Physics Graduate Student Curriculum

Graduate study can be complicated. The faculty of the Physics Department is here to help. Additional information is available at the university graduate office website and its physics page.

  1. Overview of Ph.D. Requirements
  2. Overview of M.S. Requirements
  3. Exceptions
  4. Communication
  5. Graduate Studies Committee
  6. Advisors
  7. Committees
  8. Exams
  9. Courses
  10. Assistantships
  11. Dissertation or Thesis
  12. Conflict of Interest
  13. Non-degree students and leaves of absence
  14. Resources for Graduate Students
  15. Contacts

Overview of Ph.D. Requirements

Doctoral students typically spend a couple of years taking core courses, studying for and passing the comprehensive examinations, getting to know the faculty, and possibly taking some independent research projects. During this time, students select a research advisor and research project, and begin the process of research which should end in a dissertation. The list of requirements below is a summary. Official rules are in the graduate bulletin. All degree students, even those without assistantships, will be required to perform some Department service, such as proctoring exams.

Course Requirements:

A minimum of 60 credits with an average grade of B or higher is required.

  1. Core Courses: Eight core courses (24 credits), Phy 517, 527, 537, 539, 547, 557, 577 and 587 with an average grade of B or better. Up to 24 credits may be transferred from another institution as approved by the physics graduate studies committee.
  2. Physics Electives: (12-33 credits) At least four letter-graded graduate courses with an average grade of B or higher, in physics, or in other fields as approved by the physics graduate studies committee. Students whose native language is other than English may take ETAP 500, academic writing, as an elective. Up to 30 credits total of core and elective credit may be transferred from another institution as approved by the physics graduate studies committee.
  3. Physics Research: (3-24 credits) Research as approved by the advisor. Phy 695 for students who have not advanced to candidacy, and Phy 810 for doctoral candidates who have not met the credit requirement. A minimum of 1 credit of Phy 899, doctoral dissertation is required.
  4. Transfer or Advanced Standing Credit: Up to 30 credits of core and elective courses may be transferred from another institution as approved on an individual basis by the physics Graduate Studies Committee (GSC). Students with substantial transfer credit or advanced standing are encouraged to begin research in their first year.

Typical Course Sequence.


Year 1: Fall cr Year 1: Spring cr Last week in May
Phy 527 Classical Mechanics 3 Phy 517 Statistical Mechanics 3 X
Phy 537 Electrodynamics 1 3 Phy 539 Electrodynamics 2 3 X
Phy 547 Quantum 1 3 Phy 557 Quantum 2 3 X
(Phy 680) Seminar in Physics
(informal audit)
0 Comprehensive Exams

Year 2: Fall cr Year 2: Spring cr Last week in May
Phy 587 Solid State 1 3 Phy 577 Computational Physics 3 X
Phy 680 Seminar in Physics 1 X
Phy 5XX Elective 3 Phy 5XX Elective 3 X
Phy 695 Research 2 Phy 695 Research 3 Comprehensive Exams (2nd chance)

Year 3: Fall cr Year 3: Spring cr
Phy 5XX Elective 3 Phy 5XX Elective 3
Phy 695 Research 0 Phy 695 Research

Year 4: Fall cr Year 4: Spring cr
Phy 5XX Elective 3 Phy 810 Doctoral Dissertation 1
Phy 695 Research 9

Elective Course Categories

General experimental techniques Materials Particle, Nuclear Physics and Atoms and Molecules Bio/Medical Theory, Computational,
and Information Physics
Exp. Techniques in Physics,
Phy 519
Phy 562
Particle Physics, Phy 526 BioPhysics, Phy/Chm 544 Mathematical Methods II,
Phy 508
Bayesian Data Analysis,
Phy 551
Phy 515
X-ray Analysis and Imaging, Phy 566 Intro to Particle Physics, Phy 568 X-ray Analysis and Imaging Phy 566 Solid State Physics II,
Phy 671
Information Physics,
Phy 640
Electronics Projects,
Phy 516
Electron Microscopy, Phy 580 Nuclear Physics,
Phy 520
Phy 632
Introduction to Gen. Relativity,
Phy 542
Electronic Structure,
Phy 651, 652
Microprocessor Applications,
Phy 553
Solid State Physics II,
Phy 671
Atoms and Molecules,
Phy 560
Medical Imaging,
Phy 548
Quantum Mechanics 3,
Phy 619
Intro to Quantum Foundations & Quantum Information,
Phy 549
Microprocessors Lab,
Phy 554
Nuclear Medicine,
Phy 545
Quantum Field Theory,
Phy 782

Additional requirements are listed under the Comprehensive Exam section.

