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General Doctoral Examination
March 2015: New rules for the content and scheduling of General Exams were announced in late February. This page will be updated with the new information as soon as possible.
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 examination is given in the Fall and Spring terms and consists of two written parts and one oral part.
STRUCTURE AND SCHEDULING OF THE EXAMINATION
The general examination consists of three parts. Part I and Part II are five-hour, written examinations. Part III is an oral exam. It is approximately two hours long.
Parts I and II are given prior to the first week of each term. Students may take Part I and Part II in the same term. Applications for Part I and Part II must be submitted to Academic Programs one week prior to taking the exam. The questions for each part of the exam are prepared by committees of physics faculty members. The questions are subsequently screened by faculty who are assigned to grade each part of the exam. Copies of at least three Part I and II exams are available at http://web.mit.edu/physics/current/graduate/sampleexams.html. In addition, copies of Parts I and II from a number of previous years, and their solutions, are available for reference in the Physics Reading Room, 4-332.
The Part I and Part II examinations are graded by physics faculty. The Graduate Committee meets to review the results and determine who passes and who fails. There is no fixed percentage of students who pass, nor is there a fixed passing score. The difficulty of the examinations varies 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 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.
Part I attempts to measure a student’s general level of understanding, physical insight, ability to get to the essence of a question, intuitive grasp of orders of magnitude and proper approximations, and knowledge of basic facts. Part I typically consists of 20 short questions covering a broad range of physics topics. The questions are at the level of those encountered in undergraduate physics subjects at MIT. This is a five-hour written examination. The score required to pass the Part I exam varies from exam to exam. It is decided by the General Exam Committee for Part I based upon its evaluation of the grading of the test and the difficulty of the test. Averaging over Part I exams from the past decade, the mean score required to pass has been 49.2 with a standard deviation of 5.0.
It is expected that most students will take Part I for the first time at the beginning of their first term at MIT, primarily for diagnostic purposes. The Associate Department Head for Education will meet with students who do not take or do not pass the Part I exam at the beginning of their first term in order to advise them on whether they should take some undergraduate subjects in order to strengthen their preparation for graduate subjects. If at this point a student agrees to take two or more of the undergraduate subjects 8.05, 8.06, 8.07, 8.08, and 8.09 during the first year, the department will extend his or her satisfactory progress calendar by one term. This advice will be communicated to the student's academic advisor with the understanding that it is the Department's strong recommendation.
Students who do not take the exam at the beginning of their first term are allowed a maximum of two attempts; those who do take it on entry are allowed a maximum of three attempts. Note that any student who has not yet passed Part I must take the exam the next time it is offered. Part I must be passed by the beginning of the second year (an exception is made for those students who enrolled in two or more of the recommended undergraduate subjects; these students must pass Part I by the beginning of the spring term of the second year). If a student does not pass Part I by the applicable deadline, a committee consisting of three faculty members gives the student a special oral exam. The student’s research supervisor may attend but will not participate. The special oral is generally scheduled within a few weeks after notification of failure.
Part II is also a five-hour written examination. The General Examination Committee for Part II prepares a set of eight questions, more detailed and advanced than those of Part I. They cover the general areas of Classical Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics, Electromagnetic Theory, and Thermodynamics/Statistical Mechanics. The student is required to do only one of the two questions in each of the four general areas. The material covered is at the level of our first year graduate subjects and the textbooks they use. However, the student should not expect a one-to-one correspondence between the content of those subjects and the material tested on the exams. Some topics are so well treated in standard textbooks that it would be wasteful to cover the same topics in a classroom setting. On the other hand, lecturers are free to cover special topics of high current interest or topics for which they have a unique insight. Such material, while enriching the students' understanding, would not be appropriate on a Part II exam.
Two attempts of Part II are permitted. Part II of the general examination must be attempted no later than the second term of the second year. If the first attempt of Part II is earlier than the middle of the second year, the second attempt, if necessary, must be made within one year. If the first attempt is in the second term of the second year, the second attempt, if necessary, must be made in the subsequent term. Therefore, in effect, Part II must be passed by the first term of the third year, with a maximum of two attempts. Passing of Part II is decided by the Graduate Committee. Passing of the exam will be based on the student's performance on the exam as a whole. The student will not be passed on one area and failed in another. A student who does very well in three problems, but very poorly on the fourth will fail. However, in this case the student will be given the option on the next exam of doing both problems in the weak area, and no others, in half of the normal time. Students who fail an exam will be informed if they are eligible for this option. Students wishing to exercise this option must inform the department when they apply to take the next exam. Failure to take Part II on schedule without prior approval from the Requirements Coordinator counts as a failure. If a student fails a second time, a committee consisting of three faculty members gives the student a special oral exam on the material of Part II. The student’s research supervisor may attend but will not participate. This special oral is given during the same semester and is generally scheduled within a few weeks after notification of failure.
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 oral is to be taken after the first attempt at Part II, but no later than the second 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:
2013-2014 chair: Paul Joss
|• Nuclear and Particle Experiment
2013-2014 chair: Janet Conrad
|• Atomic and Optical Physics
2013-2014 chair: Wolfgang Ketterle
|• Nuclear and Particle Theory
2013-2014 chair: Robert Jaffe
2013-2014 chair: Jeremy England
|• Quantum Information
chair: consult Edward Farhi
|• Condensed Matter Experiment
2013-2014 chair: Raymond Ashoori
|• Plasma Physics
2013-2014 chair: Miklos Porkolab
|• Condensed Matter Theory
2013-2014 chairs: Liang Fu (fall), Marin Soljačić (spring)
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 for Education, 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 for Education, 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.