[ Last updated on March 31, 2021 7:02 PM EDT ]

The “Department of Physics Doctoral Guidelines” serves as the handbook of graduate policies and procedures. It contains academic information such as breadth and specialty requirements, General Exam information, time lines of satisfactory progress and thesis information. It also contains research information regarding funding, switching groups and other policies/procedures.


This document describes the doctoral program in the Physics Department. It supplements the Graduate Policies and Procedures, which outlines the general Institute requirements.

The primary goals of the graduate program in physics at MIT are to solidify and broaden your knowledge of physics and to teach you how to do research, how to identify important problems, and how to communicate scientific information effectively. In short, you will be trained to become a professional physicist and a productive member of the scientific community.

The major steps involved in your graduate career are described in the various sections here.

The Physics Graduate Program

The physics graduate program is under the direction of the Physics Education Committee, which includes members with the following graduate responsibilities:

The staff in Academic Programs, Room 4-315, can direct you to committee members most appropriate to your specific questions or concerns. All graduate students and faculty are affiliated with one of the Department’s four research divisions. Each division is headed by a faculty member with responsibilities for aspects of the graduate program of that division’s students. The current Division Heads are:

Professor Deepto Chakrabarty serves as the advisor for student concerns about scientific misconduct issues including interactions with research supervisors, data integrity, and authorship. In addition, Physics REFS can provide mediation services between student peers and/or faculty members and Catherine Modica, Academic Administrator, can be helpful in dealing with sensitive issues.

Every incoming student is assigned an academic advisor. Under most circumstances this faculty member will continue to advise the student until graduation. Later, when the student joins a research group, another faculty member will become his or her research supervisor. Thus, for most of their time in the Department, students have two separate faculty members to whom they can turn for help and advice. Throughout these guidelines, “advisor” refers to the academic advisor. The term “supervisor” is associated with the research or thesis supervisor, even though this person is often colloquially known as the “thesis advisor.”

Students with a Research Assistantship (RA) or Teaching Assistantship (TA) are expected to spend full time on education and assigned duties and may not engage in any other activity for compensation without the specific approval of the Department Head. Graduate assistants are required to register for an academic load of 36-48 units (which may include Pre-Thesis Research, Thesis Research and/or Physics Teaching) during any term (including summer) in which they have any form of MIT or Departmental support. In addition to course work, students doing research should always register for Pre-Thesis Research (8.391 in the fall and 8.392 in the spring or summer) or, after turning in a thesis proposal, Thesis Research (8.THG). The number of units will vary between 12 and 48 according to the approximate number of hours per week spent on research. This gives students academic credit for their research work. Teaching assistants may register for 12-48 units of Physics Teaching (8.399). In this way, TAs also receive academic credit for teaching. Under most circumstances, the normal course load for graduate students with a full-time RA or TA who have not yet completed their qualifying exams is two academic subjects.

The current stipend rates for RAs and TAs are available through the Academic Programs Office. For both RAs and TAs, full tuition and health insurance is paid over and above the stipend. If a student loses RA support due to termination of a research contract, the Department will provide support for one additional term (in the form of a TA) and will make every effort to provide an alternative form of continuing support.

The periods for RA appointments are as follows:

  • Fall: September 1 to January 15
  • Spring: January 16 to May 31
  • Summer: June 1 to August 31

Research Assistantships (RAs)

These appointments are generally for the academic year, plus the summer. The amount of time a student spends on RA duties depends on the amount of course work he or she needs and on the requirements of the group in which he or she works. For new graduate students taking classes and preparing for the general examination, research duties normally require 20 hours per week or less. After two to three years, research usually becomes full-time.

Teaching Assistantships (TAs)

Some TA appointments are available during the fall and spring terms. These appointments involve teaching sections in a course or lab, tutoring, or grading homework and exams. This work requires up to about 20 hours per week in addition to any research or class work the student is doing.

Very occasionally, first year graduate students are supported by a nine-month (fall and spring) TA appointment. Although the Department cannot guarantee employment during the subsequent summer for these students, in the past virtually all have been able to find summer RA appointments in a Physics Department research group or obtain a summer externship in industry or in a national laboratory. Students who have a TA in their first year normally join a research group and are supported by an RA in subsequent years.

TA appointments are typically made after the first year. These appointments are used to encourage students who wish to hone their teaching skills, to help alleviate funding pressures on the faculty, to facilitate a student’s transition to a different research group, or to support departmental teaching needs. Each of the four divisions in the department has been assigned a guaranteed number of TA positions. In the spring, each division compiles a list of students to be funded by TA appointments in the subsequent academic year. This list is submitted to the department for approval. Thus, students who desire TA support after the first year must inform their research supervisor, who will forward this information to the Division Head. If, after the divisions have submitted their TA lists to the Department, additional TAs are needed, the Department will solicit applications from the physics graduate student population as a whole.