Departmental Examinations and Academic Progress Requirements

  1. Academic progress is evaluated by performance in graduate courses, in a written comprehensive examination, and in research. The comprehensive examination is a set of three three-hour exams on classical, statistical-thermal, and quantum physics.
  2. By the end of the first year, students must show at least satisfactory progress in coursework, and take at least two parts of the comprehensive examination. Minimum progress toward passing must be demonstrated in at least two parts of the comprehensive examination (minimum progress is typically around a 50% score on each part).
  3. Students must pass all three parts of the comprehensive examination by the end of the second year.
  4. Students who fail to reach the requisite standard in the comprehensive examination either after the first year or the second year may petition the physics faculty for an additional opportunity to take the examination, but petitions will only be granted in exceptional circumstances.
  5. By the end of their first year, students are expected to have investigated possible research areas through discussion with faculty, and to have begun at least preliminary research with a research advisor.
  6. By the end of the fifth semester, students must pass an oral qualifying examination that includes a presentation on a topic approved by their research advisor, demonstrating knowledge of the literature of the field. Extensions may be requested in writing from the physics graduate studies committee. This exam may be completed before the comprehensive exam, as advised.
  7. Students must pass a final oral examination, which is a defense of the dissertation.

Research Skill Requirement

Each student must demonstrate proficiency in an appropriate research skill. Examples of research skills are a thorough knowledge of a foreign language, a computer programming language, or electronics. This may be demonstrated with Phy 577.

Admission to Candidacy

Students must be admitted to candidacy at least one semester before receiving a Ph.D. An application to candidacy is accepted when a student has:

  1. a satisfactory record in course and research work;
  2. completed University residence requirements;
  3. completed the research skill requirement;
  4. passed the comprehensive exam sections and the oral qualifying examination.

Overview of M.S. Requirements

Master's students have a variety of different goals. Two different sequences exist, for those students who choose to write a Master's thesis, or who wish to pass a portion of the exam in lieu of a thesis. Some students begin their graduate study intending to stop at a Master's degree, and then decide they enjoy graduate study and continue to the doctoral program. Some students begin the doctoral program, decide they don't enjoy graduate study, and opt for a Master's degree.

Option A (30 credits):

  1. Six core courses in Physics (18 credits) with an average grade of B or higher: Phy 517, 527, 537, 547 and two of Phy 539, 557, 577, 587.
  2. Twelve credits of research in Physics (Phy 695 or 699), with at least one of those credits in Phy 699.
  3. Successful defense and final approval of a master's thesis.
  4. Demonstration of proficiency in one of various research skills. Examples of appropriate skills are: foreign languages, computer programming, numerical analysis and technologies such as electronics. This may be demonstrated with Phy 577.

Option B (32 credits):

  1. Eight core courses in Physics (24 credits) with an average grade of B or higher: Phy 517, 527, 537, 539, 547, 557, 577, 587.
  2. Six credits of elective courses approved by advisor with an average grade of B or higher (courses without a letter-grade option are exempted).
  3. Demonstration of proficiency in one of various research skills. Examples of appropriate skills are: foreign languages, computer programming, numerical analysis and technologies such as electronics. This may be demonstrated with Phy 577.
  4. Two credits of Physics seminar (Phy 784) distributed over two semesters.
  5. Satisfactory performance on comprehensive exams.


Some of the requirements described in this handbook are set in stone. Others are not. If you have a special problem, discuss it with your advisor, the Graduate Studies Committee, or the Department Chair. Someone may be able to help. Rules described in the Graduate Bulletin are generally Official University Policy which cannot be ignored.


It is very important to keep in touch. Department personnel are here to help, and informal discussions are encouraged.

A student's progress must be properly documented. You should inform the department when you choose your advisor, research topic, and research committee. The passing of exams, skill requirements, etc. should be promptly reported to the University. Make sure your records are accurate and up to date.

Research can isolate a student. Regular communications with your research committee can generate new ideas, avoid errors, and help you see a broader scope of physics. Graduate students learn a great deal by talking with each other. You are also encouraged to attend the Physics Department colloquia that are usually held on Friday.

Graduate Studies Committee

The Graduate Studies Committee oversees the graduate program. Its regular members are physics faculty and graduate students. Its responsibilities include:

i) Addressing graduate student problems and complaints.

ii) Monitoring the graduate curriculum.

iii) Granting transfer credits.

iv) Advising the Physics Department Chair on admissions, assistantships, fellowships, summer stipends, disputes, discipline, etc.

The Physics Department Chair has final authority on iv) above. The Chair is an ex-officio member of the Graduate Studies Committee.


Each graduate student is initially assigned an "academic advisor". Later, the Ph.D. and Thesis-MS students work with a "research advisor". You and your prospective research advisor must agree that collaboration will be in your best interest. Students are encouraged to work on different research projects for short time periods before making final decisions about their research and advisor.

An academic advisor should be accessible, sympathetic, and helpful. A research advisor should possess these same virtues, and also offer the finest possible scientific guidance and support. If your advisor lacks any of these desirable qualities, or if you have changed your mind about your research interests, change advisors. The choice of research area and a style of advisement suited to your personality is more important than the risk of hurting an advisor's feelings.


