Carnegie Mellon University

Degree Requirements

All requirements to attain the advanced degrees of Ph.D. and M.S. in Physics for students entering the Physics Graduate Program at CMU are detailed in the Physics Graduate PROGRAM HANDBOOK. In addition, requirements outlined in the Carnegie Mellon University FACULTY HANDBOOK and the MCS Degree Policies may apply. The operation of the Physics Graduate Program is handled by the Head of the Graduate Program (HGP) together with the Department Head.

Primary Elements of the Graduate Program

1. Orientation Program

Entering graduate students will attend an orientation program in the week preceding the start of classes, which is typically at the end of August. International students need to arrive one week earlier, as they will receive additional orientation organized by the Office of International Education (OIE). During the week of physics orientation students attend talks introducing them to the department, meet with the HGP to plan their course work for the first and second semesters, discuss the responsibilities of teaching assistants, meet with current graduate students, and enjoy informal social events. The responsibility for advising incoming graduate students is handled by the HGP who also serves as academic advisor for all first year graduate students.

2. Course Requirements

Students must successfully complete a series of courses before being admitted to Ph.D. candidacy. The typical pre-qualifying course program includes research project courses as well as required core and breadth courses.

2.1. Research Project Courses

Students are required to choose a research project advisor by the end of the second week of their first fall semester. They will work with this advisor in the form of 33-775: Introduction to Research I on a 12 hour per week project for the entire semester. Students will have an additional 12 hour per week research project in the second semester, in the form of 33-776: Introduction to Research II, followed by an intensive full-time research experience covering the entire summer after the second semester. Some rotation between research groups is encouraged to enable each student to get at least two different research experiences before qualifying for candidacy. The details of switching between groups can differ from student to student.

To continue research in their third semester, students need to sign up for at least 12 units of 33-997: Graduate Laboratory in the fall of their second year. Students will be encouraged to identify their long-term thesis advisor ideally in the fall of their second year, and are required to have chosen a thesis advisor by the end of their second year.

2.2. Required Core Courses

Students are required to take the following four introductory core courses within the first three semesters:

  • 33-755: Quantum Mechanics I (fall)
  • 33-761: Electrodynamics I (fall)
  • 33-756: Quantum Mechanics II (spring)
  • 33-765: Statistical Mechanics (spring)

Although 33-759: Introduction to Mathematical Physics is still offered and encouraged for students requiring extra background, the most important parts of Mathematical Physics are absorbed into the curriculum of Quantum Mechanics, Electrodynamics, and Statistical Mechanics. Students cannot place out of those four core courses. Exceptions can only be granted by the HGP who can require exceptional students to show proficiency by passing a previous final exam with a B.

2.3. Breadth Courses Requirement

By the end of the second year of graduate studies, students should complete the breadth requirement consisting of two courses out of the following list:

  • 33-758: Quantum Computation and Quantum Information Theory (currently not offered)
  • 33-767: Biophysics: From Basic Concepts to Current Research
  • 33-777: Introductory Astrophysics
  • 33-779: Introduction to Nuclear & Particle Physics
  • 33-783: Solid State Physics

With special permission of the HGP, other physics courses can also be permitted as substitutes to satisfy the breadth requirement. In addition, individual research groups may impose further course requirements on their students.

2.4. Introductory Course Schedule

To allow flexibility for students to take non-core courses in their first year, two options for the timing of course choices are possible. Option A: students complete all four core courses in Year 1. Option B: students postpone one core course until Year 2 in order to take an advanced topic course or Mathematical Physics in Year 1. Both schedules A and B enable students to complete important program milestones on a similar time-scale (i.e., pass on to Ph.D. candidacy after three semesters), while providing some flexibility for an entry into advanced courses in the first year for those students who find this advantageous.

2.5. Total Number of Units

There is no total number of units required for Ph.D. degree attainment but at the time when a student is passed on to Ph.D. candidacy, the required core and breadth courses add up to a total of 72 units. In addition, the research project courses in the first three semesters result in 36 units of research. For the M.S. degree in Physics students must complete at least 96 units of courses with a B average (3.0) or better. To obtain 96 course units, students will have to take at least one course in addition to the required core and breadth courses.

3. Academic Performance

The Department of Physics follows the University Policy on Grades, which uses the letter grades: A+, A, A–, B+, B, B–, C+, C, C–, D+, D, or R. Students must pass all required physics courses with a grade of B– (B-minus) 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 HGP. Students have a second attempt to achieve a passing grade in a required course that must be taken the next time the course is offered.

3.1. Required Core Courses

The four required core courses are rigorously taught and examined. The instructors of all four core classes are expected to work with another member of the faculty in preparation and grading of their respective final exams and the course grades.

