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Graduate Program

PhD Program


Our physics and astronomy PhD program typically takes four to six years to complete and includes:

In addition to the areas above, all students are strongly encouraged to attend the department colloquia and the biweekly research seminars presented by each of the department's research groups.


Each student must complete at least eight advanced four credit-hour courses (numbered PHY 400-589) in the department, with a B- or higher. These courses cannot be research or reading courses, and at least two of the eight must be considered an advanced sequence.

Transfer credits and substitutions must be approved by the Graduate Committee.

Students are required to take the preliminary examination at the end of the first year. The questions on the preliminary exam are based on the foundation coursework taken in the first year. 

Before taking the qualifying examination, each student must formally select a plan of study by completing a form (available from the graduate program coordinator) specifying the formal courses they plan to use to satisfy the degree requirements, and any reading and research courses, to complete a total of 90 credit-hours.

Reading and Research Courses

Students can also take reading or research courses. These courses can be taken for anywhere from 1 to 12 credit-hours, depending upon the scope.

Credit Requirements

Full-time graduate students who hold research or teaching assistantships must register for at least 9 credit-hours each semester, until the 90-credit limit is reached. Full-time students who do not serve as TAs or RAs must register for at least 12 credit-hours each semester.

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Preliminary Examination

The preliminary examination is a written test offered over a two-day period just before the start of the fall semester. Students normally take it at the end of the first year of study.

The content and structure of the exam is designed to demonstrate that the student has the comprehensive grasp of physics required to conduct research successfully. The fundamental areas of physics that the test covers are:

  • Classical mechanics
  • Electricity and magnetism
  • Thermal physics
  • Quantum mechanics
  • Mathematical methods

Five questions must be answered on each day of the exam, as follows:

  • First day (9 a.m.–1:30 p.m.)

Students must answer two out of three questions on classical electrodynamics, two out of four on mathematical methods, and one out of two on classical mechanics and special relativity.

  • Second day (9 a.m. –1:30 p.m.)

Students must answer three out of five questions on quantum mechanics and two out of three on statistical mechanics.

On the first day of the examination, students can replace the questions on PHY 403 with special ones on astrophysics, usually based on material covered in AST 461, AST 462, or AST 453.

See the graduate coordinator, Laura Blumkin, to review past preliminary examinations.

The preliminary examination is written and graded by the department's Examination Committee. To continue in the PhD program one must pass the exam at the PhD level.

The committee can decide to pass a student if the total grade is adequate, or it can require that the student repeat poorly performed parts of the examination at its next offering. If a student shows specific weaknesses, the committee may also choose to pass that student under the condition that the student remedies the deficiency with additional coursework.

Normally each student is allowed two attempts to pass the preliminary exam.

Advanced transfer students who have passed similar exam at another graduate school may be excused from taking it in the department. This decision will be made by the Graduate Committee, in consultation with members of the Preliminary Examination Committee and the department chair.

Qualifying Examination

Students must pass the qualifying examination to continue for the doctoral degree. The exam is usually taken once the student has chosen a thesis advisor and an area of research. It must be taken by the end of year four. The function of the qualifying examination is to demonstrate that the student is ready to proceed with independent research.

As soon as possible, but no later than one year after a student obtains a PhD advisor, students must form a Dissertation Advisory Committee (DAC), which will serve as the Qualifying Exam Committee, and set a date or a range of dates for the qualifying exam.

After the DAC is formed, students must submit a short, informal written statement to the graduate coordinator summarizing their work in the previous term after every semester. The coordinator then disseminates the statements to the advisor and members of the DAC.

To take the qualifying examination, each student must find a faculty sponsor. The sponsor is usually the student's thesis advisor, but is not required to be.

The sponsor will assign an appropriate research topic on which the student will prepare an oral presentation, no more than 20 minutes in length, and an accompanying brief, no more than 10 pages.

The chosen topic and copies of the brief should be distributed to the Qualifying Examination Committee members at least two weeks prior to the exam.

