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Qualifying Exam

The Qualifying Exam is an important part of the process of admission to candidacy. The oral exam seeks to give the student an opportunity to exhibit a broad knowledge of physics and an in-depth understanding of a particular area of physics that is not the one of their thesis research. The student should exhibit command of the material, an ability to extract the essential elements of a relatively recent development in physics, and the capacity to present this material to an audience of general professionals in a way that demonstrates their expertise.  It is required that students schedule the exam for the Winter or Spring quarter of their second year. To learn more about the exam, please review the policy (below):

2023-2024 Qualifying Exam Policy

2023-2024 Qualifying Exam Topic Submission Form

2023-2024 Qualifying Exam Action Items

Qualifying Exam Previously Approved Topics

2023-2024 Qualifying Exam Evaluation Form

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 talk?

We are generally looking for a clear description of the paper's key result and the basic physics behind it. 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  range of  physics. 

The presentation should be lecture/expository style, at a level accessible to any physicist. So start at the advanced undergraduate level and develop the explanation as fully as you can in the time available. You may be asked questions, both during and after the exam, on both the particular result being presented and on related topics.  The questions may be at any level, but good responses to foundational-level questions are most important. On-your feet thinking is encouraged and reasonable discussion of specialist-level questions might be considered a stretch goal.

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:

CategoryExample topics
AMOQuantum gases, precision measurements, laser physics, X-ray physics, high energy density, GW techniques, QI
Particle PhysicsCollider physics, nuclear physics, neutrino physics, HEP theory, Direct DM detection
Condensed Matter PhysicsStrongly correlated systems, device physics, low dimensional systems, CM theory, biophysics, other areas connected with life sciences
AstrophysicsStellar 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 the remaining time for questions from the committee and 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 tthese 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.

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 it is recommended that you do not pick a topic directly from the previously approved topics list. 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.