Rutgers University Department of Physics and Astronomy

2010-11 Handbook for Physics and Astronomy Graduate Students

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Doctor of Philosophy Degree (Ph.D.) in Physics and Astronomy


The purpose of this degree program is to train students broadly in the fundamentals of physics and in the analytical techniques of the physicist. A thesis of original research is required to give the students experience in bringing themselves up to the frontier of an important area of physics. Students are encouraged to study in several areas of physics so that they will be prepared to apply their fundamental knowledge in new areas, not necessarily directly related to the field of their thesis work.

A total of 72 credits is required, of which at least 24 must be in research. No minimum number of course credits is specified, but certain courses are required, as described below. Because this is a research degree, students are encouraged to enter research as soon as possible in their graduate program. Students are expected to graduate in about five to six years. The department will do its best to facilitate rapid completion of degree requirements. After the course credit requirement is satisfied graduate students supported by research grants should consult with the Graduate Director about reducing the number of credits for which they are enrolled, since this could reduce tuition costs charged to the grant.

Students who have taken graduate courses at another university may be able to transfer up to 24 credits after they have completed 12 credits at Rutgers. The necessary form, with more detailed information, is available in the graduate office.

Examination Requirements

Ph.D. Candidacy (Qualifying) Procedure

All prospective candidates take the Ph.D. candidacy examination, normally after the equivalent of one year of graduate work.  For students entering in fall 2009 or later, the process for candidacy has been changed.  There is now a minimum grade requirement for all core courses.  The written qualifying exam was eliminated, and a new oral exam instituted, as described below.

A. Course requirements:  A grade of B or better must be obtained in each of the core courses before advancement to candidacy.  For the physics option the core courses are:  Quantum Mechanics 501-502, Electricity and Magnetism 503-504, Classical Mechanics 507, and Statistical Mechanics 611.  For the astronomy option the core courses are: Quantum Mechanics 501, Electricity and Magnetism 503-504, Classical Mechanics 507, and Stars 541 or Galaxies 543.  A course may be repeated one time, or the student may take the placement exam (below).  All courses must be completed by the end of the fourth semester, unless the Graduate Director agrees to an extension.  Entering students may be exempted from the taking one or more of the core courses only by passing the placement exam.

B.  Placement exam:  All entering students must now take a placement exam upon entry.  The exam will normally be offered a few days before classes start in the fall.  The exam has two parts:  Part A covers undergraduate material in classical mechanics, E&M, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics.  Part B covers graduate material at the level of the course 501, 502, 503, 504, 507, 611, and 541/543.  The exams covering 501, 503, 507 and 611 will normally be offered be offered before start of the fall semester, and the exams covering 502, 504, and 541/543 will normally be offered before the start of the spring semester.  Students who wish to place out of a graduate course, or challenge a grade below a B in a course, must take the appropriate section of Part B.  Students who do exceptionally poorly on Part A may be required to take the appropriate undergraduate courses.  Each section of the exam lasts two hours.  Students may bring a help sheet with notes written on both sides of a 8.5 x 11 inch sheet of paper for each part of the exam.  The topics covered by each exam can be found in a separate section of the graduate program section of the department web page.

C.  Candidacy Exam:  The goal of the procedure is to determine whether the candidate can grasp the relevance, goals, and techniques of a current area of research.  The candidacy exam consists of three parts: written paper, oral presentation, and oral exam. 

The candidate shall write a paper placing the chosen topic in its overall context and explaining the objectives and methods in a way that shows that he/she has understood them.  The paper may be in the form of a review or a research proposal for a specific subject.  In the case of a research proposal the emphasis should be on its context in the general research area and the over riding physical objectives.  The candidacy paper must be typed and in the style of a journal article or preprint.  It should be a well-referenced summary of the topic at the level, for example, of articles in Physics Today.  The completed paper must be distributed to the committee members no less than one week before the examination.  The paper should use Times New Roman or Computer Modern (LaTex) font 11pt, or Arial or Palatino font 10 pt, with no more than 6 lines per vertical inch, with approximately 10-12 pages of text, plus references and figures.

The oral presentation should be no more than 20-30 minutes, should be in the style of a conference presentation, and will not be interrupted by the committee except for brief clarifying questions. 

The oral examination should last at least an hour and will continue until the committee has enough information to reach a decision.  The committee will exam the candidate’s understanding of the topic, including the basic physics related to the research topic.

The committee will evaluate the candidate based on the following questions:


(a) Has the student explained why the selected topic is important/relevant/worthwhile?

(b) Has the student organized the material cogently and concisely?

(c) Was the oral presentation understandable and a suitable summary of the paper?

(d) Is the student familiar with relevant background material?

(e) Does the student have a good grasp of the underlying physics?


for a research paper

(f) Has the student evaluated the relevant existing work in the area?

(g) Can the proposed project reasonably be accomplished?


for a review paper

(f) Has the student grasped the key issues?

(g) Has the student shown critical judgment of the work reviewed?


In preparation for the exam, students entering in September (January) should identify a mentor during the following semester, and should give the mentor’s name to the Graduate Director no later than May 1 (Dec 1).  A one page summary of the proposed topic should be sent electronically to the Graduate Program Director by the following September 1 (Feb 1).  The exam should take place no later than December 1 (May 1) of the third semester.

Ph.D. Final Examination

The Ph.D. final examination is a public defense of the candidate's Ph.D. thesis. It is administered by the candidate's Ph.D. committee and is open to the public. The defense typically takes the form of a seminar, in which the student presents the background, development, and results of the research. Frequent questions from the committee test the candidate's understanding of the field of research and may also probe the breadth of the candidate's knowledge in other areas of physics and astronomy.

The thesis itself must be a clearly written account of original research. In addition to a description of the details and results of the research, it should contain an appropriate general and historical introduction, written at a level understandable to most second-year graduate students. The quality of the writing must be comparable to that found acceptable for publication in the standard journals. If the thesis consists of more than one piece of research, the parts should be tied together in the introduction and the conclusion.

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Revised June, 2010