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Written Component

The purpose of this component is to assure that all students admitted to candidacy in the Department have a certain core competency necessary for success in a physics career.

The core courses are defined as Classical Mechanics (601), Mathematical Methods of Physics (605), Electrodynamics (606), Quantum I (614), Quantum II (615), and Statistical Physics (602). Students must demonstrate competency in the core courses. 

Starting in spring of 2023, and with permission of the Research Advisor and the Graduate Program Director, students are allowed to replace a 6NN core course with a research course for the purpose of written qualification. In this case, the core course that is replaced is waived altogether and excluded from the qualifying process. The intent of this option is to allow students to take at least one advanced course needed for their research before their third semester. You must have prior permission of your Research Advisor and the Graduate Program Director to exercise this option.

The resulting set of 6 courses define the “qualifying coursework.”

To qualify in coursework, a student must achieve the following:

  • Pass Mathematical Physics (605) with a B- or better, assuming it is among the qualifying courses. 
  • Of the remaining qualifying courses, all but one must receive a B or better for qualification. 
  • The sixth course must be passed with a B- or better. 

In other words, a student with a B- in 605 and one other qualifying course would still qualify in coursework, so long as all other courses received a grade of B or better. Core courses that have been waived are treated as if they received a B or better for the purpose of qualifying.

In rare cases, a student may request a qualifying exam if they fail to pass a course. Qualifiers will only be offered to students who have taken a course and failed to receive a B or better. Because they are optional, students must request a qualifying exam as soon as possible after receiving a low grade in a qualifying course. A request for an exam is also a commitment to take the exam: pulling out of this commitment is strongly discouraged and will result in denial of additional qual requests. 

Qualifying exams, if offered, take place shortly before the start of the corresponding core course. A passing grade on the qualifier is 55% or better. Passing the qualifier is equivalent to passing the course with a B or better.

Wherever possible, qualifying exams are graded double-blind, meaning that faculty do not know whose paper they are grading, and students do not know by whom their exams were graded. All problems have at least two graders for quality control.

While the following is subject to change, qualifying exams are currently four hours long and comprised of three problems. They are closed book with no notes permitted. There is a 15-minute period before the exam when students may look over the problems but not write. Each of the problems has equal weight, but the weight of questions within each problem is not fixed and is determined on a case-by-case basis. 

In rare cases, and under exceptional circumstances, the department may opt to offer a student a "Q exam." The goal of the Q exam is to help a student advance to candidacy when their course or final grades are close, but not quite sufficient to merit qualification. In this case, the Graduate Curriculum Committee (GCC) will pose a question or questions to aid in focusing the student on their perceived areas of weakness. The student will prepare solutions to these problem and then be questioned on them, and related topics, at the Q exam.

Complete details of the coursework/written component of the quals, including the Q exam, can be found in the Physics Graduate Program Handbook.

A note about the role of the Graduate Curriculum Committee (GCC)

The GCC consists of faculty teaching graduate courses, plus the Graduate Program Director. They have primary responsibility for both the graduate curriculum and the qualification procedure. Their responsibilities include the following:

  • Providing guidelines for the core graduate courses. This includes creation of a list of required topics to be covered in each course and ensuring that the guidelines are followed.
  • Writing and administering mid-semester and end-of-semester student surveys for the core courses. The surveys will ask questions about coverage of material specific to the course and student understanding. The data are collected and reviewed by the GCC.
  • Preparing and grading qualifying exams as needed.
  • Recommending to the full faculty a pass/fail decision for each student for the coursework quals.
  • In rare cases, administering the Q exam as described in the Physics Graduate Program Handbook.

Impact on Financial Support

Failure to pass the written component of the Qualifying Procedure prior to the end of the fifth semester in the program will result in removal from the Physics doctoral program, but usually allowing one term to complete an MS degree, if necessary. Financial assistance cannot be guaranteed during any additional semester used to complete an MS degree.

Oral Component

The purpose of the oral/research component of the qualification procedure is to help students transition from formal coursework to engagement in research, and to develop specific skills necessary for success in research. This component can be scheduled any time after the completion of the coursework component, but no later than the fifth semester in the program.

With mutual consent of the student and research advisor, the Research/Oral component of the Quals may also serve as a Dissertation Prospectus presentation. In that case, the full dissertation committee must be formed and a written prospectus document prepared on the same timeline as above, but in the format and with the content of the prospectus (see Sec. II.9). Students are strongly encouraged to use this opportunity to complete their prospectus by the end of the fifth semester. However, the Research Quals must not be postponed if a prospectus cannot be completed by the end of the fifth semester.

To satisfy this requirement, students must do the following:

  • Choose a Chair. Before the first day of the fifth semester, students shall choose a faculty member to serve as Chair of their Research Qual Committee. Except in rare cases, this should be the same faculty member who serves as the Dissertation Committee Chair. Identifying an appropriate chair is the responsibility of the student. The chair will select one other faculty member to serve on the Research Qual Committee. The name of the chair will be communicated to the Graduate Program Director no later than September 1 before the beginning of the fifth semester. If a student has difficulty identifying a chair, they must speak with the Graduate Program Director before the beginning of the fifth semester. Note that the role of the Research Qual Chair is not to supervise the study, but to be a source of advice and help.
  • Propose a topic for the presentation. The student shall identify, in consultation with the Chair, a research topic that is related to the anticipated subfield. They shall consult with the Chair of their Research Qual Committee to ensure that the topic is reasonable and the proposed presentation is of appropriate nature and scope.
  • Schedule a presentation. The presentation is expected to reflect careful study of a current topic and to demonstrate that the student has understood both the important physical concepts and the larger scientific context of the topic under investigation. A key element is the requirement that the student consult multiple research papers to put together a cohesive discussion of contemporary work or an open problem in physics. In other words, summarizing a textbook discussion is inappropriate, as is simply giving a summary of research that the student has already completed.
  • A list of references used in the study must be provided to the Research Qual Committee.
  • The length of the presentation should be 30–45 minutes, and students should expect additional time, typically 15–20 minutes, devoted to discussion with the committee. It may be scheduled any time after completion of the written component of the qualifying procedure and no later than the end of the fifth semester in the program.
  • Following the presentation, the Chair of the student’s Research Qual Committee will send a completed Research/Oral Qualifying Exam Checklist to the GPD. If the presentation is deemed inadequate, the committee may ask the student to perform additional work, such as preparation of a short document or a second presentation, which must be completed by December 15.