Fellowships are full time positions, unless specifically exempted by the Department Head. A student entering the Department with a fellowship has a great deal of flexibility in planning his or her graduate program and in seeking out a research group. However, the fellowship recipient is responsible for finding a research group that will provide funding upon expiration of the fellowship support. Some information on fellowships for graduate students in physics is available through Academic Programs and the Office of the Dean for Graduate Education, Room 3-134.

Switching Groups

Many students continue through from their first RA to a thesis in the same group. Others, however, elect to change research groups. An RA who does not wish to continue research in his or her group, or who simply wishes to investigate other possibilities, should not hesitate to talk to other professors about different opportunities. However, students are responsible for notifying their current supervisor of their intention to leave a group. Students are expected to work in the research group as long as it is providing funding. In order to facilitate the transition from one research group to another, each student is guaranteed one semester of transitional funding in the form of a TA. Once the decision has been made and approved to switch groups, the student should complete a Research Supervision Form (PDF) or Research Co-Supervision Form (PDF) and submit it to Academic Programs as soon as possible.

Satisfactory progress involves both academic and research benchmarks. These include passing both the Written and Oral portions of the General Exam on time (see the timetable under Academic Issues), completing the subject requirements in the specialty area, and satisfying the breadth requirement.  The Department and/or the Vice Chancellor of MIT may issue academic warnings to graduate students who maintain a cumulative grade point average of 3.5 or lower or whose unit load for any given term is below 36 units.

In addition, a student must join the research group of a supervisor who will oversee the student’s doctoral thesis research.  It is expected that a student will join a group by the end of the first year in the program.  Any student who anticipates a possible delay in this schedule should confer with his or her academic advisor; Associate Head Deepto Chakrabarty; or Academic Administrator Catherine Modica before the end of the first spring term.

Many of our graduate students continue through to a Ph.D. in the group they first enter. Others change to another group that is a better match to their interests and abilities and complete their thesis in the new group. Only a very few students have difficulty finding the correct match. Several policies have been established to protect the interests of these students, and to help them make appropriate career decisions.

A student’s first period of work with any given faculty member is considered to be a “trial period” with no obligation by either party to continue the arrangement for a subsequent term. Of course the student may decide to change groups, or request a transitional TA, at the end of any term. If so, he or she must give four weeks notice to the group leader and the Division Head. Before deciding to discontinue funding after a trial period the faculty member must discuss any issues of concern with the student. The faculty member must notify the student of his or her intention to discontinue funding at least six weeks before the term ends. In special cases where a research area has made a prior written commitment to provide a full academic year of research support for an incoming student, the area will offer an alternative second semester RA to a student whose first semester RA has been terminated.

If, in any term beyond the first with a given group, a faculty member believes a student’s performance as an RA is unsatisfactory, he or she must write a warning letter to the student explaining clearly why the performance has been unsatisfactory and stating the conditions that must be met to avoid termination of support at the end of the term. The letter should be approved in advance by the Division Head and sent to both the student and the academic advisor. In order to give the student time to make the changes justifying continued support the following dates will apply.

Fall Term

  • Warning delivered by October 1st
  • Decision made by the last day of Fall classes

Spring Term

  • Warning delivered by February 15th
  • Decision made by the last day of Spring classes

Summer Term

  • Warning delivered by June 1st
  • Decision made by August 15th

In the event that a student whose funding has been terminated is not able to secure another research position prior to the start of the next semester, the Department will guarantee one term of support in the form of a transitional TA.  If the termination of an RA occurs at the end of the spring semester and the student is unable to find other support for the summer, the Department will make an effort to find summer support for the student. The one semester transitional TA would then be available in the fall, if needed. Students have a responsibility to continue working in their research group as instructed by their research advisor as long as they are being supported.  Questions about this process should be directed to the Academic Administrator.

If differences arise between the research supervisor and the student concerning the interpretation of “unsatisfactory performance,” the problem should be brought to the attention of the student’s academic advisor, the Division Head, or the Graduate Committee. Committee members are available to discuss, in private, problems encountered by either the student or the research supervisor before formal action takes place. Additional resources are listed on the front page of the Guidelines.

Degree Programs

The normal degree program in the Department leads to a Ph.D. in Physics. Direct admission to a Master’s degree program in Physics is available only in special cases (e.g., US military officers).  On occasion, a student admitted for a Ph.D. may wish to earn a non-terminal Master’s degree en route to the Ph.D., or may decide not to follow the Ph.D. program through to completion, or may fail the General Exam.  In these cases the student may be able to satisfy the requirements for the Masters degree.

Advising and Registration

Each fall and spring term students must meet with their academic advisor to complete their registration.  Meetings are not required for summer registration, but each student must still take responsibility for registering on line for an appropriate number of units, either in 8.392 (Pre-Thesis Research) or 8.THG (Thesis).

