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Qualifying Exams

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Information for Current Graduate Students


Qualifying Exams

The Qualifying Examinations are written tests offered 2 times a year, just before the start of the Fall semester and just before the start of the spring semester. The prelim exams are the week before classes begin. The content and structure of this examination is designed to demonstrate that a student has the comprehensive grasp of physics required for the successful conduct of research. Most graduates remember the Qualifying Examination as one of the most onerous tasks of their graduate years, but virtually all acknowledge its value: in preparation for the test, one must integrate one’s understanding of several fundamental tools of physics, learn how to use them together, and learn to select the most appropriate tool for solving any problem, rather than rely implicitly upon the narrow scope of textbook exercises to formulate one’s approach.

The fundamental areas of physics - classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, thermal physics, statistical mechanics, and quantum mechanics - comprise the subject matter of the Qualifying Examinations. The level of difficulty and sophistication of the examination is roughly 2/3 undergraduate material and 1/3 first year graduate material.

The best way to learn the details of the content and difficulty of the Qualifying Examination is to look at previous exams. Most students find that the optimal way to practice for the Qualifying Examination is to solve as many problems as possible from previous examinations. The Department strongly encourages students to form study groups in preparation for the Qualifying Examination. Studying with one’s peers is a fruitful way to practice problem-solving techniques, and is a means to alleviate the mental stress that inevitably accumulates as the examination approaches. Students will also find most members of the faculty and senior graduate students willing and able to advise and help with the preparation for the Qualifying Examination.

The Qualifying Examination is written and graded by the entire Department’s Faculty. To continue in the Ph.D. program one must pass the exam at the Ph.D. level. To pass at the doctoral level a student must earn half of the total points on the exam and pass half of the problems as well. Normally each student is allowed two attempts to pass each exam.