OSU Graduate School Policy on Ph.D. Preliminary Exams:

OSU General Catalog (2017-18) http://catalog.oregonstate.edu/ChapterDetail.aspx?key=40#Section2287

Preliminary Examinations

The student working toward a doctoral degree must pass a comprehensive preliminary examination. The purpose of this exam is to determine the student’s understanding of his or her major and minor fields and also to assess the student’s capability for research. Students must enroll for a minimum of 3 credits during terms in which they undertake departmental written or oral preliminary examinations.

Written Comprehensive Examination

Most programs require a written comprehensive examination to be taken before the oral preliminary examination. If a written examination is required, it must be completed prior to the oral preliminary examination. The content, length, timing, passing standard, and repeatability of this examination are at the discretion of the major department. The general rules and structure of this examination, however, must be provided in writing to all candidates for this examination and a current copy of these guidelines must be on file with the Graduate School. Copies of the written examination (questions and student’s answers) must be available to all members of the student’s doctoral committee at least one week prior to the oral preliminary examination.

Oral Preliminary Examination

The oral preliminary examination is taken near the completion of the student’s course work. The oral examination is conducted by the student’s doctoral committee, and should cover the student’s knowledge in his or her major and minor subjects. 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. The examination should be scheduled for at least two hours, and the exam date must be scheduled in the Graduate School at least two weeks in advance. 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 academic units may allow fewer re-examinations.

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.

Physics Department Policy

The OSU Physics Department requires a written comprehensive examination.  The following states our rules and procedures for the written comprehensive examination. If there are any questions, the Department Head should be consulted. Exams from previous years are available.

The written comprehensive examination process

The written 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) Quantum mechanics (2 questions, total 40pts)

(2) Electromagnetism (2 questions, total 40pts)

(3) Statistical mechanics and thermodynamics (2 questions, total 40pts)

(4) Classical mechanics (2 questions, total 40pts)

The comprehensive examination is administered by a committee of four faculty members.

The Chair of the Comprehensive Exam Committee 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.  The 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 Head 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 Head 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. A pass of any section(s) or the entire exam will count toward the passing requirement. Any practice scores below the passing score will not be recorded.

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 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 a subsequent 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 identities 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 communicate the exam results in writing to all students who were required to take the exam and all students who took the exam for practice and achieved a passing score. A copy of this letter shall be put in each student's file.

The Chair of the Comprehensive Exam Committee shall give the exam answer books to the Graduate Student Coordinator. 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 did not pass, 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 Head. The Head 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.


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

Appeals of Grading

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. 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 Head 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.

Updated 5 March 2018