To make a subject change after registration day, students should use the Institute’s electronic add/drop process, available through WebSIS.  After a student has electronically requested a change, the advisor must approve it and the student must then submit the approved change. To avoid late charges and the need to petition a change through the Dean for Graduate Education, students should be sure to register before the Registrar’s deadlines.  The Add date is about five weeks into the term and the Drop date is about three weeks before the last day of classes.  Pre-registration for all terms is done on-line via WebSIS.

Each fall, all graduate students are required to turn in a “Graduate Progress Evaluation Form” designed to facilitate a beginning-of-year conversations with their Academic Advisor.  The form consists of a few basic questions on the progress the student made in the preceding year as well as goals for the coming year, and should be turned in to the Academic Administrator some time shortly after Registration Day by the student after the advisor has signed it.

Requirements for the Ph.D.

The specific requirements for the Ph.D. are:

  • Joining the group of a research advisor who will supervise the doctoral thesis
  • Passing the General Doctoral Examination
  • Specialty Requirements: two subjects (three for NUPAT students)
  • Breadth Requirements: two subjects
  • Written Thesis and Oral Defense

Timetable of Progress Toward a PhD

NOTE: Due to the COVID pandemic, this timeline might be extended for some students.

1stFall*Written General Exam: recommended first attempt
Spring*Written General Exam: required attempt of all sections not already passed
2ndFallWritten General Exam: required attempt of all sections not already passed
SpringWritten General Exam: final attempt
3rdFallOral General Exam: deadline for first attempt
SpringOral General Exam: final attempt
Students who passed Oral Exam in fall term: Thesis Proposal due; student registers for 8.THG
4thFallFor students who passed Oral Exam in spring term: Thesis Proposal Due, and student registers for 8.THG
6thMean time to Ph.D. is 5.8 years.

* Students who enter in February begin their timetable as if they entered in the following fall term (i.e., first attempt at Written Exam is in the second (fall) term.

If delays or postponements are needed, contact the Graduate Student Coordinator for the Thesis Proposal or the General Exams Coordinator for the General Exams. See applicable sections in these Guidelines for detailed procedures.

Choosing First Year Subjects

The Department does not require PhD students to take any subjects other than those needed to satisfy the specialty and breadth requirements described below.  However, many students begin by taking some combination of graduate Quantum Mechanics (8.321 and 8.322), graduate Electricity and Magnetism (8.311), and graduate Statistical Mechanics (8.333). Not only have these subjects been proven to give students a broad view of basic physics, but each of them (with the exception of 8.322) may be used to satisfy the related part of the Written General Exam.  As of fall 2016, a new subject, 8.309, will be offered and can be used to satisfy the Classical Mechanics portion of the Written Exam.

First-year students concerned with the level of their undergraduate preparation are encouraged to consider taking senior-level undergraduate subjects such as Electricity and Magnetism (8.07), Statistical Mechanics (8.08) and Classical Mechanics (8.09). Some first-year students may wish to sample basic graduate subjects in specialty areas: Atomic and Optical Physics (8.421 or 8.422), Solid State Physics (8.511), Systems Biology (8.591J), Plasma Physics (8.613J), Introduction to Nuclear and Particle Physics (8.701), and Astrophysics (8.901 or 8.902).  These subjects may later be counted towards one’s specialty or breadth requirements. While planning their first year program, students should keep in mind that the normal subject load for those with full time RAs is two academic subjects, or about 24 units. A student with an RA will also register for Pre-Thesis Research (8.391 in the fall; 8.392 in the spring and summer terms), for 12 or more units, depending on the rest of the course load.

Further reading: Information on NUPAX Graduate Course Requirements

Requirements for the Masters Degree

Masters candidates must complete 66 units, 42 of which must be graduate-level subjects.  A thesis is required; however, an oral thesis defense is not required.  The thesis will be assigned a grade by the research supervisor in consultation with the thesis committee.

The General Requirements assess doctoral students’ readiness to progress through the stages of the PhD program.  While the Department believes strongly that all students admitted to the program are capable of succeeding in it, it is important for each student to demonstrate their expertise at specified points during the program.  

There are two parts to the General Doctoral Requirements:

  • a set of Physics Core requirements consisting of four sections: Classical Mechanics, Electricity and Magnetism, Quantum Mechanics, and Statistical Mechanics. Each section may be satisfied either through taking a designated course, or by passing a Written Exam that indicates whether a student already has sufficient mastery of a particular area.  These courses and exams are taken during the first two years of graduate study. Satisfying the Physics Core requirements demonstrates a student’s sufficient grasp of four basic areas of Physics which are the building blocks for future research.  The four sections of the Physics Core together constitute an important foundation required for all PhD students, regardless of the particular topic of their thesis research.
  • an Oral Exam of approximately two hours.  The Oral Exam is given in the student’s area of research specialty in the second or third year of graduate study, and it is designed to assess the student’s deep understanding of central ideas in the specialty area. Passing the Oral Exam indicates the student’s readiness to move on to thesis research in the designated area.

