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Qualifying Exam FAQs

How many basic physics questions will I be expected to answer?

Questions will generally be related to the topic presented, but they may stray far from the initial discussion, depending on the circumstances, as commonly happens in a good physics discussion. This may be the result of an unsatisfactory answer to a previous question or may simply arise from questions from a committee member.

What are the committee members looking for in my presentation?

We are generally looking for command of the material and the related topic. While the main emphasis is on the science, a clear and crisp exposition will generally help the candidate. Note that while most of the exam clearly relates to the topic of your choice, you will need to know enough to provide context and make connections with a broader area of physics.

The presentation should be similar to the style of a colloquium, a talk that is meant to be understandable to all scientific members of a physics department and, as in the case of a colloquium speaker, you should be ready to field questions from any physicist, at any level.

How closely can the selected topic be to our current research?

You should identify a research topic from a field of interest to you that is also close to the forefront of current research. However, the topic cannot be in the same broad area of research as your intended research work. To clarify this point, you are required to identify your area of research as one of the four areas in the table below and select your topic from one of the remaining three:




Quantum gases, precision measurements, laser physics, X-ray physics, high energy density, GW techniques, QI
Particle Physics Collider physics, nuclear physics, neutrino physics, HEP theory, Direct DM detection
Condensed Matter Physics Strongly correlated systems, device physics, low dimensional systems, CM theory, biophysics, other areas connected with life sciences
Astrophysics Stellar formation, CMB, astrophysics with all wavelength and radiations, (including GW), cosmology, indirect DMM searches


How long should my presentation be?

One should expect the exam to last roughly 90 minutes (try to reserve a 2-hour block with your committee). The candidate should plan to talk for 45 minutes, leaving at least 15 minutes for questions on the talk itself and another 15-20 minutes for questions on related basic physics principles. The committee should also have an additional 10-15 minutes for a closed session. 

Who is on the Examination Committee?

The examination committee for an oral exam will ordinarily consist of three faculty members. One of
these will be chosen from the members of the Qual Exam Committee (QEC). Ordinarily, all three oral
exam committee members will be faculty within the Physics Department, Applied Physics, or SLAC
(PPA and Photon Science), but exceptions may occur for special reasons, as decided by the QEC. After
approval, the student must contact the assigned committee and schedule the examination – this is
often the most difficult part of the whole process, so ask your committee early (and often!).

Are there any examples of past topics that have been approved by the committee?

Please see this table of APPROVED TOPICS for examples of topics that have been approved. The table will be updated as topics are approved.

Can I choose a topic similar to that chosen in prior years? What if two students in a given year choose the same topic?

There is no prohibition against a student choosing a topic that was covered in a previous year or that happens to have been chosen during the current year by another student. But the students _must_ work independently; i.e there should be no contact or collaboration in preparing for the exam with other grad students. One exception is that students may give practice presentations to other students, and seek presentation advice as a consequence of those practice runs.

I'm interested in topic X. Who can I talk to to ensure that this is acceptable for an exam?

We can't pre-judge exam topic proposals. Please take a look at the descriptive materials and make the best judgment that you can as to whether the topic is appropriate and sufficiently far from your PhD research area/style. Prepare and submit your proposal. If your proposal is evaluated as not meeting requirements, you will be given a chance to chose and prepare an alternate topic.