Frequently Asked Questions for Current Grad Students



How is my Academic Advisor assigned?

Upon entering the Department, every 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 advisor. Thus, for most of their time in the Department, students have two separate faculty members to whom they can turn for help and advice.

I am currently offsite--do I have to register each semester? How do I register without being on campus?

ALL active students MUST register each semester regardless of the location of research. Students who are not on campus on Registration Day must coordinate the submission of their Registration Form with their Academic Advisor. Please note that Academic Programs cannot facilitate these registrations given the multitude of activities on that day. Students should contact their academic advisors directly regarding registration.

What is the difference between 8.391, 8.392 and 8.THG? What should I register for?

Physics graduate students can receive credit for their research by registering for units in 8.391, 8.392 or 8.THG. 8.391 and 8.392 are called "Pre-Thesis Research" and should be used by students who have NOT submitted Thesis Proposal Forms (generally the first three years of study). 8.391 is used in the Fall term and 8.392 in the Spring and Summer terms.

Beginning in the semester during which a Thesis Proposal Form is submitted, students should begin registering for 8.THG, Physics Graduate Thesis. Students should subsequently register for this credit every semester until they complete the thesis.

In all three subjects, students can register for any number of units. The sum of all courses/teaching credit/research credit should equal AT LEAST 36 units each semester. This is particularly important for students with VISAs and outside financial aid.

How do I cross-register for a class at Harvard?

Please refer to the Registrar's Office regarding cross-registration procedures for Harvard.

Who should I contact to substitute a course for one of my breadth requirements?

The Graduate General Exam and Requirements Coordinator approves breadth requirement substitutions. Currently, Prof. Mehran Kardar serves this function. The request is made by writing a letter (e-mail is acceptable) to the academic advisor who will forward the request, along with his or her comments to the General Examination and Requirements Coordinator who will send notification of the decision.

Who should I contact to substitute a course for one of my specialty requirements?

Substituting for specialty 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.

I am not sure that I want to continue in the Ph.D. program--can I receive a Master's Degree instead?

The Department of Physics does offer the option of a Master's Degree. Students who would like to switch to Master's Status should send an e-mail to Academic Programs requesting the change in status. The Registrar's Office will be notified and your terminal degree will be changed.

I need a verification letter for a Visa/Housing/Other-whom should I contact?

Graduate students may need certification or status letters for a variety of purposes. The Physics Academic Programs Office in 4-315 can provide letters to verify employment, income, planned completion dates, and supporting letters for research travel, visa extensions, and OPT or CPT employment permission.  Please start with an email to with a description of your needs and Sydney Miller will be in touch with any questions before drafting and sending you the letter.


When are the General Exams?

The written portion of the General Exam is offered during the week prior to the start of each semester. The Oral portion of the General Exam can be scheduled during the fall or spring semester. See the General Exam Schedule for the next exam offerings. Both incoming students and current students must register in advance to take one of the General Exams.

How do I register for the General Exams?

Applications for the Written Exam must be submitted to Academic Programs two weeks prior to taking the exam.  Applications to take the Oral Exam should be submitted at the start of the term in which the student wishes to take the exam.  Applications can be submitted online.

Are there copies of previous General Exams and solutions available?

Sample exams, with solutions, are available to help MIT Physics doctoral students study for the Written Exam. Prior to Fall 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. We no longer require a ‘Part I’ and the former ‘Part II’ is now renamed the ‘Written Exam’. Sample exams labeled ‘Part II’ with the 4 sections presented as a single 5-hour exam continue to be valuable for Written Exam study, if reviewed as separate 75-minute topics.

Study Materials are available at the Physics Written Exam Samples  and the Physics REFS webpage which includes a helpful Physics Written Exam Study Guide.

Do I have to take all four components of the Written Exam in my first attempt?

No; a student taking the Written Exam upon entry in September may take one, two, three, or all four sections of the exam. However, in the first January, each student must attempt all parts of the Written Exam that he or she has not already passed.

What is the timetable for a student admitted for the spring term?

Occasionally, a student will be given permission to defer their start date for one semester. A student who enrolls in the spring term will be treated as if he or she started the program in the August of the year they join, i.e., six months later than their start date. For example, a student enrolling in January 2020 will follow the same exam schedule as students who start in August 2020.

What classes can I take to satisfy parts of the Written Exam?

A student may satisfy all four areas of the Written Exam by passing a specific class with a grade of B+ or better: 8.321 for Quantum Mechanics; 8.333 for Statistical Mechanics; 8.311 for Electricity & Magnetism; and 8.309 for Classical Mechanics. 8.309, 8.321 and 8.333 are offered in the fall; 8.311 is offered in the spring. 

May I use classes I took at my undergraduate school to satisfy parts of the Written Exam?

