continue in the Ph.D. program.  However, in the case that a student does not pass all four topics of the written exam after the four attempts, the next step is that the student has the option to request an appeal.

Exam Structure and Topics

The written qualifying exam will be held over one full day.  The exam consists of two parts (Part I and Part II) that are each subdivided into two separate portions that each focus on one of the four core topics.  Part I will be held in the morning and Part II will be held in the afternoon, separated by a 1.5 hour lunch break.

The two independent portions of Part I are each comprised of five problems.  Students have to answer two problems on elementary level undergraduate material [Physics 200-299 level] and two other problems (out of three offered) on intermediate/advanced undergraduate material [Physics 300-499 level].  The first portion of the exam covers CM and the second focuses on QM.  Each portion will take 1.5 hours, with a quick 15-minute break between the two sections.  Short problems count one third of the total score, and longer problems count the remaining two thirds of the total points.

The two independent portions of Part II are each comprised of five problems similarly to the structure of Part I. The first portion of Part II covers EM and the second covers SM.  As before, each portion will take 1.5 hours, with a quick 15-minute break between the two sections.  The distribution of points between short and long problems is the same as in Part I.

The areas covered for each topic include (i) CM: motion in electromagnetic and gravitational fields, rigid bodies, coupled oscillations, and continuum vibrations; (ii) EM: statics, fields in matter, Maxwell's equations, light and optics, radiation, circuits, and electronics; (iii) SM: thermodynamics and statistical mechanics of matter and radiation; (iv) QM: wave mechanics, matrix mechanics, observables and measurements, angular momentum, perturbation theory, atoms and molecules, and scattering.

Representative core textbooks on these subject areas include Classical Dynamics (Marion and Thornton), Classical Electricity and Magnetism (Barger and Olsson), Thermal Physics (Kittel and Kroemer), and Quantum Physics (Gasiorowicz) or other equivalent sources.

Exam Preparation

Students are encouraged to consult their advisors and the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies about good practices for preparing for the qualifying exam.  Previous exams will be available for study.  Outside reading, auditing or taking appropriate UW-Madison courses, and possible exam and group problem solving sessions are typical strategies for students requiring additional preparation.  Students with special requirements must consult with the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies and the Graduate Coordinator at least two weeks prior to the exam date.

Students who fail to pass any of the topics of the qualifying exam on the first attempt will be encouraged to register for Physics 702 (Problem Solving in Modern Physics).  This course will review the core topics at a rapid pace and will provide an opportunity to pass "qualifier-like" problem solving skills.  It is to be offered in both the Fall and Spring semesters.

Grading Policies and Retakes

The qualifying exam is to be graded anonymously by faculty.  The Graduate Qualification Exam Committee (QEC) collects all graded problems for all the students and reviews them in detail for consistency.  Only after this thorough review will the final grade of pass or fail of each topic area be assigned.  After this point, the results are unblinded and distributed.

Students may appeal for re-grades of specific exam problems to the Chair of the QEC at any point within two weeks after the exam.  Students should be aware that the partial grading metrics that are assigned by faculty for individual problems, which will also be reviewed by the QEC prior to the final pass or fail score assignments, will generally be respected unless there are obvious inconsistencies or errors.

In the case of failing scores on one or more core topics of the exam, in subsequent attempts students need to take only the portions of the exam in the topic area or areas that remain to be passed.

Final Appeal Process

If a student does not pass all four topical areas of the written qualifying exam at the Ph.D. level after four exam attempts, the next step in the process is that the student can request an appeal.  The appeal process will be handled by a committee that consists of the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies, a faculty member of the student's chooising, and one other faculty member that will be determined on a case-by-case basis.  The appeal process will involve a broad assessment of the student's progress in the graduate program that includes the student's prior qualifying exam results, performance in graduate coursework, and progress to date in research.  Upon a careful evaluation of these factors, the appeals committee will make the final recommendation as to whether or not the student has achieved qualification status in the Ph.D. program.

 

 
©2013 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System