Department of Physics and Astronomy


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. degree requirements.  It is not intended to be a comprehensive physics exam.  The exam consists of written and oral components at the level of advanced undergraduate (4000/5000) courses.  The written portion covers classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and electricity and magnetism.  Although the specific content will be determined by the exam committee, a typical written examination may, for example, consist of (a) problems in Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics, (b) boundary-value problems in electricity and magnetism, (c) problems in 3-dimensional quantum mechanics, and (d) angular momentum problems in quantum mechanics.  The point of the written exam is not this specific content, but rather that there is a well-defined content covering only the core physics that all students take during their first year.  The oral portion of the Qualifying Exam is more wide-ranging; it can cover any topic in physics or astronomy.  Its purpose is to identify strengths and weaknesses in students’ background, and to assess students’ ability to think like scientists and “on their feet.”

The written exam is offered early each fall 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:

  1. At entry. This attempt is "free" (not counting against the two allowed attempts) but the exam can be passed at this time.
  2. One year after entry.
  3. The following January, approximately one year and one 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-baccalaureate 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 entry. 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 Qualifier Examination Scheduling form, 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. degree are not required to take the Qualifier Examination. If, after receiving the M. S., a student decides to enter the Ph. D. program, he or she will 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.  Students with the M.S. degree who are especially well prepared are strongly encouraged to take the free attempt at entry.

Example Written Physics Qualifying Examinations:

Spring 2003

Spring 2005

Fall 2007

Fall 2008

Spring 2009

Fall 2011


Graduate Program

Last Updated: 11/29/16