Oral Exam Information


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

CMT Oral Exam FAQs

Am I responsible for contacting the committee to schedule the exam?

Yes.  Send a Doodle poll to all of your committee members (usually 3 of them) to pick the time for your exam; usually towards the end of the semester works best.  Suggest many days as options, and on each day, make 2-hour slots, with 1-hour increments.  Once the time of the exam is agreed upon, book one of the conference rooms for the exam, and email the time and place to your committee members.  Also, just in case, send them a reminder email about two days prior to the exam.  Ask Graduate Coordinator Sydney Miller  to send you a grade sheet for the exam, print it out, and bring it with you to the exam.

Will there be a question given to me to prepare in advance?  Who will give it to me, and when will I receive it?

Yes.  Ask your research advisor to give you one prepared question, which the committee will use to start the exam.  He or she needs to give you this question about a week before the exam.  Please email the question to the committee members as soon as you have it.

Will I be expected to talk about my own research?

No, not beyond the research question from your advisor.

Which subjects cover the content that the exam questions will require me to know?  Which texts?

Any material from:

  • Ashcroft & Mermin, Solid State Physics
  • Kittel, Introduction to Solid State Physics
  • Kerson Huang, Intro to Stat Mech

...is fair game for the exam.  In addition, the student will start by giving a short presentation on a question prepared by their research advisor. The committee is allowed to ask questions on that also, but only assuming the knowledge of the material covered in 1, 2, and 3 above.

Will I receive the results of the exam immediately?  What kind of feedback will I receive if I don't pass?

You will receive the results of the exam immediately.  The feedback will be given either immediately, or within the few days immediately after the exam.

What are some tips for the exam?

  • Solve the advance problem (from your adviser) in a number of different ways.  Make sure that you can present and discuss the simple intuitive solutions.
  • Be prepared to present your solution without notes (except for the problem statement from your research advisor, which you should print out for yourself and the exam committee).
  • Make sure that you listen to the questions being asked during the examination.  Sometimes it helps to rephrase the question in your own words.  This helps to ensure that you understand the question and it also gives you more time to prepare your response. 
  • After giving an answer, confirm that you have addressed the question. 
  • It is ok if you don’t know all of the answers.  It is better to say “I don’t know” than to say something that is not true.  Even better would be to say, “I don’t know the answer to that question, but I could figure it out by doing…”

NUPAX Qualifier Exam

NUPAX students, like all students in the Physics Department, are required to pass an oral examination in their subfield.  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.)  The exam is administered by three faculty members who are members of the oral exam committee.  Should the student’s research advisor be already a member of that committee, another faculty member will be substituted in place of the advisor.

The exams are scheduled at the beginning of the fall or spring term.  The NUPAX oral exam consists of three parts: (a) a question prepared in advance based on a relevant topic in nuclear and particle physics, (b) a portion focusing on the student’s current research program, and (c) a broad set of questions in nuclear and particle physics.  Passing of the exam will depend on the student’s performance in the assigned question, as well as their proficiency in nuclear physics, particle physics, and detectors and experimental techniquesThe topics and questions are drawn primarily from material covered in the NUPAX required graduate classes (8.701, 8.711, and 8.811).

The exam is a total of 90 minutes in duration and results are communicated to the student at the completion of the exam. Students should expect to devote between four and six weeks (integrated) in preparation of the oral exam.