Carnegie Mellon University Skip to content

Department of Physics

Mellon College of Science

Degree requirements for our Physics Ph.D. program are detailed in the Physics Graduate Program Handbook. In addition, requirements outlined in the Carnegie Mellon University Faculty Handbook and the MCS Faculty Handbook may apply.

Orientation Program

Entering graduate students will attend an orientation program in the week preceding the start of classes (typically end of August). During orientation students attend are introduced to the department, discuss responsibilities as teaching assistants and enjoy informal social events. International students need to arrive yet one week earlier, as they will receive additional orientation organized by the Office of International Education (OIE). Every student takes a placement test that covers basic undergraduate physics; its results are used to identify suitable courses for the first year of graduate studies in subsequent meetings with their academic advisors.

Requirements for the Ph.D. in Physics

In general, candidates for the degree of Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) in Physics should expect to spend at least four years, or the equivalent, in full-time graduate study, including a minimum of one year of full-time work at Carnegie Mellon. The first 3 semesters focus on study of fundamental courses. During their second year, students are expected to clear the Qualifying Examination to be admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D. Formal admission to Ph.D. candidacy depends on acceptable performance in teaching, research and course work, as well as the Qualifying Examination. Selection of a subject area for thesis research and seeking affiliation with one of the department's research groups under a research supervisor and is encouraged to happen before admission to Ph.D. candidacy and can take place as early as the first semester. At the latest following successful completion of the Qualifying Exam, students have to select a supervisor and subject area for their thesis research.

Primary elements of the Graduate Program

1. Placement Process

To determine the preparedness for graduate studies, every student takes a placement test on basic undergraduate physics. This test will cover Quantum Mechanics, Electrodynamics and Mathematical Physics – the standard courses for first year graduate students. The test results do not affect  student's grades in any way, but in combination with interviews with academic advisers determine the optimum choice of courses in the first year of graduate studies. The responsibility for advising incoming graduate students is handled by the Director of the Graduate Program. In addition, each first year graduate student is assigned an adviser who is typically one of the instructors of core graduate courses.

2. Course Requirements

Students must successfully complete a series of courses before being admitted to Ph.D. candidacy. The typical pre-qualifying course program is as follows:

Fall Semester, First Year
NumberNameUnitsRequirement
33-755 Quantum Mechanics I 12 required
33-759 Mathematical Physics 12 required
33-761 Electrodynamics I 12 required
33-775 Introduction to Research I 2 required
33-794 Physics Colloquium 1 suggested
Spring Semester, First Year
NumberNameUnitsRequirement
33-756 Quantum Mechanics II 12 required
33-762 Electrodynamics II 12 suggested
33-765 Statistical Mechanics 12 required
33-776 Introduction to Research II 6 required
33-794 Physics Colloquium 1 suggested

As a course breath requirement, students must complete two courses out of the following by the end of the second year of graduate studies:

33-758 Quantum Computation and Information
33-767 Introduction to Biophysics
33-777 Introductory Astrophysics
33-779 Introduction to Nuclear & Particle Physics
33-783 Theory of Solids

Individual research groups may impose further course requirements on their students.

3. Academic Performance

Students must pass all required courses with a grade of B– or higher to be admitted to Ph.D. candidacy. Exceptions can be made only if a student demonstrates proficiency in the subject matter of a particular course and receives prior approval by the Graduate Program Director. Students are also required to maintain a satisfactory academic record in order to continue in the Graduate Program. This means that students cannot perform at a grade point average of less than 3.0 in each of two consecutive semesters.