The committee for the Qualifying Examination will consist of at least four faculty members, including:

  • The student's thesis advisor or sponsor
  • Another faculty member in the same area of specialty
  • One theorist for a student in experimental physics or one experimentalist for a student in theoretical physics.
  • One faculty member not closely related to the research project

One of the members may be from outside of the department, if appropriate.

Each student should schedule the qualifying examination, in consultation with the exam committee members and the graduate program coordinator, and make all final arrangements at least two weeks before the exam.

After the examination, the Exam Committee files a written report. Three members of the Examination Committee will continue to serve as a Dissertation Advisory Committee for the student, and meet about once a year to provide the Graduate Committee with a written report of progress toward a PhD. These regular meetings may be waived only by permission of the chair of the Graduate Committee.

The Dissertation Advisory Committee can be called into special session at any time by any of the following parties: the student, the thesis advisor (and/or internal advisor), or the Graduate Committee.

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Students are required to serve at least one year as a Teaching Assistant (TA). The basic duties of a TA include:

  • Running workshop,recitation or laboratory sessions
  • Offering office hours for consultation with students
  • Grading homework and examinations

Faculty teaching supervisors may also ask TAs to assist in curriculum development. First time TAs must also participate in the TA training program.

Both teaching and research assistants are expected to be present for duties during the entire period of their appointment, even when classes are not in session. Students who are registered for 12 credit-hours of non-research courses are expected to work an average of 16 hours a week on their teaching or research responsibilities. Students are entitled to two weeks of vacation during the academic year, which should be arranged in coordination with their supervisor.

In addition, the department also offers its PhD students an opportunity to earn a certificate in college teaching of physics and astronomy. The training program leading to this certificate includes complete responsibility for teaching an introductory physics course during the summer session, under the general guidance of a faculty mentor.

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As soon as possible, graduate students should become familiar with the research programs available in the department, choose a field of specialization, and ask a faculty member to serve as thesis advisor and principal PhD supervisor. It is each student's own responsibility to find a thesis advisor. Usually, one's advisor will provide financial support (in the form of a research assistantship) through some appropriate research grant.

It is also possible pursue your thesis in a research group outside the department. If you choose to work with a thesis advisor who does not hold a full-time appointment at the University or a joint appointment in this department, you must also find a member of our department faculty who is willing to act as the internal advisor for your thesis.

The Graduate Committee and graduate program coordinator must be apprised of your proposed arrangement.

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Dissertation and Defense

All PhD students are required to prepare and defend a dissertation. The purpose of the thesis defense is to demonstrate the significance of the dissertation, and the adequacy of the arguments presented in support of the thesis.

The written dissertation must conform to the format specified by the University Office of Graduate Studies’ Preparing Your Thesis (PDF). The rules for the PhD defense are given in the Official Bulletin on Regulations Concerning Graduate Study (PDF). The dean of graduate studies has also provided a helpful Guide for Graduate Students Preparing for PhD Defense.

When it is complete, and approved by all members of your Thesis Committee, your dissertation may be registered with the dean of graduate studies through the graduate program coordinator, and your defense scheduled no sooner than 15 business days from the date of registration.

The Thesis Defense Committee consists of the thesis advisor, at least two other full-time department faculty members, and at least one faculty member from another department. The student and thesis advisor suggest committee members, choose a committee chair, and then the student and graduate program coordinator register the defense.

In advance of the registration of a thesis, students and advisors should plan on at least 10 additional working days for each committee member to review the thesis document and sign off on the work. Students can send copies of their thesis to the committee electronically, as long as they provide bound paper copies to those who request them.

Each defense consists of a public, one-hour lecture by the candidate, followed by a closed-session oral examination of the candidate's thesis. The examination includes the subject matter of the dissertation, and developments in the specialty area in which the dissertation is written. After questioning, the candidate is briefly excused from the room while the Thesis Defense Committee votes on the results. The vote to pass the defense must be unanimous.

After your defense, the University Deans’ Office will send you an email with instructions for electronic submission of the final corrected dissertation and abstract to ProQuest, along with additional instructions for degree completion.

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Laura Blumkin
Graduate Program Coordinator
Bausch & Lomb 210
(585) 275-4356

Students can also contact the Graduate Committee.

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