Qualifying Examination

The Departmental Qualifying Examination (QE) is administered twice a year, in January and in August, on the Monday and Tuesday the week before classes begin from 9:30am to 12:00pm. Students should attempt the exam at least once during their first year, typically at the end of their first year. The QE must be passed within the first two years that the student is in the program. That allows a maximum of four tries if the student takes the exam every time it is offered during their first two years. The exam covers classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, electricity and magnetism, and thermodynamics and statistical mechanics at an advanced undergraduate level. For thermodynamics and statistical mechanics one problem is chosen from thermodynamics and two from statistical mechanics. There are 3 questions from each subject area and students will be graded on only 2 out of these 3 questions. The student shall only submit 2 of the 3 questions in every subject for evaluation. The questions for the QE are chosen by the Qualifying Exam Committee from a test bank, which is available to the students. The test bank evolves over time but does not change during the semester. This means that all of the potential questions for any given exam are known ahead of time. A pass at the PhD level is 60%, averaged across the entire test, 50% at the MS level.

Partial QE:

In the event a student is unable to pass the full QE, as described above, but has scored 60% each in at least two of the subjects, the QE committee in consultation with the student decides the next appropriate step – whether to retake the full QE or allow a partial QE in each of the lower scoring subjects. The subjects where the student scores more than 60% in the full QE shall be excluded in the partial QE. The partial QE must be attempted on the next available date of exam. The amount of time available for each problem is the same as for the full QE but a pass requires 70% in each of the subjects attempted. Though the questions in the QE are at an advanced undergraduate level, it is recommended that before attempting a partial QE in a specific area, the student has completed a graduate level course offered by the department in that area.

Alternative assessment:

If a student has made two good faith efforts at the written QE (defined as scoring 40% or more in the full QE, or 40% or more in one full QE and 50% or more in a partial QE), but has not yet passed, the exam committee in consultation with the student and student’s advisor can recommend an alternative assessment, which is an oral exam. This option of alternative assessment is available only when two good faith efforts as defined have been made and requires constituting a special 4 -member committee from the faculty in the department. The student’s faculty mentor can serve as an ex-officio non-voting observer of the committee but cannot take part in the decision process.

The oral exam is based on a presentation which has two distinct parts: one on the research topic in which the student wishes to pursue their PhD, and the other based on an article at the level of the American Journal of Physics, in the area where the student needs most improvement. As in the case of partial QE, it is recommended that the student has completed a graduate level course offered by the department in the area where most improvement is needed before taking alternative assessment in that area. The paper for presentation in this area is decided by the special committee. The student is given 3 weeks to prepare for the oral exam. The oral exam will consist of questions on the presentation but can also include more general questions, allowing the faculty to judge the knowledge and understanding of all core subjects in QE. This is a pass/fail exam as judged by the committee.

Next Exam Date and Time

 January 16-17, 2024

January 2024 Test Bank

Approved Equation Sheet

Quantum Mechanics

Classical Mechanics

Electricity and Magnetism

Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics