Degree Requirements-Dept of Physics - Carnegie Mellon University

Degree Requirements

The advanced degrees requirements for students entering the Physics Graduate Program at Carnegie Mellon University are described on this webpage.  They are also detailed in the Physics Graduate Program Handbook. Additional requirements may apply as outlined in the Carnegie Mellon University Faculty Handbook and the Mellon College of Science Faculty Handbook.

Orientation Program

Entering graduate students will attend an orientation program during the week preceding the beginning of classes which is typically end of August. During that week students attend talks introducing them to the department, discuss the responsibilities of teaching assistants, and enjoy informal social events. International students need to arrive one week earlier as they will receive additional orientation organized by the Office of International Education (OIE). Every student takes a placement test on basic undergraduate physics whose results are used to identify suitable courses for the first year of graduate studies. Following the placement test students meet with their academic advisors to plan their course work for the first (and second) semester.

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 three semesters are devoted to concentrated study of fundamental courses.  During their second year, students take the written and oral part of the Qualifying Examination. Following successful completion of this examination, students have to seek affiliation with one of the department's research groups and select a supervisor and subject area for their thesis research. Formal admission to candidacy for the Ph.D. depends on acceptable performance in teaching, research and course work, as well as the Qualifying Examination. Affiliation with a research group is encouraged to happen before admission to Ph.D. candidacy and can take place as early as the first semester.

The primary elements of the Graduate Program in the Department of Physics at Carnegie Mellon University are described below.

1. Placement Process

To determine the preparedness for graduate studies, every student takes a placement test on basic undergraduate physics. This test will consist of questions on Quantum Mechanics, Electrodynamics and Mathematical Physics, which are the standard courses for first year graduate students. The results of the test together with student interviews held by the students academic advisers are used to determine the optimum choice of courses in the first (and second) semester. The placement test does not affect the student's grades in any way. The responsibility for advising incoming graduate students is handled by the Director of the Graduate Program. Each first year graduate student is assigned an adviser who is typically one of the first semester instructors teaching the 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
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
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

By the end of the second year of graduate stduies, students muct complete as a course breath requirement two courses out of the following list of classes.

33-758 Quantum Computation and Information
33-767 Intro. to Biophysics
33-777 Introductory Astrophysics
33-779 Intro. to Nuclear & Particle
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 before being 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 students cannot have a grade point average of less than 3.0 in each of two consecutive semesters.

4. Qualifying Exams.

Two qualifying exams have to be passed for 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 level to receive a M.S. in Physics.

a. General Written Qualifying Exam
To qualify for Ph.D. candidacy students have to pass the General Written Qualifying Exam which covers the course material of the first year graduate courses plus Classical Mechanics. The exam is offered twice a year. Graduate students must 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 large topic as well as answer questions on various aspects of a given 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 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 after vote by the faculty and begins full-time thesis research. No later than one year after the student passes onto Ph.D. candidacy a committee of faculty, which will evolve into the student's thesis committee, conducts annual reviews of the students research progress.

6. Teaching and Language Requirement

All graduate students are required to perform classroom teaching for at least one semester before receiving a Ph.D. in Physics.  Students will benefit from the practice gained by explaining complex physics in an understandable 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 which can be found in the MCS Handbook.

The Ph.D. in Applied Physics

Besides 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 through courses in another department or through independent study. The Ph.D. Qualifying Examination and the program of basic graduate courses in physics are required as outlined above but also flexible enough to accommodate the various options in applied physics.

The M.S. Degree in Physics

The M.S. degree in Physics is awarded to students enrolled in our Ph.D. program typically after 2 years of course work.  Note, the Physics Department does not offer a M.S. only program but only a Ph.D. program, and the M.S. degree is usually offered only to students enrolled in the Ph.D. degree program.  We will, in some cases, consider applicants who intend to obtain only a M.S. degree, but only for admission without financial aid.

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

  1. At least 48 units of courses 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 affiliated fields.
  3. Six to 12 units (at the level of 33-340, Modern Physics Laboratory, or 33-775, 776) of advanced physics laboratory or equivalent.
  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

The 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.