All the courses that satisfy the Physics Core Requirements are offered annually.  The Physics Core Written Exams and the Oral Exam are each offered in both the Fall and Spring terms.

The four courses that satisfy the Core Requirement sections are:

  • Classical Mechanics (8.309) offered every fall
  • Electricity and Magnetism (8.311) offered every spring
  • Quantum Mechanics (8.321) offered every fall
  • Statistical Mechanics (8.333) offered every fall

A student satisfies any section by completing the corresponding course with a grade of B+ or higher.

Alternatively, a student may choose to satisfy one or more sections of the Physics Core Requirements by taking an exam.  The Physics Core Written Exam is scheduled in the week prior to the start of each fall and spring term. Entering students may choose to take the exam upon arrival, or may wait until the spring-term exam in late January to attempt the exam for the first time. In practice, most students do choose to make their first attempt upon entering the program.

After the first term, for any section of the Core Requirements not yet satisfied:

  • the student is required to attempt all remaining sections of the next Core Written Exam;
  • if there are remaining sections still to be completed at any time after the exam in the student’s first January, the student must enroll in the corresponding course the next time it is offered.

The deadline for satisfying all four sections of the Core Requirements is the end of a student’s second year.  This timeline allows a student two attempts to complete the Core Requirements by passing the corresponding courses with a B+ or better, as well as four opportunities to satisfy the requirements through the Core Written Exams (first August, first January, second August, second January).

Students experiencing unusual circumstances (e.g., serious health issues, family emergency), may request a delay of their deadline.  (See the section below on Schedule Postponements.)

If a student has not passed all sections of the Physics Core Requirement by the appropriate deadline, an ad hoc committee will form to consider the student’s individual case.  This committee will report to the Associate Department Head and will consist of:

  • the student’s academic and research advisors
  • the Faculty Graduate Program Coordinator
  • the General Exam and Requirements Coordinator
  • the chair of the Written Exam Committee

The likely recommendation would be to switch the student to Master’s degree status and set a schedule for completing an SM thesis. However, in unusual cases and with strong support from the student’s advisors, this committee may recommend that the student be allowed to do prescribed further study and/or to have one additional attempt to complete the outstanding section by course or exam at the next opportunity. The final decision would be made by the Associate Department Head.  No further extensions would be allowed.

Structure of the Written Exam

NOTE: Students planning on taking the Written Exam in any term should file an Exam Application with the Academic Programs Office no later than one week prior to the exam.

Each exam consists of two questions; the student selects one of the two questions to solve in a 75-minute period. The questions are prepared by a committee of four Physics faculty members, and are reviewed before the exam is finalized by additional faculty who are each assigned to grade one section of the exam.

There is no pre-determined or fixed percentage of students who pass, nor is there a fixed passing score. The difficulty of the examination may vary somewhat from year to year, and this is taken into account in determining the pass/fail line.

Exams with grades near the deciding line are reviewed in detail by all members of the Exam Committee and by the graders. If a student is repeating an exam, the earlier performance is also considered.

Exam results are communicated to students and their advisors individually by email in time for the results to be considered in the selection of classes for the upcoming term.

Sample Written Exams

Sample exams, with solutions, are available as study aids for the Written Exam. The current format of four 75-minutes sections was first administered in fall 2015. Prior to 2015 our Qualifying Exams were given in 3 parts: Parts I and II comprised the Written Exam, and the Oral Exam was known as Part III.

Pre-2015 sample exams labeled ‘Part II’ with the 4 sections presented as a single 5-hour exam continue to be useful for Written Exam study, if reviewed as separate 75-minute topics.

Study materials are available both below and the Physics REFS webpage, which includes a helpful Physics Written Exam Study Guide.

NOTE: You may see the words “Part II” mentioned in the below PDFs. Labeling of the Written Exam was changed in 2015, when what was originally two written exams was restricted into one exam.

Sample Written Exams

Sample Written Exam Solutions

The purpose of the oral portion of the general exam is to test students’ broad general knowledge within their field, which is the same as that of their research supervisor; only a minor portion of the exam will concern the student’s specific research topic.

The Oral Exam, taken in the second or third year, allows the student to demonstrate deep knowledge of a specialty area.

  • Two attempts at the Oral Exam are allowed.
  • The first attempt at the oral exam must be taken by the first term of the third year.
  • If a second attempt is needed, it must be taken in the term immediately following the first attempt. (If a first, failed attempt was taken in the first term of the second year, or earlier, the student may postpone the second attempt until the beginning of the third year.)

Structure and Content of the Oral Exam

NOTE: Students planning on taking the Oral Exam in any term should file an exam application with the Academic Programs Office by September 15 for the fall term and February 15 for the spring term.

At the start of the academic year, each Division appoints one committee for each research field to examine all students in that field who will take the exam within the coming year. The oral exam committee consists of:

  • the chairperson
  • two other faculty members
  • an alternate faculty member if the student’s research supervisor is a member of the standing exam committee

The Academic Programs Office notifies all students about the members of their committee; the student is then responsible for scheduling the exam with the committee and notifying Academic Programs of the exam day, time, and place. Exams are generally administered in the second half of the term.

