PhD Program Requirements


Our physics and astronomy PhD program typically takes five to seven 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. Please also visit the Graduate Student Handbook.


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. The specialty courses are two-term advanced level sequences in specific fields of modern physics (numbered PHY 5x1, 5x2), and several independent one-term courses and two-term course sequences in astrophysics (AST 4xx, 5xx). Students normally take the sequence in their chosen specialty sequence within the first four years of their graduate studies. Several special-topics courses are also offered each year. Links to Physics and Astronomy course lists and descriptions can be found on the graduate coursework page.

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

Students are required to go through the preliminary assessment at the end of the first year. The preliminary assessment is based on performance in the four required core courses, to a standard deemed passable by the individual faculty teaching those courses, along with research experience after the first year of study. The four required core courses are: PHY 407 Quantum Mechanics, PHY 415 Electromagnetic Theory, PHY 403 Modern Statistics and Exploration of Large Data Sets, and PHY 418 Statistical Mechanics. 

Reading and Research Courses

Students may also take reading or research courses, by arrangement and persmission with individual faculty members. These courses can be taken anywhere from 1 to 12 credit-hours, depending on scope. 

  • PHY/AST 591: Readings in physics/astrophysics. Instructor permission required for registration. This is the principal "reading course" in the graduate curricululm. It consists of an in-depth study of a specialized topic, with scope and submitted work created by agreement with a faculty member, who also faciliates the course.
  • PHY/AST 595: PhD Research in Physics/Astrophysics. Instructor permission required for registration. This is the cousre for which each student registers each semester after joining a research group, as a way of recording academic actiity after completion of formal courses. The credit-hour number for which one registers it the difference between the full-time credit-hour total (9 credits for research and teaching assistants, 12 credits otherwise) and the number of credits of formal or reading courses taken; thus a research assistant who takes no formal courses in a given semester registers for at least 9 credit-hours of PHY or AST 595. 

Credit Requirements

All graduate students in our department are given, upon admission, a tuition waiver good for 90 credit-hours. Full-time graduate students who hold research or teaching assistantships must register for at least 12 credit-hours each semester, until the 90-credit limit is reached. If you reach 90 units hours, you may not register for any more unit bearing courses without special approval from both the Department and the GEPA office. If you reach 90 credit hours in a semester causing units for that semester to be under the 12 required to be full-time, you will also need to add either PHYS 997 onto your schedule as a placeholder to make you full-time if it is in your 4th year, or if in your 5th year or beyond, please add PHYS 999 as the place holder for full-time enrollment as well. After completion of formal courses and entrance into the research groups, students should usually register for 12 units each semester of PHY or AST 595 PhD Research in Physics/Astrophysics. After passing the 90-credit limit, full-time graduate students in residence must register for PHY or AST 999 each semester. Enrollment in PHY 999 requires a continuation fee, which is usually -- though not always -- paid by the student's thesis advisor using research funds. 

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Preliminary Assessment

The preliminary assessment has replaced the preliminary exam beginning with the 2017-18 academic year. The preliminary assessment is based on the performance in the four required core courses, to a standard deemed passable by the individual faculty teaching those courses. The first year curriculum includes the four required core courses - PHY 403, 407, 415, 418 - plus two electives. (PHY 403: Modern Statistics and Exploration, PHY 407: Quantum Mechanics I, PHY 415: Electromagnetic Theory, PHY 418: Statistical Mechanics). Please see your assigned cohort advisor for elective suggestions.

The preliminary assessment is completed by the preliminary assessment committee. To continue in the PhD program one must pass the assessment at the PhD level.

The committee can decide to pass a student or it can require that the student repeat poorly performed parts of the assessment. 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 assessment.

Advanced transfer students who have passed similar assessment 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 Assessment Committee and the department chair.

Qualifying Examination

Students must pass the qualifying examination to continue for the doctoral degree. Once you have passed the qualifying exam, you will be considered advanced to candidacy. The exam is usually taken once the student has chosen a thesis advisor and an area of research. The exam is usually scheduled within two years of passing the preliminary assessment but in any case must be taken before the end of year four. The function of the qualifying examination is to demonstrate that the student is ready to proceed with independent research. The qualifying exam in our department is not considered a thesis proposal. Whether or not the specifics/brief from your qualifying exam become part of your dissertation is a topic of discussion and entirely up to you and your advisor for a later date.

As soon as possible, but ideally no later than one year after a student obtains a PhD advisor, students should 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 and student will mutually agree on a research topic in which the student will prepare an oral presentation, no more than 25 minutes in length and an accompanying written brief of no more than 10 journal-style pages. The presentation and brief should demonstrate progress toward original research. The qualifying exam is closed, to be attended only by the student and their committee.

If a student has published, submitted, or drafted a paper for a research journal based on this research, that document or a subset of it can be used as the brief, provided that the advisor deems the document to be reasonably accessible to the broader audience of the qual committee.

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. The advisor fills only that role on the committee.
  • A faculty member in the same research area
  • One theorist for a student in experimental physics or one experimentalist for a student in theoretical physics.
  • One faculty member outside of the research area
  • At least two faculty members on the committee must be primarily appointed in physics and astronomy

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. The graduate students reaches direclty out to the committee members, after being given persmisison to proceed from their advisor, to arrange for the exact date and the exact time for the qualifying exam to be held. The student must email the graduate program coordinator at least two weeks before the exam is to be held with the date, time and list of committee members. The graduate program coordinator then completes the exam appointment form obtaining approval from the students advisor, the director of graduate studies and finally the GEPA office. It is this approval process that is part of the reason for the two weeks advanced notice of the exam. The other main reason for the two weeks notice is that the brief must be written and out to the committee with at least two weeks notice so that your faculty committee each are given sufficient time to review the brief and perpare for the exam.

To begin the exam, the committee may ask the student to step out of the room while it briefly reviews the student's academic progress toward degree, the advisor conveys any necessary annotations, and the committee organizes its questioning procedure. The student will the be called in for their presentation. 

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. There is no formal assignment process for joining a research group. Once a student has an understanding with a research advisor to join the group, the graduate program coordinator must be notified so that the financials can be transferred over to the appropriate account(s) and approvals obtained in the 506 form process.

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. Please notify the graduate office ( of your intention to complete a thesis and set a defense date.

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 later than 15 business days before the date of the defense.

The examining 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. A separate defense chair, also from another department, oversees and manages the exam. He or she can, but is not expected to, participate in the questioning. 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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Linda Case, Graduate Program Office

Students can also contact the Graduate Committee.

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