Policies for the Oral Preliminary Examination for Physics Graduate Students


Passing the oral preliminary exam is the final step to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree. The exam is intended to allow the student to demonstrate readiness for research by knowledge of research expectations, by presentation of significant research results, by a reasonable acquaintance with the literature of the field, or a combination of these. The oral preliminary examination is taken near the completion of the student’s coursework and after passing the written Comprehensive exam. This should normally occur towards the end of the second or beginning of the third year of graduate study.

Structure and content of the exam.

The oral examination is conducted by the student’s doctoral committee, including a Graduate Council Representative (GCR), and should cover the student’s knowledge in his or her major and minor subjects. The Graduate School guidelines state that the exam may cover the student’s proposed research topic, although no more than one-half the time should be devoted to specific aspects of the proposal. According to Physics Department policy, the exam should include the following components:

  1. A short presentation based on research already done, or a discussion of literature research on a topic related to the proposed area of research. The student is to provide each committee member with a brief (2 – 4 pages) summary of the presentation material one week prior to the exam date.
  2. Presentation of a time-line for completion of graduate study, including coursework, research goals, and plans for dissemination at conferences and in peer-reviewed journals;
  3. Questions from the committee on various aspects of physics ranging from specific questions about the proposed research to general questions that relate to the intended study area. The student should expect questions from each committee member. While it is acceptable to request guidance or clarification from the committee, including the advisor, questions should not be deflected to the advisor. He or she cannot answer questions for the student.

The order and relative importance given to these components are at the discretion of the student's advisor, noting the graduate school guidelines that no more than one-half to the exam time should be devoted to presentation and discussion of specific aspects of the proposed research. The student should discuss this with the advisor while preparing for the oral exam. The advisor informs the committee about the expectations for the exam.

Scheduling and Evaluation.

The examination date must be scheduled in the Graduate School at least one week in advance. The examination should be scheduled for at least two hours. If more than one negative vote is recorded by the examining committee, the candidate will have failed the oral examination. No more than two re-examinations are permitted by the Graduate School, although the student's doctoral committee may allow fewer re-examinations in a particular case.

At least one complete academic term must elapse between the time of the preliminary oral examination and the final oral examination. If more than five years elapse between these two examinations, the candidate will be required to take another preliminary oral examination.