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Advancement to Candidacy

The Qualifying Exam and Advancement to Candidacy

All students in the PhD program are required to pass a qualifying exam before advancement to candidacy for the PhD degree. This exam should be taken before the end of the third year of study in the program and cannot be scheduled until the preliminary exam (replaced by PHYS 202) has been passed and the core courses completed. As per the Policies and Procedures, a student who does not pass on time must petition the graduate chair for permission to pass the exam at a later time. For international students, even if a petition is approved, non-resident supplemental tuition (NRST) will be assessed after 6 semesters if the student has not advanced to candidacy.

The student should arrange an appropriate time for the oral exam in consultation with the committee chair, who can give additional guidance on what to expect from the oral exam. The scope of this examination should be communicated to student by the committee chair at least two months in advance of the exam date.

There are three components to the qualifying exam: the pre-qualifying meeting, submission of a proposal, and an oral examination.

The pre-qualifying meeting

At least 4 weeks before the tentative qualifying exam date, the student will meet with the faculty committee for a pre-qual evaluation. At this meeting the student will give an oral presentation prepared for the qualifying exam and receive feedback and suggested corrections for improvement and to aid in his/her preparation. The pre-qual is typically 1.5 to 2 hours.

This is a good time to do the "application for qualifying exam" form, which should be submitted at least one month before the qualifying exam. This form should list subjects, commonly around 3, within your subfield of physics that you are expected to know for the qualifying exam, determined in consultation with your committee. These subjects should be broader than your specific project, but narrower than a subfield of physics (biophysics, astrophysics, etc.); examples: gravitational lensing; dark matter; ferroelectrics; quantum dot spectroscopy; density-functional theory; physics of solar cells; machine learning. If you have outside member on your committee, this is the time you need to request approval of that. See Policies and Procedures regarding an "outside member."

This meeting typically is used as the annual committee meeting as well, in which case those procedures (including submission of the IDP) should be followed as well.

The qualifying exam proposal

At least 2 weeks before the scheduled qualifying exam the candidate should submit their research proposal to their qualifying exam committee. This document describes the research topic, summarizes progress to date, outlines the proposed PhD research, why it is relevant and what will be learned. The student should prepare this proposal in close collaboration with their research advisor who will provide guidance on content, format and length. The committee will review the proposal with the student to determine if the student has outlined a project suitable for a PhD. Once the proposal is approved the student may take the oral component of the qualifying exam.

The oral examination

The exam will consist of a formal research presentation to the committee after which the committee will question the candidate on a range of topics relevant to their project, including specific details of the project as well as basic physical concepts relevant to the subject of enquiry. The qual is typically 2 to 2.5 hours.

Advancement timeline/checklist

  • Approximately 1-2 years after joining a research group (and before the end of your 3rd year), consult with your advisor on when to take the qualifying exam.
  • Begin working on the qualifying exam proposal 2-3 months before you expect to take the oral exam. Writing the proposal is a collaborative process with your advisor and they will work with you to produce the final version for submission.
  • Contact your committee chair and members at least 2 months before you expect to take the oral exam to arrange a date and time for the exam and the pre-qual. Finalize the time and location for both, then book a room and make sure you will have the appropriate AV equipment for your presentation.
  • At least one month before the planned date, get signatures on the "application for qualifying exam" form and submit it to Graduate Division at
  • Submit the proposal to the committee at least 2 weeks before the exam; this should be a final completed version, not a draft. The committee may request changes to the proposal in which case the oral examination can be postponed if necessary.
  • Remember to bring the appropriate paperwork to the oral examination for your committee to sign.

Qualifying Examination and Dissertation Defense Modality (from Graduation Division's Graduate Handbook): Qualifying examinations and dissertation defenses are expected to be held in person. The student/candidate and all in-residence committee members are required to attend the examination/defense in person. Committee member(s) not in residence are encouraged to join in person as well but may participate remotely with approval of the Committee Chair, who is required to be in person. The Committee Chair must notify the Graduate Division at least 14 days before the examination/defense of remote participation for any committee member(s) that will not attend the examination/defense in residence. Such notification should be made by email to Exceptions for students and in-residence committee members must be approved by the Graduate Dean. Such petitions should be submitted using Section E of the General Petition form available on the Graduate Division website (

Procedures after passing the qualifying exam (info current as of 2024)

  • Please ensure that your committee chair fills out the following assessment: Physics Qualifying Exam Rubric. (This document may be used to collect feedback before entering into the rubric: Qual Rubric Word doc.) This is automatically emailed with subject line "Qualifying exam rubric scores" to you, the committee chair, and the grad group chair -- if you don't receive it, please check with the committee chair.

  • Get the qualifying exam report with signatures from the committee members. If you have passed, proceed below -- or if not, schedule a date with the committee to retake the exam after further preparation.

  • See the flow-chart for advancement to candidacy.

  • Email the qual report to (the Dean does not need to be included on the email). Then apply for candidacy from this link [note that you don't actually need to wait for approval from Grad Div before doing this, and you don't need to ask the graduate coordinator for the link]. You are suggested to apply for the masters degree "along the way" to PhD, with the check box in the Academic Information section. Pay the fee ($90), and then notify committee members and grad chair that they will get approval links from graduate services for OnBase. For the master's along the way, you can apply if you have completed all the required coursework already, or if you will have finished the required coursework by the end of the semester indicated in the form.

  • For the masters along the way, once your candidacy application is approved, fill out the form for the final report for the masters degree (which is different from the form in the previous point). Select Option II, and the qualifying exam counts as the comprehensive exam. Get your advisor's signature and then send it to the grad chair and the graduate manager/coordinator (currently Vanessa Lopez and Tom Martinez, email to fill in the info in the "Program/School" section. Then send it to

  • You will receive an email (after few days of getting the application approval) from Graduate Division to apply for masters (along the way) graduation. You need to go to MyStudentRecord and then Graduation Application. Follow the instructions to submit your graduation application for the current term. You need to pay a fee ($40) (which supports the purchase of your diploma and diploma mailing). Other information:

Some examples of proposals