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Department of Physics
Graduate Students

Requirements for the Doctoral Degree in Physics

This information is addressed primarily to students who expect to complete the Ph.D. degree.

In summary, the steps to the Ph.D. are:

  1. Pass the Departmental Qualifying Examination
  2. Acquire a major professor and start research
  3. Complete the required course work and a minor program
  4. Pass the Preliminary Examination
  5. Complete thesis research and present dissertation

These steps are described in detail below.

The Ph.D. is a research degree and is awarded for substantial original research, presented in the form of a dissertation. The requirements listed above are for the purpose of expediting the student's contribution to research in physics.

The responsibility to acquire (choose and be accepted by) a major professor is entirely with the student, who should visit professors doing research in the areas of the student's interest. Acceptance for Ph.D. research by a professor depends on the professor's appraisal of the student's potential for research and on the ability of the professor to accept a student at that time. Usually the major professor will be able to offer support in the form of a research assistantship, but this is not always the case, and occasionally a student may have to get support as a teaching assistant while doing thesis research. To aid the student in the choice of a field of research and of a major professor, a weekly "Introductory Seminar" is held in the fall semester. During the seminars, professors from each of the research groups describe their research, show their laboratories, and discuss matters of general interest to graduate students. First-year students are expected to attend these seminars.

Graduate students should begin research work as early as possible. Students are encouraged to make arrangements with a professor to start research work by the end of the second semester. The following summer is the ideal time to get started on research unencumbered by course work or teaching.

Qualifying Examination

The Qualifying Examination is a written examination covering undergraduate physics. It is given in February and September of each year. A student planning to take the Qualifying Examination must sign up with the Graduate Coordinator at least one week prior to the exam date. Notices of the date and times of the exam will be sent via email.

Every new student, with or without a Master's degree from another institution, must take the Qualifying Examination during their first semester in residence and the examination must be passed by the beginning of the fourth semester of graduate work. (Summers do not count as semesters or fractions thereof.) In the past five years, 97% of Physics graduate students have passed the Qualifying Examination. Copies of past Qualifiers are available in hard copy in the Graduate Student Lounge and on the department website.

Course Work

Before completing the residence requirement for the Ph.D., a student holding a regular half-time teaching or project assistantship is expected to register for at least six credits. A student holding a research assistantship or a fellowship is required to carry at least eight credits (this can be partly or entirely Physics 990) each semester until dissertator status is achieved. Those who have achieved dissertator status must register for three credits each semester. To remain in good standing, a student must maintain a B average in course work.

Entering graduate students should check that their undergraduate work was equivalent to a complete physics major. Students without the experience of a senior advanced laboratory course could take Physics 507. Physics 623 (Electronic Aids to Measurement) and 625 (Applied Optics) are important for an understanding of experiments in most research areas and should be taken as soon as possible. The remaining 500 and 600 level courses in the student's area of interest should also be taken as early as possible. Physics 551 (Condensed Matter Physics) should be taken by students interested in Condensed Matter Physics or related areas such as spectroscopy. Students interested in space physics or astrophysics should take courses in astrophysics which are at least equivalent to the requirements for a minor in Astronomy. Physics 545 (Introduction to Atomic Structure) gives a good general introduction to atomic physics. Those interested in plasma physics should begin the sequence of plasma courses with Physics 525 (Introduction to Plasmas). Physics 535 (Introduction to High Energy Physics) and/or Physics 735 (Particle Physics) should be taken by students interested in high energy physics.

Ph.D. candidates are required to take Physics 711 (Dynamics), 715 (Statistical Mechanics), 721 (Electrodynamics) and 731 & 732 (Quantum Mechnaics). Each course must be repeated until a grade of at least a B is earned. Equivalent course work taken elsewhere may be used to satisfy this requirement if approved by the Graduate Programs Committee. Students can also demonstrate proficiency by passing an exam. All graduate students should attend the weekly colloquium, Physics 900. Students are expected to regularly attend at least one of the weekly research seminars numbered above 900.

Preliminary Examination

The Preliminary Examination must be passed for admission to candidacy for the Ph.D. It must be taken no later than the end of the fifth semester in residence. If the Preliminary Examination is failed the first time, it may be repeated once and it must be passed before the end of the sixth semester. Before or soon after the Qualifying Examination the student should identify an area of research and choose a major professor who will act as chair of the student's Preliminary Examination committee. The exam will test whether the student has mastered the physics and technology necessary for research in the proposed general area of research. The format of the examination is left to the major professor (subject to approval by the Departmental Prelim Committee). Ordinarily, the exam begins with a one hour talk covering a subject in the student's chosen area of research. The talk is then followed by a question period intended to assess the student's background knowledge and research potential. For each Ph.D. student, a thesis committee is assembled at the time of the Preliminary Examination which consists of three faculty members, normally the major professor and two physics faculty members chosen by the major professor (subject to approval by the Prelim Committee). The thesis committee remains standing for the duration of the student's dissertation work. It judges the student on the Preliminary Examination and the Ph.D. oral examination, and provides regular advice during the duration of the dissertation. The thesis committee is augmented by one member of the Departmental Prelim Committee for the Preliminary Examination and additional faculty members as required by the Graduate School for the Ph.D. oral examination. A student planning to take the Preliminary Examination should inform the Graduate Coordinator at least three weeks before the date of the examination. The minor agreement form must be submitted to the Graduate Coordinator at the time the Preliminary Examination Warrant is requested. A warrant from the Graduate School office is required before taking the Preliminary Examination. The warrant will not be issued if the student has any grade of "Incomplete". It is the responsibility of the student to check with the Graduate Coordinator to ensure that such a grade does not appear on the record.


