General Doctoral Examination

General Doctoral Examination

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.


In 2014-2015, the Physics Department undertook a review of the General Examination, and has adopted changes to the structure and scheduling of the General Exams; these changes take effect for all students as of August 01, 2015.

The general examination will consist of two parts:  a single five-hour, written examination, and an oral examination of approximately two hours. Both the Written and Oral Exam are offered in both the Fall and Spring terms.

The Written Exam will be given prior to the first week of each term.  Applications to take the Written Exam must be submitted to Academic Programs one week prior to taking the exam. The questions for each part of the exam are prepared by a Committee of physics faculty members, and are subsequently screened by additional faculty who are assigned to grade each part of the exam. The Graduate Committee meets to review the results and to determine pass/fail boundary. 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. For a given exam there is a range of grades that clearly indicates a passing performance. Similarly, there is a range of grades that clearly indicates failure. The exams of students with grades between these limits are reviewed in detail by members of the Committee. If a student is repeating an exam, the earlier performance is taken into account.

A committee of three faculty members administers the Oral portion of the general examination during the second half of each term. The Oral Exam is in the student’s general field of research, and only a minor portion of the exam concerns the student’s specific research topic. By the middle of the term, the General Examination and Requirements Coordinator identifies Oral Exam committees in each research area. The Academic Programs office subsequently notifies the student of his/her committee members. The student is responsible for scheduling the exam with the committee and notifying Academic Programs of the exam day, time, and place.


  • The Written Exam consists of two problems in each of four areas – quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, electricity and magnetism and classical mechanics.  Demonstration of core competence in all areas except classical mechanics may be achieved in one of two ways.  A student may pass each area except classical mechanics either by passing one of the two problems on the Written Exam, or by completing the corresponding graduate-level course (for quantum mechanics, 8.321; for statistical mechanics, 8.333; for electricity and magnetism, 8.311) with a grade of B+ or higher.  The classical mechanics component of the Written Exam requirement must be satisfied via passing the relevant problem on the Written Exam.  

  • Each student must attempt all parts of the Written Exam that they have not already passed by January of their first year.  (Because the graduate EM class, 8.311, is only offered in the Spring, this means that all students will attempt the classical mechanics and electricity and magnetism components of the Written Exam in January of their first year.  Those who have not already satisfied the QM/SM requirement via 8.321/8.333 must also attempt the QM/SM components of the Exam then.)

  • There will be students who learn in their first January that they should have taken 8.321 and/or 8.333 in their first Fall term, but did not.  These students may either pass the QM and/or SM components of the Written Exam in their second August, or they may choose to take 8.321 or 8.333 in their second Fall term.  Students who fail the EM section of the Written Exam in their first January may study for and pass this in their second August or they may choose to take 8.311 in their first Spring term.

  • All students must satisfy all four components of the Written Exam requirement by the end of the January of their second year.  (In the case of EM, QM and SM, either via the Written Exam or via the corresponding course; in the case of CM, via the Written Exam.)

  • In the event a student has not passed all parts of the Written Exam by the end of the January of their second year, an ad hoc committee consisting of the student’s academic and research advisors, the Associate Department Head, the General Exam Coordinator, and the Chair of the Written Exam Committee will review the student’s progress and decide how to proceed.  This committee will not give a special oral exam.  In most cases, it will confirm that the student must switch to a Masters degree status. In unusual cases, this committee could instead recommend to the Associate Department Head that the student be allowed to continue in the Ph.D. program until the following August, do prescribed further study, and attempt 8.311 in the Spring or attempt the needed component(s) of the Written Exam in August. This decision would be made by the Associate Department Head.

  • There are no changes to the nature of the Oral Exam. All students will be required to pass the Oral Exam, as now.  Students will be allowed up to two attempts.  Students must attempt the Oral Exam for the first time by the Fall term of their third year, one term earlier than in the previous General Examination rules.


The purpose of the oral portion of the general exam is to test students’ broad general knowledge within their field. The student’s field is determined by that of their research supervisor. (Students with supervisors outside of the department will be examined in the research field of the co-supervisor. For the purpose of the Oral Exam, the co-Supervisor will be considered the “research supervisor” in the committee structure outlined below.) The designated Committee Chair for each field will host a meeting of examinees at the start of each term to review exam expectations. The first question will be in the student’s specific area. The student’s committee chair will provide this question at least one week prior to the examination. Under normal circumstances, the chair will ask the research supervisor to suggest a question to be used for this purpose. The oral examination will continue in the student’s general field. Discussion of a student’s research, when applicable, will comprise no more than the final quarter of the examination.

The oral exam committee consists of the chairperson and two other faculty members. Each research field (there may be several within a given division) will appoint one committee each year to examine all students within that field. If a student’s research supervisor is a member of the standing committee, he or she will be replaced by an alternate faculty member for that exam only. The research supervisor may observe the exam and provide input if solicited by committee members. The supervisor and student will be asked to leave the examination room when the final decision is discussed. 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.)

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

   2016-2017 chair: Max Tegmark
Nuclear and Particle Experiment
   2016-2017 chair: Christoph Paus
Atomic and Optical Physics
   2016-2017 chair: Martin Zwierlein
Nuclear and Particle Theory
   2016-2017 chair: Robert Jaffe
   2016-2017 chair: Ibrahim Cissé
• Quantum Information
   2016-2017 chair: Aram Harrow
Condensed Matter Experiment
   2016-2017 chair: Joseph Checkelsky
Plasma Physics
   2016-2017 chair: Miklos Porkolab
Condensed Matter Theory
   2016-2017 chair: Xiao-Gang Wen


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.