The Committee Chair in each area should communicate exam expectations to the students taking the exam that term. Ideally, this should be done in a meeting of all examinees at the start of the term.

Currently, oral exam committees are formed in each of the following areas:

Content of the exam:
  • The first question should be in the student’s specific area. The Chair should have received this question from the supervisor and provided it to the student a week before the exam.
  • The oral examination continues in the student’s general field.
  • Discussion of a student’s research, when applicable, comprises no more than the final quarter of the examination.

The research supervisor may observe the exam and may provide input only if solicited by committee members. The supervisor and student will be asked to leave the examination room when the final decision is discussed. The committee should inform them of the result as soon as a decision is reached.

  • Am I responsible for contacting the committee to schedule the exam?

    Yes. Send a Doodle poll to all of your committee members (usually 3 of them) to pick the time for your exam; usually towards the end of the semester works best. Suggest many days as options, and on each day, make 2-hour slots, with 1-hour increments. Once the time of the exam is agreed upon, book one of the conference rooms for the exam, and email the time and place to your committee members. Also, just in case, send them a reminder email about two days prior to the exam. Ask Graduate Coordinator Sydney Miller to send you a grade sheet for the exam, print it out, and bring it with you to the exam.
  • Will there be a question given to me to prepare in advance? Who will give it to me, and when will I receive it?

    Yes. Ask your research advisor to give you one prepared question, which the committee will use to start the exam. He or she needs to give you this question about a week before the exam. Please email the question to the committee members as soon as you have it.
  • Will I be expected to talk about my own research?

    No, not beyond the research question from your advisor.
  • Which subjects cover the content that the exam questions will require me to know? Which texts?

    Any material from:
    • Ashcroft & Mermin, Solid State Physics
    • Kittel, Introduction to Solid State Physics
    • Kerson Huang, Intro to Stat Mech.

      …is fair game for the exam. In addition, the student will start by giving a short presentation on a question prepared by their research advisor. The committee is allowed to ask questions on that also, but only assuming the knowledge of the material covered in 1, 2, and 3 above.
  • Will I receive the results of the exam immediately? What kind of feedback will I receive if I don’t pass?

    You will receive the results of the exam immediately. The feedback will be given either immediately, or within the few days immediately after the exam.
  • What are some tips for the exam?
    • Solve the advance problem (from your adviser) in a number of different ways. Make sure that you can present and discuss the simple intuitive solutions.
    • Be prepared to present your solution without notes (except for the problem statement from your research advisor, which you should print out for yourself and the exam committee).
    • Make sure that you listen to the questions being asked during the examination. Sometimes it helps to rephrase the question in your own words. This helps to ensure that you understand the question and it also gives you more time to prepare your response.
    • After giving an answer, confirm that you have addressed the question.
    • It is ok if you don’t know all of the answers. It is better to say “I don’t know” than to say something that is not true. Even better would be to say, “I don’t know the answer to that question, but I could figure it out by doing…”

Nuclear and Particle Theory (NUPAT) students, like all students in the Physics Department, are required to pass an oral examination in their sub-field.The first attempt at the oral exam must be taken by the end of the first term of the third year. Two attempts are permitted, with the second attempt scheduled in the subsequent term. If the subsequent term precedes the third year, a student may postpone the second attempt until the beginning of the third year.

The exam is administered by the Oral Exam Committee, composed of three faculty members. Should the student’s research advisor be a member of that committee, another faculty member will be substituted in place of the advisor.

The exams are scheduled at the beginning of the Fall or Spring term and will take place in December and May, respectively. The NUPAT oral exam consists of two parts:

  1. A short exposition on a question or topic assigned to the student by the Head of the Oral Committee no later than two weeks before the exam.
  2. A set of questions on theoretical nuclear and particle physics posed by the committee.

Passing of the exam will depend on the student’s performance in the assigned question, as well as his or her proficiency in theoretical nuclear physics and theoretical particle physics. The topics and questions are drawn primarily from material covered in NUPAT graduate classes, with emphasis on 8.325 and Field Theory of the Standard Model. If you have a question about whether some particular material should be studied for the exam, then you should ask the current head of the NUPAT Oral Exam committee.

The exam is most often 120 minutes in duration and results are communicated to the student at the completion of the exam.

Furthermore, please note that more senior CTP students have a list of suggested books, material, and a shared Dropbox with previous questions that is helpful for studying. Additional suggestions:

  1. Students are encouraged to form study groups for the oral exam. It is an excellent way to learn.
  2. Students should talk to more senior graduate students about what the exam has covered in past years, and consult the above-mentioned documents.
  3. Talk to your committee before taking your exam to discuss your topic and any suggested material.
  4. Ask faculty if you have questions. If they have time, they are always happy to help.

