Policies for the Written Comprehensive Examination for Physics Graduate Students

 
Revised 2015-08-24

COMPREHENSIVE EXAMINATION

The following states our rules and procedures for the written comprehensive examination. If there are any questions, the Department Chair should be consulted. Example exams from past years are available.

Goal of the comprehensive examination.

Passing the comprehensive examination at the Ph.D. level is a prerequisite for candidacy for the Ph.D. degree. Passing performance on the comprehensive exam can be achieved by exceeding the Ph.D. passing level on one exam or by scoring sufficiently close to the Ph.D. passing level (a "near-pass") on two exams.

The comprehensive examination process.

The comprehensive examination is given at the beginning of the Fall, Winter, and Spring quarters of each year, usually the Monday and Tuesday of the first week of classes. The exam is written and given in four sessions over two days. Graduate and upper-division undergraduate materials are represented about equally on each examination. The Comprehensive exam comprises 4 sections representing the four core areas taught in the undergraduate and graduate curricula:

  • (1) Electromagnetism and optics (2 questions, total 40pts)
  • (2) Classical mechanics, non-linear dynamics, and relativity (2 questions, total 40pts)
  • (3) Statistical mechanics and thermodynamics (2 questions, total 40pts)
  • (4) Quantum mechanics (2 questions, total 40pts)

The comprehensive examination is administered by a committee of four faculty members. 
The Chair of the Department shall inform all graduate students in the Physics Department of the time of the next exam and ask the students to sign up for the exam. This request shall be distributed to the students in May for the Fall exam, in October for the Winter exam, and in February for the Spring exam. Students who have not signed up for the exam and still want to take it, must request permission from the Chair of the Department. The Chair's announcement will include the names of the faculty members currently serving on the Comprehensive Exam Committee.

When to take the comprehensive examination.

The sequence of compulsory comprehensive examinations will normally begin in the Spring quarter of the first year of graduate study, except for students holding a M.S. degree in Physics, who must begin the sequence in their first Winter quarter. 
Students entering the program without an M.S. degree, but with a year or more of graduate course work completed at another accredited institution, are required to consult the Department Chair to establish their examination time line. Typically the following rules apply: 

  1. Entrants having had no graduate quantum mechanics must begin the compulsory exam sequence in the Spring quarter of the first year of graduate study at OSU;
  2. Entrants having had a year of graduate quantum mechanics will ordinarily begin the compulsory sequence in the Winter quarter of the first year.

Students who enter the graduate program and are not able to start the graduate Quantum Mechanics course sequence and/or the Electricity and Magnetism course sequence in their first year may petition the Department Chair for a delay of their first required examination. 
Students are allowed to take the comprehensive exam for practice when they are not required to take the exam. Practice exams will be graded along with those of other students. Students passing a practice exam may choose to use that exam to fulfill their degree requirements. 
A student may attempt at most four examinations, excluding exams taken for practice. 
Students for whom the sequence of compulsory comprehensive examinations has started are required to take all exams that are offered. A student who does not take a required examination will receive a score of zero for that examination and the examination will be counted as an attempt.

Faculty assistance in preparing for the comprehensive examination.

Students preparing for the comprehensive examination may seek help and advice from faculty members. Appropriate advice concerns such matters as preparation strategy, general areas of study, and assistance with the solution of problems from previous examinations. Students are free to approach any faculty member for assistance in preparation, but they should be aware that some may decline such requests, especially if they are currently serving on the committee and the request is made close to the time of the examination. The names of the faculty members who are currently serving on the Comprehensive Examination Committee will be included in the Department Chair’s announcement of each upcoming administration of the examination.

Passing the exam.

For each examination, passing levels for each section are set by the entire graduate faculty, after reviewing the scores on each exam. 

  • To pass the exam, a student must achieve a score above the passing level determined by the faculty.
  • A student may pass the exam by passing the 4 sections individually or by passing all remaining exam sections collectively.
  • That is, at any exam, a student will individually pass sections by achieving a score above the passing score for that section or will collectively pass the whole exam by achieving a total score for all sections attempted above their total passing score.
  • Once a student has passed a section(s), he/she may elect to take or to not take that section(s) at subsequent exams. If he/she scores above the passing score for that section, that score will be included in the collective score for all sections taken. If the previously passed section is not passed on the second attempt that section will not be included in either the exam score or the total score in determining the collective scores and the previous pass remains valid.
  • At each exam (except at practice exams), a student must take all sections that have not been previously passed.

