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Doctor of Philosophy Program in Physics

Applicants considered for admission have usually completed the equivalent of an undergraduate major in physics and maintained an average of at least B or better in physics and in mathematics. Calculus and ordinary differential equations are prerequisite to all courses. Special consideration is given to applicants with an undergraduate major in mathematics, engineering, or another science. Such students ordinarily take remedial work to make up undergraduate deficiencies in physics before they proceed in the regular degree program.

Special Notes: Although students may be admitted at midyear, many courses are full-year courses, so it may not be possible for those students to enroll for a full-time program. Full-time students are expected to carry either three courses per semester or the equivalent in approved research.

All candidates for the Ph.D. degree must complete 72 points of credit (at least 32 in residence at the Graduate School) and achieve a grade point average (GPA) of B (3.0) or better. The Ph.D. program is aimed at enabling a student to prepare for and carry out research in physics at the frontier of knowledge. The department encourages entry into dissertation research under the supervision of a faculty member as soon as one has attained sufficient mastery of the fundamental principles and techniques of physics. Depth and breadth within the larger context of contemporary physics are promoted by a flexible set of course requirements. Numerous seminars and the weekly Physics Colloquium provide an excellent opportunity for students to keep abreast of recent developments across the full spectrum of physics research. Special talks by faculty members describing their research programs help students learn about research activities in the department.

Entering full-time students who qualify for admission to the Ph.D. program are offered a departmental financial aid package. Departmental support may be withdrawn if a student is deemed to be not making adequate progress toward fulfilling the degree requirements. Students may apply for research assistantships and fellowships at any time.

Core Course Requirements

The aim of the Ph.D. program is to certify the student's mastery of a traditional body of basic principles and problem-solving techniques generally considered to be an essential part of a research physicist's training. To this end, a student in the program is required to get a B or better in each part of five core subjects:

Dynamics (PHYS-GA 2001)
Statistical Mechanics (PHYS-GA 2002)
Electromagnetism (PHYS-GA 2005)
Quantum Mechanics (Parts I and II) (PHYS-GA 2011, 2012)
Computational Physics (PHYS-GA 2000)

In order to make satisfactory progress toward the Ph.D., a student must complete all core course requirements by the beginning of his or her second year. If a student fails to get a B or better in a core course (or in one of the alternative options) during his or her first academic year, the student is obliged to take the relevant preliminary examination just prior to his or her second year. If one or more of the core course requirements are not satisfied at the start of the student's second year, the Ph.D. Candidacy Committee will review the student's entire record and decide what action to take. Such action might include a recommendation to the faculty that the student be discontinued from the Ph.D. program. Termination of a student from the program requires a vote of the faculty.

A student who has taken a course elsewhere that is equivalent to one of the core courses need not enroll in that course; instead, he or she may satisfy the requirement by achieving a grade of B or better on the relevant preliminary examination given just before the start of the fall term. Each examination is designed to be completed in two hours (three hours are allowed to avoid time pressure) and covers the material of the corresponding course at the level of midterm and final examinations.

Students are also required to have experience in experimental physics. This requirement may be satisfied by taking the course Experimental Physics, PHYS-GA 2075. Alternatively, a student may conduct an independent experimental project under physics faculty supervision.

Course Requirements Beyond the Core

A student is required to take at least six courses beyond the core level (not including reading and research courses or Practicum in the Teaching of Physics, PHYS-GA 2090) in the Department of Physics. At least two of these courses must be outside the student's research area.

Formation of a Core Thesis Committee

By the beginning of May of the student's second year, the student is expected to have arranged for thesis supervision with a member of the physics faculty. A four-person core thesis committee, chaired by the thesis adviser, is set up at this time. The membership of the thesis committee is proposed by the adviser in consultation with the student and must be approved in writing by the director of graduate studies to ensure breadth and level of expertise. At the time of its formation, the thesis committee meets with the student and discusses the student's course of study, preliminary research plans, and the timing and scope of the oral qualifying examination (see below). The committee conducts an annual review of the student's progress, normally in January.

Oral Qualifying Examination

The qualifying examination marks the student's formal entry into dissertation research under the supervision of a particular faculty member. It takes place after the student has already embarked on some sort of preliminary research with his or her adviser and is administered by the student's thesis committee. The deadline for taking the oral qualifying examination is January of a student's third year, prior to the annual review.

The examination itself consists of a prepared talk by the candidate followed by a question period. The aim is to examine the student's mastery not only of the specific area of the student's intended research, but also of related areas of physics and of (relevant) general principles of physics. The committee decides whether the evidence, taken all together, presents a convincing picture of a person with the preparation and skills needed to do original scientific research in the proposed area.

Annual Review, Progress Report, Thesis Proposal

There is an annual review of each student's progress toward the Ph.D. This includes a progress report submitted by the student. Prior to the formation of a thesis committee, the review is conducted by the Ph.D. Candidacy Committee. Afterward, the student's thesis committee conducts the review. The first annual progress report following the qualifying examination includes a formal proposal for the student's thesis research. Subsequent progress reports inform the committee on progress toward completion of the thesis, as well as on any significant modifications of the original proposal.

Oral Thesis Defense

The final approval of the student's thesis and the oral thesis defense is conducted by the student's core thesis committee, augmented by one additional faculty member. Three members of the examining committee, including the student's adviser, serve as readers of the dissertation.

Additional Requirements

Colloquia and Seminars: Students are required to attend the weekly departmental colloquia, which highlight progress in cutting-edge research areas of broad and general interest. The department holds weekly seminars in astrophysics, particle physics, atomic optical and molecular physics, nonlinear dynamics, condensed matter physics, theoretical physics, relativity, and cosmology. Distinguished lectures endowed by the James Arthur and Stanley H. Klosk Funds are held periodically. Informal interactions and "journal clubs"—where students, postdoctoral researchers, and faculty discuss research in progress—promote collaboration within and across subfields. Interaction is also fostered with programs at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, the Center for Neuroscience (program for theoretical neuroscience), the School of Medicine, and the Departments of Chemistry and Biology.