To pass on to Ph.D. candidacy students need to achieve at least a grade-point average (GPA) of 3.0 (B average) in the four core courses. If a student does not reach the B average when the core courses are taken for the first time, the course(s) with the lowest grade(s) need(s) to be re-taken in order to achieve the required B average in the four core courses.

3.2. Research Project Courses

Faculty advisors will assign letter research grades for student performance in the Research Project Courses every semester and also during the summer. Guidelines to evaluate the research project performance are given in form of a rubric. The criteria in the rubric follow the research expectations for graduate students. In addition to assigning research grades, the faculty advisors discuss the research performance with their student and give constructive feedback. As part of the research assessment, at the end of each semester, students are required to submit a 3-5 page written report to their advisor summarizing the semester research project together with a self-evaluation about their research progress and experience.

3.3. Academic Semester Performance

Students are also required to maintain a satisfactory academic semester 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. Oral Research Qualifying Examination

The purpose of the Oral Research Qualifying Exam is to evaluate the student's research readiness and to apply knowledge from course work to research performed, present a coherent talk as well as answer questions on the student's research projects. Students are required to take the Oral Research Qualifying 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. If the Oral Qualifying Exam is not passed on the first attempt, students are allowed a second chance immediately after the spring semester of their second year.

5. Advancement to Ph.D. Candidacy

Passing on to Ph.D. candidacy will require passing the four core courses with at least a B– grade and achieving at least a B average in those four core courses, as well as passing the Oral Research Exam. In addition, passing two breadth courses with at least a B– is also part of the requirements for Ph.D. candidacy. After a student has fulfilled those requirements, a meeting of the faculty is held to review the academic record and qualifying exam results of the student. After a positive vote by the faculty the student is passed on to Ph.D. candidacy and begins full-time thesis research.

6. Thesis Research

After being passed on to Ph.D. candidacy students begin full-time thesis research and typically sign up for 36 units (24 minimum) of 33-998: Thesis Research. Students are required to have chosen a thesis advisor by the end of their second year. The faculty advisors continue to assign letter research grades for the student's research every semester. Guidelines to evaluate the research performance are given in form of a rubric. In addition to assigning research grades, the faculty advisors discuss the research performance with their student and give again constructive feedback.

7. Annual Research Reviews

The committee administering the Special Oral Qualifying Exam will recommend the time when the student should have their first annual review, which must contain a thesis proposal. The first annual review should happen no later than the fall of the student's third year, but could be scheduled earlier for those students who are already well on track to define a thesis project. The annual research review is repeated each academic year with the review meeting held before the end of each spring semester. The student's annual review committee will continue to provide feedback on research progress toward a timely thesis defense.

8. Teaching and Language Requirement

All graduate students are required to perform classroom or laboratory teaching for at least one semester before receiving a Ph.D. in Physics. Students will benefit from the practice gained by explaining complex physics concepts 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.

9. Thesis Committee and Thesis Defense

The purpose of a doctoral thesis committee is to judge the validity, originality, significance, and proper presentation of the candidate's doctoral thesis. To that end, the committee shall examine the thesis submitted by the candidate, conduct the public oral final examination on the thesis, prescribe corrections or revisions to the thesis before or at the time of the examination, and certify to the Dean its finding on the acceptability of the thesis in its final form. The formation of a valid thesis committee and the execution of a thesis defense are governed by the MCS Doctoral Degree Policies.

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. in Physics

The Master of Science (M.S.) degree in Physics is typically awarded to students enrolled in our Ph.D. program after two years of course work. Note, however, that the Physics Department does not offer a 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 a M.S. degree only, but such candidates will be typically admitted without financial aid.

Candidates for the M.S. degree in Physics must satisfactorily complete at least 96 course units with a B average (GPA of 3.0) or better including the following:

  1. At least 48 course units of graduate courses (700 level) in the Department of Physics.
  2. In addition, at least 48 units of graduate or advanced undergraduate courses in Physics (300, 400 or 600 level).
  3. No more than 12 units of advanced physics laboratory or equivalent research course units (33-775, 33-776, 33-997, or 33-998) can be counted toward the M.S. degree.

In addition, students must satisfy the following requirements:

  1. One year of residence as a full-time student is required and all of the 96 units have to be taken as a student enrolled at CMU.
  2. No courses counted toward another degree at CMU can be included for the M.S. degree in Physics.
  3. There are no research or language requirements for the M.S. degree.

Note that in order to obtain the required 96 course units, students will have to take at least one course in addition to the four core and two breadth courses required to obtain Ph.D. candidacy.