Examples - assuming a 50% passing score. 
Mary Goeppert-Meyer passes section 1 on arrival in the Fall with a score of 35/40. She then takes the remaining sections and scores 30/40, 15/40 and 20/40 on sections 2, 3 and 4. She has a cumulative score on the second testing of 65/120 and passes. 
Mike Joliot-Curie passes section 1 on arrival with a score of 25/40. He then takes the remaining sections with scores of 25/40, 15/40 and 10/40 for a collective total of 50/120. He has now passed section 2 but still needs to attempt sections 3 and 4 at a later date and score more than 40 total points. 
Louis Meitner passes section 1 on arrival with a score of 25/40. He is an expert in exam 1 material. He takes the full exam again and scores 40/40 on 1, 20/40 on 2, 20/40 on 3 and has a really bad day and gets 0/40 on 4. He passes with a cumulative score of 80/160. 
Dixy Lee Ray, former Governor of Washington and Head of the Atomic Energy Commission, decides to come back to OSU for a Physics doctorate and passes the Quantum Mechanics section on arrival with a score of 25/40. She decides to take the QM section again to raise her overall score. Unfortunately, she has a bad day and gets 15/40 on the QM exam the second time. She receives scores of 25/40, 15/40 and 20/40 on the other sections. Her cumulative scores exclude the QM section, as she has already passed that section on a better day and with 60/120, she passes the rest of the exam. 

To preserve the intended objectivity of the examinations, the identites of the students writing the examination are not known to the faculty members who grade the exams or to the faculty at large. Only after the passing scores have been decided, in a meeting of the entire graduate faculty of the department, are the names of the students revealed. The names and scores of students who are taking the exam for practice will be revealed only if the scores are higher than the passing level.

Reporting of the scores.

Immediately after the graduate faculty meeting in which the scores have been discussed, the Chair of the Comprehensive Exam Committee shall inform in writing all students who were required to take the exam of their scores. The attached form letter, which includes the details of the appeal process, shall be used. A copy of this letter shall be put in the student's file. 
The Chair of the Comprehensive Exam Committee shall contact all students who took the exam for practice and achieved a passing score, and ask if the students want to use their score. If these students choose to count the score, they will receive the official form letter and a copy of the letter will be put in their files. 
The Chair of the Comprehensive Exam Committee shall give the exam answer books to the departmental secretary. These exam answer books shall be kept in the vault for a length of time determined by state rules. Exam answer books of students who took the exam for practice and do not have their score officially counted, shall be returned to these students; these students shall also be informed of the passing levels. The Chair of the Comprehensive Exam Committee shall give a copy of all scores to the Department Chair. The chair shall record the names and scores of those students for whom the exam was compulsory, and for students who took the exam for practice and earned a passing score.

Petitions.

In exceptional cases, individual petitions for alterations of these requirements may be submitted in writing to the Department Chair, who may consult with the Comprehensive Exam Committee.

Appeals.

Each student is entitled to receive a copy of his/her exam including grading. Copies of the problems and their solutions will be made available in the Yunker Library and may be copied at student expense. Any student, who has good reason to believe that a mistake has been made in the grading of his/her exam, may petition in writing to the chair of the Department within 2 weeks after the results are announced. The written complaint will be considered promptly by the committee, and the committee will recommend action or no action. A copy of the complaint and any resulting action will be given to the student and incorporated into the student's file.

Form letter reporting results of the Comprehensive Examination.

DATE 

To: XXX 

From: YYY, Chair, Comprehensive Examination Committee 

Subject: Comprehensive Examination results for the (Fall/Spring) 20xx term 

It is my pleasure to inform you that you have passed the Comprehensive Examination at the (PhD near-pass/PhD) level. Your score was ZZ of 160. The faculty deemed the Ph.D. passing level to be ZZ1. The near-pass level was ZZ3. I encourage you to request a copy of your exam from the graduate secretary and look at the answers. If you have any questions or concerns about the grading of the exam, please feel to talk to me and the other committee members. The official rules for appeals are included at the end.

Congratulations on the (PhD near-pass/PhD pass). 

Department Policy on Appeals of Grading for Written Comprehensive Examination. 

Each student is entitled to receive a copy of his/her exam including grading. Copies of the problems and their solutions will be made available in the Yunker Library and may be copied at student expense. Any student, who has good reason to a mistake has been made in the grading of his/her exam, may petition in writing to the chair of the Department within 2 weeks after the results are announced. The written complaint will be considered promptly by the committee, and the committee will recommend action or no action. A copy of the complaint and any resulting action will be given to the student and incorporated into the student's file.