No. The three MIT subjects that satisfy parts of the Written Exam were selected because their curriculum and the related areas of the Written Exam are closely correlated. Since these are classes taught by our own faculty and are consistent year to year, we can guarantee that a student taking 8.321, 8.333, or 8.311 is learning the related material at a level that would satisfy the Written Exam.

How many attempts do I have to pass the Written Exam?

All students must satisfy all four components of the Written Exam by the end of the January of their second year. Thus, a student who takes the exam upon arrival in September may ultimately take it up to four times. 

When do I have to take the Oral Exam?

Students must attempt the Oral Exam by the fall term of their third year. 

How do I obtain an Oral Exam committee?

Students should complete an application. Committees are assigned by each Division Head, as described in the Doctoral Guidelines, and the Academic Programs Office staff will communicate with all students who have applied for the Oral Exam about who is on the committee and how to schedule the exam.

How do I find a room for my Oral Exam?

Many research areas have conference and/or seminar rooms that can be used for oral exams and defenses. Physics Headquarters (4-304) has limited rooms available for meetings and conferences (because demand is heavy, these rooms are difficult to schedule). Classrooms can be scheduled through the Registrar's Office.

When do I have to pass each section of the General Exam?

Please refer to the Timetable for Progress as printed in the Doctoral Guidelines under Academic Issues.

Can I review a graded General Exam?

Students can view their personal graded General Exam(s) in Academic Programs, 4-315. So that the student can be properly advised when reviewing the graded exam, the student should be accompanied by a Physics faculty member, preferably an advisor or supervisor.


How do I change supervisors/research groups?

Most students continue through from their first RA to a thesis in the same group. Some, 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 notify Academic Programs, 4-315, and the Physics Fiscal Office, 4-304.

I am experiencing conflict with my research supervisor, to whom can I contact to facilitate a resolution?

The Associate Department Head (currently 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, Prof. Barton Zwiebach and Catherine Modica serve as mediators in the Department and can be helpful in dealing with sensitive issues.

At the Institute level, students can contact the Dean of Graduate Students, the MIT Ombuds Office, or Conflict Management@MIT.

How can I get a TA?

Students interested in a Teaching Assistantship (TA) should discuss the possibility with their supervisor, and then contact their Division Head. Ideally, this should occur several months before the start of the semester when the TA would occur. The Division Head will then decide whether to allocate a TA position to the student. As the semester approaches, the Graduate Appointments Coordinator, Professor Christoph Paus, will determine teaching assignments based upon the available student pool and the teaching needs of the Department.

Students are guaranteed one semester of "transitional" TA funding during their graduate career for the purpose of transitioning between funding sources. Students interested in this option should contact either the Graduate Appointments Coordinator or the Associate Department Head, Professor Deepto Chakrabarty, well in advance of the transitional semester.

Am I allowed to be an RA and a TA simultaneously?

In some cases, a Research Assistant might accept minimal TA duties (i.e., a 10% TA) within a semester and register for 8.399 Graduate Physics Teaching and a research subject (8.391, 8.392 and 8.THG) simultaneously.


How do I submit a Thesis Proposal? When is it due?

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 Cover Sheet (Master's Degree candidates should see process in next paragraph) 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 advisor. 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 this term. 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. If there is a co-supervisor (see above), the thesis committee will consist of four people: research supervisor, co-supervisor, selected reader, and assigned reader. After notification of the final reader, the student will need to convene an initial thesis committee meeting no later than four weeks before the last day of classes.

Master's degree candidates should complete the initial SM Thesis Proposal Cover Sheet. The second reader of the Master's degree thesis committee is assigned by the Graduate Student Coordinator. Once the second reader is assigned, the thesis proposal submission process is complete.

See the Doctoral Guidelines for additional information.

How do I find a room for my Thesis Defense?

Many Divisions have conference and/or seminar rooms which can be used for oral exams and defenses. Physics Headquarters (4-304) has limited rooms available for meetings and conferences (because demand is heavy, these rooms are difficult to schedule). Classrooms can be scheduled through the Registrar's Office.

I am going to graduate soon--what do I have to do in terms of paperwork etc.?

Please reference the Registrar's complete graduation checklist. Students should reference this list at the START of the semester prior to graduation.

How do I get on/off the Degree List?

Fill out the Degree Application through the student section of WebSIS. Petitioning to be on the degree list for a particular commencement is required. Note that it is EASIER TO BE REMOVED FROM THE DEGREE LIST THAN TO BE ADDED. Thus, students are encouraged to petition for the degree list if they have any aspiration of graduating. Removing oneself from the degree list requires an e-mail to Academic Programs.

When is my thesis due? Can I get an extension?

The Doctoral Thesis due dates can be found on the Institute's Academic Calendar. The department can generally grant some extensions beyond the Institute deadline. Students desiring extensions should contact Academic Programs.

When I submit my thesis to Academic Programs, 4-315, what do I need to bring?

Please refer to the Graduate Thesis Submission Guidelines.

Last updated on October 27, 2020 12:57 PM