Find more info on CTP Guidelines for Graduate Students.

NUPAX students, like all students in the Physics Department, are required to pass an oral examination in their subfield. The first attempt at the oral exam must be taken by the first term of the third year. Two attempts are permitted with the second attempt, if necessary, scheduled in the subsequent term. (If the subsequent term precedes the third year, a student may postpone the second attempt until the beginning of the third year.) The exam is administered by three faculty members who are members of the oral exam committee. Should the student’s research advisor be already a member of that committee, another faculty member will be substituted in place of the advisor.

The exams are scheduled at the beginning of the fall or spring term. The NUPAX oral exam consists of three parts: (a) a question prepared in advance based on a relevant topic in nuclear and particle physics, (b) a portion focusing on the student’s current research program, and (c) a broad set of questions in nuclear and particle physics. Passing of the exam will depend on the student’s performance in the assigned question, as well as their proficiency in nuclear physics, particle physics, and detectors and experimental techniques. The topics and questions are drawn primarily from material covered in the NUPAX required graduate classes (8.701, 8.711, and 8.811).

The exam is a total of 90 minutes in duration and results are communicated to the student at the completion of the exam. Students should expect to devote between four and six weeks (integrated) in preparation of the oral exam.

Quantum Information (QI) students, like all students in the Physics Department, are required to pass an oral examination in their sub-field.The first attempt at the oral exam must be taken by the end of the first term of the third year. Two attempts are permitted, with the second attempt scheduled in the subsequent term. If the subsequent term precedes the third year, a student may postpone the second attempt until the beginning of the third year.

The exam is administered by the Oral Exam Committee, composed of three faculty members. Should the student’s research advisor be a member of that committee, another faculty member will be substituted in place of the advisor.

The exams are scheduled at the beginning of the Fall or Spring term and will take place in December and May, respectively. The QI oral exam consists of two parts:

  1. A short exposition on a question or topic assigned to the student by the Head of the Oral Committee no later than two weeks before the exam.
  2. A set of questions on quantum computing and quantum information posed by the committee.

Passing of the exam will depend on the student’s performance in the assigned question, as well as his or her proficiency in quantum computing and quantum information. The topics and questions are drawn primarily from material covered in the textbook by Nielsen and Chuang.

The exam is up to 120 minutes in duration and results are communicated to the student at the completion of the exam. Additional suggestions for preparation:

  1. Students are encouraged to form study groups for the oral exam. During these groups, take turns acting as examiners and coming up with questions. It is an excellent way to study.
  2. Students should talk to more senior graduate students about what the exam has covered in past years.
  3. Talk to your committee before taking your exam to discuss your topic and any suggested material.
  4. Ask faculty if you have questions. If they have time, they are always happy to help.

Find more info on CTP Guidelines for Graduate Students.

Postponements for completing any part of the General Doctoral Requirements can be granted if a student is experiencing unusual circumstances. Requests for postponement of the Physics Core Requirement must be submitted at least one month prior to the start of the next term in which a Written Exam or corresponding course would be required. Requests for postponement of the Oral Exam must be submitted by September 30th for the fall term and by February 28th for the spring term. Any request for postponement must be made in writing (e-mail is acceptable) to the research supervisor. The request must include a clear justification. The research supervisor will add comments and forward the request to the General Examination and Requirements Coordinator. A student with no research supervisor should submit the request through his or her academic advisor. Appeals should be addressed to the Associate Department Head, who will consult with appropriate faculty members when reviewing the case.

Specialty Subjects

Students are required to take two basic one-semester subjects in their research specialty (three in Nuclear and Particle Theory).  These subjects are central to the research area and it is advantageous to complete them as early as possible.  The specialty subjects in the various fields are listed below and each must be passed with a “B-” or better.  Substituting for any of the following subjects requires a request in writing (or e-mail) to the appropriate Division Head.  After commenting, the Division Head will forward the request to the General Examination and Requirements Coordinator who will send notification of the decision.

8.901, 8.902 Astrophysics I, II

8.421, 8.422 Atomic and Optical Physics I, II

8.591 Systems Biology
and one of the following:
— 8.592 Statistical Physics in Biology
— 8.593 Biological Physics

8.511, 8.512 Theory of Solids I, II

8.711 Nuclear Physics
8.811 Particle Physics

8.613J, 8.614J Introduction to Plasma Physics I, II

8.371 Quantum Information Science
and one of the following:
— 8.322 Quantum Theory II
— 8.323 Relativistic Quantum Field Theory I
— 8.421 Atomic and Optical Physics I
— 8.422 Atomic and Optical Physics II
— 8.511 Theory of Solids I
— 8.512 Theory of Solids II

8.325 Relativistic Quantum Field Theory III
and, as appropriate, two of the following
— 8.334 Statistical Mechanics II
— 8.962 General Relativity
— 8.952 Particle Physics of the Early Universe
— 8.821 String Theory
— 8.831J Supersymmetric Quantum Field Theories
— 8.841 Electroweak Interactions
— 8.851 Effective Field Theory
— 8.701 Intro to Nuclear and Particle Physics

Breadth Subject Requirements

To enrich knowledge about physics outside of one’s own research field, students must complete two breadth requirement subjects.  At least one of these must be from the list below.  Both must be passed with a grade of B- or better.