Delays in the Qualifier/Preliminary deadlines can only be granted by the chair of the Department. Delays can be for one, or at most, two semesters, and must involve unusual circumstances. Failing to pass the Qualifier on the first attempt does not normally constitute grounds for delaying the Preliminary Examination schedule. The use of delays is intended (for example) to aid those students who are unable to take the Qualifying examination in the second or third semester because of inadequate undergraduate preparation, or those who encounter unavoidable delays in the choice of a permanent major professor.

Final Examination

The Final Examination is an oral defense of the thesis. It must be taken within five years of passing the Preliminary Examination.


Each Ph.D. candidate in physics must complete a minor program with at least a B average, normally in a field (or fields) related to the candidate's activities in physics. Some physics students elect Minor Option A which consists of a program of courses in a single department outside of physics, for example, Astronomy, Biophysics, Chemistry, Computer Science, Geophysics, Mathematics, Atmospheric & Oceanic Science, Radiology, or one of the departments in Engineering. The exact requirements for Minor Option A are specified by the minor department, but the Graduate School requires a minimum of 10 credits. Students may also satisfy the minor requirement by choosing Minor Option B, also called the distributed minor. Option B consist of a program of twelve or more credits of course work. Within this option, the student can choose to satisfy the credit requirement by choosing courses entirely within the physics department, but completely outside the student's major area of study, or through coursework taken in physics and at least one other department. If this option is chosen, up to 9 of the credits may be taken within the physics department, but outside the student's major area of study. For both Option A and Option B, a Minor Agreement form must be completed, signed (by the student's major professor and the department chair), and submitted to the Graduate Coordinator at the time the Preliminary Warrant is requested. It is advised that the student discuss his/her minor with the major professor before any of the minor classes are taken.

Satisfactory Progress as a Graduate Student

A student is making satisfactory progress toward the Ph.D. degree if the student does all of the following:

  1. Carries at least six credits (until dissertator status) unless granted special permission by the Chair to register for less (in recognition of substantial outside commitments);
  2. Does satisfactory course work (average grade B or better overall, and achieves at least a B in each required course);
  3. Passes the Qualifying Examination by the fourth semester of graduate work in physics, students are allowed to take the exam each of the first four semesters in the program for a total of four attempts;
  4. Acquires a major professor or at least begins work with some research group by the beginning of the third semester;
  5. Takes the Preliminary Examination no later than the fifth semester in residence, and passes it before the end of the sixth semester;
  6. Makes satisfactory progress in research work as judged by the major professor.

A student who fails to make satisfactory progress in graduate studies may be dropped from the Department.

Summer Sessions

Graduate Students who have served as graduate assistants with out-of-state tuition waivers during the previous academic year enjoy the same waiver during the Summer Session. A student holding a research assistantship during a Summer Session must be concurrently registered for at least two credits. Graduate students who are TA's during the Summer Session do not have to be registered. Dissertators must register for three credits. The three credits do not necessarily have to be in Research 990; however, coursework taken must reflect on the student's area of research in some capacity and be approved by the major professor.

Dissertator Status

When a graduate student has:

  1. Passed the Preliminary Examination,
  2. Satisfied the Ph.D. graduate level credits requirement,
  3. Satisfied the minor requirement,
  4. Completed the required courses (711, 715, 721, 731, 732) with a grade of B or better,

he/she becomes a "dissertator." Dissertators need to register for three credits per semester (including the Summer Session if on an appointment). Official determination of dissertator status is made only at the Graduate School. Continuous registration is required from the time a student has achieved dissertator status through the filing of the Ph.D. dissertation in the Graduate School. (This includes Fall and Spring semesters, and if holding an appointment, Summer sessions, while on or off the campus.)

Normal Course Load

The normal (full-time) program consists of eight to twelve credits of graduate work for a semester, and two to three credits for the eight-week Summer Session. Students may not register for more than twelve graduate credits during the semester, or more than eight credits in the eight- week Summer Session. Every student who uses University facilities must be registered for at least two credits during either the regular academic year or the summer.

Minimum Course Loads for RAs, TAs, PAs, Fellows, etc.

Any RA or Fellow must carry a full graduate load (eight to twelve credits per semester, and two or more credits in the summer) until dissertator status is achieved. TAs or PAs are expected to carry a minimum of six credits. It is recommended that TAs take only six credits during their semester in graduate school because more than this tends to affect performance in both teaching and course work.



Questions? Contact Graduate Student Coordinator,  Renee Lefkow.

Last updated: 05/24/2010
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