Comprehensive Exam

The comprehensive exam serves two purposes:

  • It ensures that you have mastered a minimum level of well well-rounded physics knowledge consistent with an undergraduate physics curriculum as this is necessary to move on towards a Ph.D.
  • It helps quickly identify areas where students may be under-prepared for the graduate curriculum, allowing us to take early proactive steps to remedy the situation for the student. Most students pass the comprehensive eventually, but it sometimes takes a couple attempts. We want all of you to succeed in the Ph.D. program and we hope that every class has a 100% pass rate.

The exam is administered in five two-hour sessions, one per topic, over a week, and covers five topics:

  • Classical Mechanics,
  • Electromagnetism,
  • Quantum Mechanics,
  • Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics
  • Modern Physics.

The comprehensive weeks are in late August/early September and again at the end of January/early February.

The detailed rules for the comprehensive are below:

  • The exam is mandatory to take each sitting (September/January) until you pass.  You must pass by the September of your second year to remain in the Ph.D. program.
  • If you have no scores yet recorded for any topic you cannot record a score on any topic if you get less than 25% on one topic or less than 40% on two.  So, if you received 60% on 4 topics but 20% on one, none of the topics would be recorded and you’d have to take all of them next time around.
  • Each topic is scored individually.  You need an overall average of 60% to pass, 55% during your first sitting.
  • Once you have a score for each topic recorded, in subsequent sittings you can take whatever combination of topics you wish.  Only the highest score you have ever received will go into the final evaluation of passing/failing.  For example, if you have a 60% on all topics but a 30% on quantum, you can just go in and retake quantum each subsequent time to get the score up, or you can also retake classical in the hopes of getting a better score to average out the quantum without fear of losing the 60%.
  • You are allowed to bring a single sided sheet of notes for each topic.
  • Integration tables will be made available to you during each exam.

We provide more detailed information on texts and topics.