If only one breadth requirement is taken from this list, students may request approval of a second course that is not on the list if it genuinely satisfies the two stated objectives of the breadth requirement: 1) learning about physics and 2) being outside the student’s research field.

To request approval for a course, a student should write a short but clear email or letter explaining why the course satisfies these two objectives.  If the course is in another department, the message should tersely explain on the basis of the course description or curriculum, why it should be considered learning about physics. The student should also succinctly state his or her research specialty and thesis topic, and explain why the course should be considered as being outside this research area. A short paragraph is sufficient to convey the necessary information.

The student should send the request to his or her academic advisor and, if necessary, discuss and modify the content to obtain the advisor’s approval.  The advisor should then forward the request, with his or her approval, to the General Examination and Requirements Coordinator who will send notification of the decision.

X indicates the subject is not allowed as a breadth requirement for students in this area
2 indicates the subject may be used as the second breadth requirement for students in this area as long as they also take one of the unmarked subjects

Most graduate students are supported by Research Assistantships.  RAs become involved in a research project as soon as they begin their assistantship, and this often leads to a thesis topic.  TAs and Fellows should look for a research group during the first year.  Prior to thesis research, students get academic credit for their research by registering for Pre-Thesis Research (8.391 or 8.392), which is generally taken every semester that research is conducted until thesis research formally commences.  Starting with the semester after a student passes the oral exam, registration changes from Pre-Thesis Research to Thesis (8.THG). While many students stay with their first research group, some register for Pre-Thesis Research in two or more research areas before finding a research topic suitable for a thesis.  Pre-Thesis Research is graded on a Pass/Fail basis.

All graduate students conduct research that eventually leads to a thesis, but there are many different paths to gaining a research project.  Students are expected to register for thesis and be assigned a thesis committee by the first term of their fourth year of graduate school (see Thesis section below).

Research Supervision

Any person who holds a Faculty or Senior Research Scientist appointment in the Physics Department may serve as a research supervisor.  Under special circumstances, a faculty member outside the Department may supervise a student (this includes other MIT departments or Physics Departments at other institutions).  Prior to embarking on a research project with an outside supervisor, the student must obtain a Departmental co-supervisor.  In consultation with the research supervisor, the student should find a Faculty member in the Physics Department who agrees to be the co-supervisor. The co-supervisor will maintain close contact with the research as it progresses and must ultimately co-sign the thesis.  The student should submit a Research Co-Supervision Form (PDF), which requires the signatures of the research supervisor and co-supervisor.  This form must be submitted to Academic Programs.  No funding will be administered by the Department of Physics until this form is submitted.

Research Externships

To broaden the graduate experience, the Graduate Committee encourages physics graduate students to arrange an externship in an industrial or national laboratory at some time during their graduate career.  Externships may be scheduled during either summer or academic terms and can be used, with approval of the student’s academic advisor, to satisfy one of the Departmental breadth requirements, even if the externship is in the student’s research field; externships may not be used to satisfy the specialty requirement.  The Department recognizes that the demands of MIT research may make it difficult for students to consider this opportunity, but it also believes that the benefits can outweigh the possible conflicts.  Students seeking externships should discuss the issue with their research supervisor and schedule the externship to minimize disruption of research.  Interested students should contact the Academic Administrator and provide her with a curriculum vitae.

Ph.D. Thesis

Schedule of upcoming physics PhD Thesis Defenses. If you are defending this term and do not see your information listed, please contact Sydney Miller.

Students must register for thesis and be assigned a thesis committee no later than the first term of their fourth year of graduate school.  It is strongly recommended that students register for thesis in a term earlier than this final deadline.  The first step is for the student and research supervisor to agree on a thesis topic. An initial Graduate Thesis Proposal Form (PDF) must be submitted to Academic Programs by the second week of the term.  The form requires an initial thesis title, the name and signature of the research supervisor and the name of one reader for the thesis committee agreed upon by the student and supervisor. The student should register for 8.THG (reminder: the minimum number of combined units for all subjects in any particular semester should equal 36) beginning with the term the Proposal Form is submitted.  A third reader from the Physics faculty, who is not in the same research area, but whose interests, background, or special knowledge make him or her an appropriate member of the committee, will be assigned by the Graduate Student Coordinator.  Thus, in general, a thesis committee has three members (supervisor, selected reader, assigned reader).  If there is also a co-supervisor (see above), the thesis committee will consist of four people.  When the departmentally-assigned reader has been selected, it is the student’s responsibility to convene an initial thesis committee meeting no later than four weeks before the last day of classes.

