The purpose of the comprehensive exam is to determine if students have mastered the basic material necessary for Ph.D. work. This exam is given during the first week of classes in the Fall semester and the Spring semester. It is our expectation that students will take the exam during their first year. They are strongly encouraged to take the exam immediately, at the start of the first semester, and to continue taking it until the exam is passed. Students have four opportunities to pass the Comprehensive Exam, starting with the exam given in late August or early September at the start of the student's first semester, and ending with the exam given in late January at the start of the student's fourth semester. If students have not passed the exam after their fourth opportunity (the beginning of their fourth semester), they cannot advance to Ph.D. candidacy.
The Comprehensive Exam covers the full array of undergraduate material: Classical Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics, E&M, Thermal and Statistical Physics, and Modern Physics. See below for a more detailed list of topics. Each full Comprehensive Exam is composed of two 5-hour sessions. A typical schedule is as follows for both fall and spring semesters:
Day 1 (Tuesday of first week of classes): E&M and Classical
Day 2 (Thursday of first week of classes): Quantum Mechanics, Thermal and Statistical Physics and Modern Physics.
You are allowed to use a formula sheet for the comprehensive exam. You may bring in two pages of your own devising each day (that is 1 sheet with both sides written on or 2 sheets with one side written on). These might include constants, unit conversions, formulas for spherical and polar geometries, physics principles, general rules, definitions and so on. These must be handed in with the test. A table of integrals will be available at test time.
Studying for the comprehensive exam is an opportunity to review, summarize and condense what you have been learning for many years. It is helpful to study in groups, assigning each student one or more topics to become the expert on and sharing this expertise with others. Professors are also available to give review sessions, but the graduate students must take the initiative to organize these sessions. Old exams are in the library to give some sense of what the exams will be like. Information on previous exams may also be requested from the Department of Physics office.
Typically the exams are graded and results are available the Thursday after the exam. Students will be notified of the results as soon as possible. You are allowed to keep a copy of your exam.
Grading the Comprehensive Exam
- Students may earn a Full Pass by taking both days and achieving a total score ≥60%, with none of the five individual tests <25% and no two individual tests <40%.
- Students may earn a Partial Pass by taking both days and achieving a total score ≥60% on one day, with none of the five individual tests <25%. A Full Pass may be earned subsequently by taking the remaining day, achieving a total score ≥60% of that day, and fulfilling all the Full-Pass minimum criteria (see 1.) for the combination of the partially passed day and the remaining day.
- The Comprehensive must be passed completely by the beginning of the student's fourth semester.
- For incoming students who take the test at the first opportunity (beginning of their first semester), the 60% requirement is reduced to 55% for either Full Pass or Partial Pass. Later tests will require ≥60%.