The department has introduced a new oral preliminary examination policiy in 2020, which applies to students enter the PhD program in Fall 2020 and onward. Students who entered the PhD program prior to Fall 2020 are are being evaluated by an older system. These students who are evaluated under the older system have the option of switching to the new system. Students must make a written request to switch (send your request to the Department Chair).

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  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. 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.

New Policy

The Preliminary Oral Examination consists of two parts. The student may choose the sequence of these two parts. The total time allocated for the exam is 2 hours.

Part I. Thesis proposal
The thesis proposal consists of a 30-minute talk followed by questions. The talk may include results from the student’s preliminary research, but the main emphasis should be the proposed research. The structure of the talk should be as follows: introduction (to introduce the committee to the field, identify gaps in knowledge and provide context for the proposed research), preliminary results (which helped shape the proposal and demonstrate core competencies of the student researcher), and proposed research. The proposed research part should focus on research questions to be answered, proposed methodology, risks associated with the methodology (what can go wrong?). Risk mitigation should be discussed. A timeline for achieving research milestones should also be provided.
The follow-up questions from the committee will evaluate the student’s understanding of research goals, knowledge of the methodology, suitability of methodology, and the literature context for the proposed research.

Part II. Presentation on a self-taught topic

4 weeks before the scheduled date of the Preliminary Oral Examination, the student’s advisor will email the thesis committee members with a list of suggested topics. The committee will communicate via email (or otherwise) to select one topic. 3 weeks before the scheduled date of the Preliminary Oral Examination, the committee will communicate the topic to the student. The student will prepare a 25-minute presentation/lecture on the topic, which will be given during the Preliminary Oral Examination.
The student will be questioned by the committee during and after the presentation. The committee may ask clarifying questions during the presentation. Questions that go beyond clarification will be reserved for after the presentation.
The topic should be selected in such a way that it is relevant to the student’s proposed research topic, yet it is general enough that experts in the student’s research field should be knowledgeable about it. The topic should be beyond what is discussed in graduate courses.
The student should prepare the presentation as for a classroom setting, including quantitative statements and a detailed derivation of the presented conclusion(s). When preparing this presentation, the student is free to use any learning tool, including the advice of peers, colleagues, department members, and the student’s supervisor. However, interactions with colleagues/experts must be kept at a professional level such that the student maintains ownership of the finished product. For example, when the student discusses the topic with their advisor, the interaction would look like a student visiting office hours for a class.

Example topics that could be assigned to a student doing research in astrophysics:

  • Solutions of the Riemann problem (for a numerically oriented student)
  • Apparent superluminal motion in astrophysics
  • The Jeans limit and its relevance in structure formation

 Example topics that could be assigned to a student doing research in condensed matter:

  • The phenomenology of type-I and type-II superconductivity

Old Policy

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. The advisor may not  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 of 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 with the Graduate School at least two weeks in advance and the Physics Department office must also be notified of the exam. 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.