Rutgers University Department of Physics and Astronomy

2016-17 Handbook for Physics and Astronomy Graduate Students

previous section - table of contents - next section

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. Graduate students should reduce the number of credits they take after the first few years, to avoid taking much more than 72 credits. Students can still be considered full time even with a reduced number of credits; students who need full time status should discuss this with the Graduate Director.

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.

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 from the Graduate School Forms web page or from the Department graduate office.

Examination Requirements

Ph.D. Candidacy (Qualifying) Procedure

The current Ph.D. qualifying system was adopted in 2009, with a subsequent adjustment to the astronomy course curriculum. Students are generally required to have a minimum grade of B or better to pass core courses. Normally, after one year of course work, students are expected to commence a research project with a Faculty Mentor, leading to taking the Ph.D. candidacy examination, described below, in the fall of their second year.

A. Course requirements: For the physics option the core courses to be passed 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, and Classical Mechanics 507, in the fall term of the first year, and Radiative Processes 514 and whichever is being offered of Galaxies 607 or Cosmology 608 in the spring term of the first year.
A grade of B or better must be obtained in each of the core courses before advancement to candidacy. A course may be repeated one time, or the student may take the challenge exam (see below). All core courses are generally expected 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 challenge exam.

Students are generally expected to take Seminar in Physics, 633-634, during their first two terms, although the Seminar is not part of the formal course requirement. The 1-credit Seminar introduces students to the research being carried out in the Department. Attendance is taken, but there are no homework assignments or exams.

Students with Teaching Assistantship appointments are generally expected to attend the DELTA-P program in the fall term to learn more about how to teach. DELTA-P is also run as a seminar series, with no credits, no homework, no examinations, and no registration required. A mentorship program, SIGMA-P, is run in the spring term.

B. Placement / challenge exams: All entering students must now take placement or challenge exams upon entry. The fall exams will normally be offered a few days before fall classes start. The placement or Part A exams cover undergraduate material students would be expected to have mastered before beginning the core fall graduate courses of Quantum Mechanics 501, Electricity and Magnetism 503, and Classical Mechanics 507. Students who do exceptionally poorly on Part A may be required to take the appropriate undergraduate courses before taking the graduate courses. The challenge or Part B exams cover the material of these courses at the graduate level. The challenge exams are offered only to students who have taken the corresponding courses previously, and students can only take the challenge exams with the permission of the Graduate Director.
The spring exams will normally be offered a few days before spring classes start. There is only a placement exam for Statistical Mechanics 611, but challenge exams will be offered for all core courses as needed. Permission of the Graduate Director is required to take the spring challenge exams.
Each section of the exam lasts two hours. Students may bring a formula 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 candidacy exam 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 candidacy exam process starts with the student selecting a Faculty Member who agrees to be their mentor for the candidacy process. Students entering in September (January) shall notify the Graduate Director of their mentor by the following May (December). The student will work with their mentor to familiarize themselves with a research topic, but for the purposes of the candidacy exam no original research is required -- the student does not need to complete an original derivation or analysis, for example. The student will send a one-paragraph summary of the proposed topic electronically to the Graduate Program Director by the following September 1 (Feb 1). The student will then be assigned a qualifying exam committee. The exam should take place no later than December 1 (May 1) of the student's third semester.

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?

Each section of the qualifier - the paper, presentation, and questioning - is evaluated and passed or failed independently. Students are given a second chance to pass any part of the exam that they fail. Students are generally expected to retake and pass the failed part of the candidacy exam by the end of their fourth semester, normally the spring term of their second year. Advance permission of the graduate program director is required for students who need additional time to complete the candidacy exam.

Annual Research Committee Meeting

After advancement to candidacy, the Graduate Director will appoint a four-member research committee for each student consisting generally of the adviser and three other members of the Graduate Faculty. The student shall meet annually with the research committee to review progress. The annual committee report form should be filled out by the student and adviser, and given to the Graduate Director.

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 consisting of the four-member Research Committee plus one outside member, familiar with the area of research but not part of the Graduate Faculty. The defense 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.

previous section - table of contents - next section

Back to Rutgers Physics Home Page

Please send any comments on this page to

Revised August 24, 2017