4. Qualifying Examination

Two qualifying examinations have to be passed by a student to be admitted to Ph.D. candidacy: The General Written Qualifying Exam and the Special Oral Qualifying Exam. Students take these exams during their second year of graduate studies. If both examinations are not passed on the level required for the Ph.D. program, candidates are still eligible to pass the Qualifying examination on the Master's level to receive an M.S. in Physics.

a. General Written Qualifying Exam
To qualify for Ph.D. candidacy, students must pass the General Written Qualifying Exam. This exam is offered twice a year and covers the course material of the first year graduate courses plus Classical Mechanics. Graduate students take both days of the Written Qualifying Exam in August after their first year of graduate study. The last opportunity for a student to pass the Written Qualifying Exam is in August before the student's third year of graduate study.

b. Special Oral Exam
The purpose of the Special Oral Qualifying Exam is to evaluate the candidate's ability to learn new material and apply knowledge from the course work to a new topic; present a coherent talk on a substantial physics topic; and respondadequately to examiner questions on various aspects of that topic. Students are required to take the Oral Exam in their second year of graduate studies. The exam is given annually in January in the week prior to the start of the spring semester classes. References and suggested reading material will be made available to the students. If the Special Oral Qualifying Exam is not passed on the first attempt, it may be taken a second time the following year.

5. Thesis Research and Annual Research Reviews

It is expected that students will find a thesis research supervisor before the end of their second year of graduate studies. After a student has fulfilled all course requirements and successfully passed both of the Qualifying Exams, the student is passed on to Ph.D. candidacy by vote of the faculty and begins full-time thesis research. A faculty committee will be formed no later than one year after the student passes onto Ph.D. candidacy that monitors in annual reviews student progress toward completion of his or her degree and will typically develop into the student's thesis committee.

6. Teaching and Language Requirement

All graduate students are required to perform classroom teaching for at least one semester before receiving a Ph.D. It is expected that they benefit from the practice gained by explaining complex physics in a coherent and comprehensible way and by responding to questions. If a student's native language is not English, a certification of proficiency in spoken English is necessary before the student will be allowed to perform the required classroom teaching. To obtain certification, non-native English speakers must pass an International Teaching Assistant (ITA) Test administered by the Intercultural Communication Center (ICC) at CMU.

7. Thesis Committee and Thesis Defense

The formation of a valid thesis committee and the execution of a thesis defense are governed by the MCS Doctoral Degree Policies found in the MCS Handbook.

The Ph.D. in Applied Physics

Beyond the conventional Ph.D. program, Carnegie Mellon offers a degree in Applied Physics. Ph.D. thesis research that may appropriately be characterized as Applied Physics can be carried out either within the Physics Department or in conjunction with other branches of the University such as the Robotics Institute, the Data Storage Systems Center, the Materials Science and Engineering Department or the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. Students in the Applied Physics program may find it necessary to prepare themselves in a technical area distinct from core Physics through courses in another department or through independent study. The Ph.D. Qualifying Examination and the schedule of basic graduate courses in Physics remain a requirement as outlined above, and are sufficiently flexible  to accommodate the various options in Applied Physics.

The M.S. Degree in Physics

The M.S. degree in Physics is typically awarded to students enrolled in our Ph.D. program after 2 years of course work. Note, however, that the Physics Department does not offer an M.S.-only program. Therefore, the M.S. degree is usually offered only to students enrolled in the Ph.D. program. In some cases, we may consider applicants who intend to obtain an M.S. degree only, but such cendidates will be exclusively admitted without financial aid.

Candidates for the M. S. degree in Physics must pass the General Written Qualifying Examination (day 1) and satisfactorily complete at least 96 course units with a B average (3.0) or better including the following:

  1. At least 48 course units at the graduate level (700-level courses) in the Department of Physics.
  2. In addition, at least 24 units of graduate or advanced undergraduate courses in Physics or closely associated fields.
  3. Six to 12 units of advanced physics laboratory or equivalent (at the level of 33-340, Modern Physics Laboratory, or 33-775, 776).
  4. One year of residence as a full-time student is required and at least 72 of the units above have to be taken as student enrolled at CMU.
  5. Candidates must pass Day 1 of the General Written Qualifying Exam on the Master's level but do not need to take the Special Oral Qualifying Exam.
  6. There are no research or language requirements for the  M.S. degree.

General Requirements for Advanced Degrees

Service performed as a teaching or research assistant is part of the graduate training. Such service, or its equivalent, is required of all candidates for graduate degrees whether or not they receive stipends.