Doctoral Guidelines Summary for Prospective Students

Specific Requirements for the PhD

  • Joining the group of a research advisor who will supervise the doctoral thesis, providing intellectual and financial support
  • Passing the General Doctoral Examinations: a Written and an Oral Exam
  • Specialty Requirements: two subjects (three for NUPAT students)
  • Breadth Requirements: two subjects
  • Written Thesis and Oral Defense

PhD Timeline

A chart with nominal expectations of progress is included below. If a student experiences any difficulties in meeting this timeline, they should meet with their Academic Advisor; Research Supervisor; Associate Department Head Nergis Mavalvala; or Academic Administrator Catherine Modica. There are many people at MIT who can help!

Satisfactory Progress

Satisfactory academic progress involves both academic and research benchmarks. These include passing both the Written and Oral portions of the General Exam on time (see Timetable below), 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 and fund the student, as needed. 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 Nergis Mavalvala; or Academic Administrator Catherine Modica before the end of the first spring term.

Thesis Committees

After passing the Oral Exam, students should prepare a Thesis Committee Proposal Form and, once the committee is formed, schedule the initial meeting and generate a short Thesis Topic Proposal.

Timetable of Progress Towards a PhD

1st Fall* Written General Exam: recommended first attempt
Spring* Written General Exam: required attempt of all sections not already passed
2nd Fall Written General Exam: required attempt of all sections not already passed
Spring Written General Exam: final attempt
3rd Fall Oral General Exam: deadline for first attempt
Spring Oral General Exam: final attempt
Students who passed Oral Exam in fall term: Thesis Proposal due; student registers for 8.THG
4th Fall For students who passed Oral Exam in spring term: Thesis Proposal Due, and student registers for 8.THG
Spring Research
5th Research
6th Mean 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.

Subject (Course) Requirements

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

Nuclear and Particle Theory
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

Atomic and Optical Physics
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

Condensed Matter Physics
8.511, 8.512 Theory of Solids I, II

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

Experimental Nuclear and Particle Physics
8.711 Nuclear Physics
8.811 Particle Physics

Quantum Information
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

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.

Breadth Requirement

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

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.

More information

For more in-depth information on our doctoral guidelines, visit

Last updated on December 7, 2018 5:06 PM