Each student's research committee monitors the research and acts as the core of the dissertation or thesis committee for the final defense. For Ph.D. students, the research committee judges the Oral Qualifying Exam. The dissertation or thesis committee consists of the research committee with additional members. It judges the final presentation for the Ph.D. or Thesis-MS degree. The committees are usually chaired by the research advisor. However, if the advisor is from outside the physics department, a physics department faculty member serves as chair. You and your research advisor choose the committee members. Questions about appropriate members for these committees should be referred to the Graduate Studies Committee.

Committee membership rules are as follows
Research Committees for Ph.D. Candidates:
a) At least three members, including the research advisor.
b) At least two members from the physics department.
Research Committees for Thesis-MS candidates:
a) At least two members, including the research advisor.
b) At least one member from the physics department.
Dissertation Committees for Ph.D. candidates:
a) At least five members, including all members of the research committee, when possible.
b) At least three members from the physics department.
c) At least one member from outside the physics department.
Dissertation Committees for Thesis-M.S. candidates
a) At least three members, including all members of the research committee, when possible.
b) At least two members from the physics department.
For these committees, a member from physics means only regular faculty. Outside the physics department means any qualified individual subject to approval by the Graduate Studies Committee.


Written Comprehensive Exams:
There will be three comprehensive exams, each 3 hours long, offered once every year at the end of the spring semester, the week after commencement. The exams will be designed to test the basic material which is prerequisite to more advanced courses.
PhD students must achieve a PhD-pass (a score of >20 points out 30 possible) in all three exams by the end of the second year (third year for students entering in the spring). In exceptional circumstances, students may petition for one more attempt.

Classical Physics
(classical mechanics, electromagnetism, including optics, radiation, special relativity)

Quantum Physics
(including standard applications to atomic, molecular, solid state, particle and nuclear physics)

Statistical and Thermal Physics
(thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, statistics and probability including applications from materials and solid state physics)

Oral Qualifying Exam:
The oral qualifying examination consists of a presentation on a topic approved by the research advisor that demonstrates knowledge of the literature of the field. The exam must be taken by the end of the fifth semester. Extensions may be requested in writing from the physics graduate studies committee in extenuating circumstances.

Assistantships and Fellowships

Graduate Assistantships or Fellowships are awarded only to students in the Ph.D. program. Students with Assistantships and Fellowships can obtain tuition waivers by submitting the appropriate forms. United States citizens must become New York State residents to be eligible for waivers on a continuing basis.

Students with Assistantships must satisfactorily complete 9 credits per semester to be considered full-time students. The tuition waiver associated with a teaching assistantship will not cover more credits than this. The tuition waiver will not cover undergraduate courses. Graduate Assistantships can be either Teaching Assistantships (State funding), or Research Assistantships (External funding). In many cases, a student changes from a Teaching Assistant to a Research Assistant after becoming involved with a funded research project. Typically, teaching assistants will direct undergraduate labs, serve as tutors, help with the administering and grading of exams, or grade problem sets.

Students without teaching assistantships should take at least 12 credits a semester (including undergraduate courses) to be considered full time students. (Students with teaching assistantships should take 9 credits per semester.) This is particularly important for International students to maintain their student status. If there are any questions, international students should verify their status with the International Student Office.
Graduate Assistantships are not a form of permanent employment. Teaching Assistantships will be terminated after four years. Assistantships can be terminated for other reasons, like failing to perform the required teaching duties. A Teaching Assistantship is expected to require approximately 20 hours per week, on average, throughout the semester.

Conflict of interest

Students with assistantships are expected not to have other jobs, even part-time jobs, sales for commissions, etc. Students with jobs are expected to resign their assistantships. Some amount of paid tutoring in physics is generally allowed. More details on conflict of interest are available from the University.

Dissertation or Thesis

The final step to the Ph.D. or Thesis-M.S. is the submission of a written dissertation or thesis to the appropriate committee, followed by a public presentation and defense. The dissertation or thesis must be approved by the research advisor, a majority of the committee, a majority of the physics department members of the committee, the department chair, and the Dean of Graduate Studies.

A dissertation or thesis reports the results of a substantial research effort. The committee reading this work deserves at least two weeks to review its contents. The thesis or dissertation must satisfy University requirements regarding preparation and submission. This information is available at the Graduate Admissions office. Writing a good dissertation or thesis is more difficult and more time consuming than one ever imagines. Don't assume it can be done in a month.

Non-degree students and leaves of absence

Students may be admitted into "non-degree" or degree programs. Non-degree students who wish to work towards a degree, and MS students who want to work towards a Ph.D. must apply to the Office of Graduate Studies for admission into the appropriate program. Non-degree students can transfer no more than 12 credits to their degree program.

A graduate student must be registered each semester from admission until graduation. When this is not possible, a student should apply for a leave of absence for up to four semesters. The duration of a leave does not count against deadlines for the comprehensive exam or degree requirements. Being on leave means a student is not working with University personnel to complete his degree. A student who simply "drops out" and tries to return may have difficulty obtaining retroactive leave and readmission.


Physics Department Chair:                 Professor Keith Earle

Graduate Studies Committee Chair:      Professor Carolyn MacDonald