Spring 2021 Virtual Written Examinations

  • Exams administered virtually Monday, January 25 through Thursday, January 28, 2021
  • One 75-minute exam topic per day
  • There will be a single exam sitting on each of the four days, with the exam commencing at 9:00 am EST
  • Each exam period will be 90 minutes long to allow time for uploading of test materials
  • Order of topics: 
    • Classical Mechanics: January 25, 2021 – 9:00am EST; Virtual info to be sent via email
    • Electricity and Magnetism: January 26, 2021 – 9:00am EST; Virtual info to be sent via email
    • Quantum Mechanics: January 27, 2021 – 9:00am EST; Virtual info to be sent via email
    • Statistical Mechanics: January 28, 2021 – 9:00am EST; Virtual info to be sent via email

General Doctoral Exam Info

The general examination consists of two parts:

  • a set of Core Requirements covering four areas – classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, and statistical mechanics – which can each be satisfied either through taking a designated course or by passing a Written Exam;
  • an Oral Exam of approximately two hours.

The Written and Oral Exam are each offered in both the fall and spring terms.

Postponements for taking any part of the general examination are granted only under unusual circumstances. Requests for postponement of Part I or Part II must be submitted one month prior to the exam. Requests for postponement of the Oral portion must be submitted by September 30th for the fall term and by February 28th for the spring term. A request to postpone any portion of the general examination 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.


A student who ultimately fails any part of the general examination will be asked to withdraw from the Ph.D. program, with the option to pursue a Master’s thesis. Appeals should be addressed to the Associate Department Head, who will consult with appropriate faculty members when reviewing the case. To reenter the Ph.D. program the student must submit a Master’s thesis, then apply for readmission.


Written Exam Info

During the first three years of graduate study students must demonstrate a mature grasp of the whole field of physics and detailed knowledge of their chosen area of physics. Students should discuss their plans for preparing for the examination with their research supervisor and academic advisor.

The purpose of the general examination is to assure the Department that its graduates have a broad background in physics and a firm understanding of a particular branch of physics. The format is based on the premise that it is valuable for each student to review his or her general knowledge of physics in a systematic fashion and to measure it against a set of “community” standards.

The purpose of the Core Requirements, which consist of four areas and are to be completed within the first two years in the PhD program, is to confirm each student’s broad background in physics. A student may pass each area either by completing the corresponding graduate-level course with a grade of B+ or higher:

  • Classical Mechanics (8.309)
  • Electricity and Magnetism (8.311)
  • Quantum Mechanics (8.321)
  • Statistical Mechanics (8.333)

Alternatively, any one of the four sections may be satisfied by a passing grade on the Written Exam.


The four courses that correspond to the Core Requirements are offered as follows:

  • 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

The Written Exam is scheduled in the week prior to the first week of each fall and spring term. Entering students may choose to take the exam upon arrival, or to 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 requirements not yet satisfied:

  • The student is required to register for and take all remaining sections of the next 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 related course the next time it is offered.

The deadline for satisfying all four sections of the Core Requirements is the end of January in a student’s second year*. This timeline allows a student four attempts to complete the Requirements through the Written Exam:

  • First August
  • First January
  • Second August
  • Second January

As well as two opportunities to take and pass each of the related courses:

  • 8.309: first and second fall terms
  • 8.321: first and second fall terms
  • 8.333: first and second fall terms
  • 8.311: first and second spring terms

*If, in the student’s second January, the E&M exam is taken and failed, and it is the only remaining section of the Core Requirements the student still needs to satisfy, the student will ordinarily be offered a final opportunity to complete the requirement by passing 8.311 that spring with a qualifying grade.

If a student has not passed all parts of the Core Requirements by the end of the January of their second year (with exception for E&M only noted above), in most cases a student will be asked to switch to Master’s degree status, and a schedule for completing an SM thesis will be determined. This decision will be the responsibility of an ad hoc committee consisting of:

  • the student’s academic and research advisors
  • the Associate Department Head
  • the General Exam Coordinator
  • the Chair of the Written Exam Committee

In unusual cases, where strong research progress suggests that performance on the Core Requirements may not have reflected the student’s true ability, this committee may recommend that the student be allowed to continue in the Ph.D. program until the following August, to do prescribed further study, and/or to enroll in 8.311 in the spring or attempt any other outstanding components of the Requirements at the next exam in August. This decision would be made by the Associate Department Head. No further extensions would be allowed.

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 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. It was changed in 2015.

Sample Written Exams

Sample Written Exam Solutions

Oral Exam Info

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.)

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…”

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.