General Doctoral Examination

Spring 2021 Written Exam

  • 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 information to be sent via email
    • Electricity and Magnetism: January 26, 2021 - 9:00am EST, Virtual information to be sent via email
    • Quantum Mechanics: January 27, 2021 - 9:00am EST, Virtual information to be sent via email
    • Statistical Mechanics: January 28, 2021 - 9:00am EST, Virtual information to be sent via email

General Exam Application

Last updated on December 9, 2020 11:57 AM



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 general examination will consist of two parts:  a written examination that consists of four areas – quantum mechanics (QM), statistical mechanics (SM), electricity and magnetism (EM), and classical mechanics (CM), 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 four areas – quantum mechanics (QM), statistical mechanics (SM), electricity and magnetism (EM), and classical mechanics (CM). Demonstration of core competence in all areas may be achieved in one of two ways. A student may pass each area 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; for classical mechanics, 8.309) with a grade of B+ or higher.
  • 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 who have not yet taken and passed it must attempt the EM component of the Written Exam in January of their first year. Those who have not already satisfied the CM, QM, and SM requirements via 8.309, 8.321, and 8.333 must also attempt those components of the Exam then.
  • Students who take but do not pass the CM, QM, or SM sections in their first January must take those components of the Written Exam in their second August, and then take the related class in their second fall term if they do not pass CM, QM or SM. Students who fail the EM section of the Written Exam in their first January may choose to take 8.311 in their first spring term or may elect to wait and attempt the EM component of the Written Exam in their second August.
  • In each term that a student still needs to complete any portion of the exam, he or she must take any unmet component of the exam, or take the related course. The only exception to this policy is for students who fail EM in the first January; as noted above, they may take 8.311 in the spring term or take the exam again in August. Students have until the end of the January of their second year to satisfy all four components of the Written Exam.
  • If 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.
  • After passing the Written Exam, all students must then pass the Oral Exam. Students are allowed up to two attempts, and must take the Oral Exam for the first time by the fall term of their third year.  A second attempt, if needed, must be taken in the term immediately following the first attempt.

Written Exam Samples

The MIT Physics Written Exam addresses four topics: Electricity and Magnetism; Classical Mechanics; Statistical Mechanics; and Quantum Mechanics. Students take each topic as a separate 75-minute exam, selecting one of two presented written questions; their performance is evaluated separately for each section. Students may also meet any one of the topic requirements through classwork (for E&M, 8.311; for CM, 8.309; for SM, 8.333; and for QM, 8.321).  Written Exams are administered and results are available prior to the fall and spring semesters each year.

Sample exams, with solutions, are available to help MIT Physics doctoral students study for the Written Exam. 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. [Note that faculty and students who experienced the exams in this format may still refer to the current Written Exam as ‘Part II’ and the Oral Exam as ‘Part III’.]

Sample exams labeled ‘Part II’ with the 4 sections presented as a 5-hour exam continue to be valuable for Written Exam study, if reviewed as separate 75-minute topics. The fall 2015 is the first exam that was administered in the current format.

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

Sample Written Exams

Sample Written Exam Solutions


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:

   2020-2021 chair: Scott Hughes
Nuclear and Particle Experiment
   2020-2021 chair: Or Hen
Atomic and Optical Physics
   2020-2021 chair: Vladan Vuletic
Nuclear and Particle Theory
   2020-2021 chair: Barton Zwiebach
   2020-2021 chair: Nikta Fakhri
• Quantum Information
   2020-2021 chair: TBA
Condensed Matter Experiment
   2020-2021 chair: Nuh Gedik
Plasma Physics
   2020-2021 chair: Nuno Gomes Loureiro
Condensed Matter Theory
   2020-2021 chair: Liang Fu


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.