Department of Physics and Astronomy


[Written portion][Oral portion][Exam timing][Tips][Sample exams]
General description  
The purpose of the qualifying exam is to determine whether students have the grasp of basic physics that is needed for successful completion of the Ph.D. requirements.  It is not intended to be a comprehensive exam.   The exam consists of written and oral components at the level of advanced undergraduate (4000/5000) courses.  Written approval of a student graduate adviser is required for all exam takers; the standard forms will be provided a few days before each exam.
Written portion
The 4-hour long written portion covers a well-defined content of the core physics courses that all students take and is divided into 3 sections or components: classical mechanics (CM), quantum mechanics (QM), and electromagnetism (EM). Typical content will include problems in Lagrangian mechanics; boundary-value problems in E&M; and problems in one-, two-, and three-dimensional QM including operators and angular momentum. 
Each written exam section typically contains three problems, two of which must be attempted. Thus, in 4 hours the examinee is expected to solve a total of 6 problems. If a student attempts all three problems in a given section, only two of them will be graded following the student’s choice. In the grading process, the exam committee separately evaluates each of the three sections. A passing grade is given when none of the individual sections is too weak and the total number of points is above a passing grade which is determined by the department faculty each year depending on the exam difficulty. The examinee should keep in mind that partial credits are given for each attempted problem even when it is not completely worked out. No calculators or other hand-held devices are allowed. Examples of previous written exams are provided (see below).
Oral portion
The oral exam normally takes 1 hour. It is administered for each student individually by a committee of three faculty. The oral exam is more wide-ranging covering any topic in physics or astronomy. Its purpose is to identify strengths and weaknesses in students’ background and to assess students’ ability to think and respond like scientists in a logical manner explaining concepts in purely qualitative as well as semi-quantitative and semi-empirical reasoning. The oral exam normally starts with a self-introduction in which the student is asked to briefly describe any prior research experience and its related physics. The committee members typically then ask the student questions related to that introductory part as well as more general questions to explore the student’s understanding of physics. It is expected that the examinee will be able to write on a black- or white- board in order to answer  questions.
Exam timing
The written exam is offered early each fall and spring semester, and the oral exam is offered during the ensuing few weeks. With their adviser’s approval, students are allowed two attempts to pass each part, timed as follows.
0.   At entry. This attempt is “free,” not counting against the two allowed attempts, but the exam can be passed at this time. Therefore, all entering students are strongly encouraged to take benefit of this opportunity to pass.
1.   One year after entry.
2.   The following January, a year and a semester after entry. 
•   For students who enter the program in January, this policy’s timetable starts the following fall. In that case, therefore, the zeroth attempt takes place the fall semester after entry. • The zeroth and first attempts may not be made in January, except by students who entered the program with previous post-bachelors level academic experience in physics. With their adviser’s approval, they may accelerate the standard timetable above. • Students are not required to take both the written and the oral part on the first attempt. However, both parts must be passed within a year and a semester after the student’s first fall semester. Therefore, a student who takes only one part at the first attempt and passes it may take the other part for the first time the following January and must pass it at that time.
•   In order to be eligible to take the qualifier at any of the three attempts, students must sign the form that will be provided, obtain the signature of their advisers, and submit the form to the chair of the Exam Committee by the appropriate deadline.
•   Students whose highest goal is the M. S. are not required to take the qualifier. If, after receiving the M. S., a student is admitted into the Ph. D. program, he or she will be treated in the same way as a student who enters with an M. S. obtained elsewhere. The first required attempt is a year after entry into the Ph.D. program.
Exam studying tips
Written exams from the past three years are posted below. Preparation for the written exam involves undergraduate course work in the three sections, CM, E&M and QM. The following books represent the degree of difficulty and topics covered on the written exam.
“Classical Dynamics of Particles and Systems” by Stephen T. Thornton and Jerry B. Marion.
“Analytical Mechanics” by Fowles and Cassidy.
“Introduction to Electrodynamics” by David J. Griffiths, first 9 chapters.
“Introduction to Quantum Mechanics” by David J. Griffiths, first 6 chapters.
Other books of comparable content will also suffice.
 Topics in the oral exam include those in the written exam, introductory physics courses, as well as questions related to the student’s previous research experiences. Additional topics in Modern Physics include, but are not limited to, special relativity, quantum statistics, blackbody radiation, multi-electron atoms, basic concepts of quantum and classical mechanics encountered in introductory and intermediate physics classes, and interaction of electrons with magnetic fields (Zeeman effect, Stern-Gerlach experiment). A thorough knowledge and understanding of the contents from the books “Quantum Physics of Atoms, Molecules, Solids, Nuclei and Particles,” by Robert M. Eisberg and Robert Resnick and “Modern Physics” by Kenneth Krane will help to prepare for the oral exam. Other sources of equivalent content will also suffice.
Example Written Physics Qualifying Examinations:
Spring 2015
Fall 2015
Spring 2016
Fall 2016
Spring 2017

Graduate Program

Last Updated: 7/26/17