At that meeting the student makes an oral presentation to the thesis committee of a detailed proposal for a research program that would subsequently become the Ph.D. thesis. The student should demonstrate a thorough knowledge of relevant literature, explain the significance of the research to progress in the field, and present a well-thought-out program of research, including contingency plans. After that meeting, and based on the discussion, the student will develop a written proposal consisting of a one- or two-page description of the body of work that is to comprise the thesis.  This proposal is submitted to Academic Programs, approximately two weeks before the end of the term (a specific date will be determined each semester).

Subsequent changes in title, scope, supervisor(s), or readers may be made with the written approval of the Graduate Student Coordinator.

In some cases, the thesis research may be in a borderline field between physics and some other field of science or engineering.  In these cases, a joint committee, including members of another department may be formed.  This requires approval by the Dean for Graduate Education.

Students who have not registered for thesis research or submitted a thesis proposal by the first term of their fourth year must provide the Graduate Student Coordinator a written explanation of the circumstances leading to the delay.  This procedure must be followed in any subsequent term the student is still not registered for thesis.  Graduate appointments will be renewed only for students who meet the thesis registration and proposal requirements unless the Graduate Student Coordinator approves an extension based on the circumstances described in the student’s communications.

After the initial oral presentation to the thesis committee, each student must make at least one substantial oral presentation of progress to the thesis committee every 12 months.  The scheduling of this presentation is arranged by the student.

Master’s Thesis

Students pursuing a Master’s degree are required to submit a written thesis.  No oral defense is necessary.  When work on the thesis commences, each student must submit a Master’s Thesis Proposal Form (PDF) with the proposed title of the thesis and the signature of the research supervisor to Academic Programs, 4-315.  The student should begin registering for 8.THG immediately.  A second reader will be assigned by the Graduate Student Coordinator and the student will be subsequently notified.  Upon completion of the thesis, the research supervisor will submit a letter grade for the work to Academic Programs.

MIT Degree List

A student may be recommended for his or her degree in any term.  A student must submit an Application for Advanced Degree at the beginning of the term in which he or she plans to graduate, and must be registered in residence during that term.  Only the names on the degree list will be considered for degrees for that term.  Those on the September and February degree lists may participate in commencement the following June. Reminder: as an advanced degree candidate, a student should register for thesis as long as he or she is doing thesis research, including the summer terms.  No specified number of research units is required, although the combined number of registered units each term should not be fewer than 36.

Thesis Oral Defense

The thesis defense is primarily an oral presentation of the thesis research.  In order that suggestions for revision from the thesis committee can be incorporated into the final version of your thesis, the defense should take place at least three weeks before the date posted by the Institute for approval of degrees by academic departments. This oral presentation is based on an acceptable written draft of the thesis, which is provided to the thesis committee at least two weeks prior to the defense.  What constitutes an acceptable draft should be discussed carefully with the thesis committee.  The student is responsible for scheduling the thesis defense and arranging for the room in which it is to be held.  The student should then notify the Graduate Assistant in Academic Programs of the day, time, and place of the defense; the Graduate Assistant will send notice to the Physics community, including to all faculty members.  The defense is public and all members of the MIT community may attend.  Immediately following the public presentation there will be a mandatory private session involving only the student and the thesis committee.

Thesis Copies

After passing the thesis defense and incorporating the suggested changes, students must submit to Academic Programs:

  1. two original copies on thesis archival paper with original signatures and
  2. the completed form from the Specifications for Thesis Preparation, with an abstract and title page attached.

Details of the required thesis, abstract, and title page formats are provided in Specifications for Thesis Preparation. Care should be taken to follow the presented format.  The student should determine whether or not the supervisor, fellowship sponsor, etc. require additional copies.  For advanced degrees submitted to the Physics Department, copyright is usually granted to MIT instead of retained by the student. The “Chairman” signature line on the thesis cover page should be that of Professor Deepto Chakrabarty, Associate Department Head.  This signature is obtained by the Academic Programs Office after the student submits the thesis.

Students should also be aware that a thesis archival fee will be charged to their student account.  The Institute requires that this, and all outstanding charges, be paid before the final degree is approved.

Although the MIT Physics graduate program is primarily focused on training students for careers in physics research, the pursuit of an advanced degree in physics is an excellent preparation for a variety of careers, both in physics and in other fields.  If you have questions, or if you need someone to talk to about your career, there are many people available and willing to help.  Every incoming student is assigned an academic advisor with whom they can discuss their course schedule and professional plans.  Students in research groups have excellent resources in their research supervisor and other graduate students, and teaching assistants can talk to the professors for whom they are teaching.  Students can also get advice from their course instructors. The MIT Global Education and Career Development Center (GECD, E39-305) has a variety of resources for graduate students.  Finally, the Physics Department sponsors occasional lectures and presentations by alumni in non-academic fields, and also maintains a mail list, 8careers@mit.edu, to which employment opportunities of interest to physics graduate students are posted on a regular basis.