Information for Physics and Space Sciences Graduate Students 

Graduate Research and Academic Steering Panel

The Graduate Research and Academic Steering Panel (GRASP) is responsible for administering the graduate degrees in the Physics and Space Sciences program. The GRASP tasks include:

  • Application review.
  • Graduate Student Assistantship (GSA) recommendations.
  • Evaluate graduate level special topics and independent studies.
  • Approve MS and PhD program plans.
  • Review, approve and administer PhD Comprehensive exams.
  • Review graduate student appeals.
  • Recommend graduate program policy changes.
  • Maintain and update graduate program forms.

Physics and Space Sciences (PSS) Programs

We offer the following graduate programs (click to find university-wide requirements for each program):

Program Plans and Forms

General purpose forms:

M.S. Program Forms:

Ph.D Program Forms:

Diagnostic Exam Policy

The diagnostic exam covers the following four fundamental physics subjects at undergraduate level: Mechanics, Electricity and Magnetism, Thermodynamics, and Modern Physics (Quantum Physics). All new graduate students, except those listed in item (7) below, must take the diagnostic exam during the orientation week prior to entering the graduate programs in physics or space sciences. The result of the exam will be used by the department and academic advisor to identify any deficiencies in the student’s undergraduate preparation.

  1. A letter will be sent to all admitted students informing them of the exam schedule, example problems, preparation techniques and policy.
  2. The exam is closed book but students may bring their own 8.5x11-inch sheet with hand-written formulas on both sides – no problem solutions or descriptions may be included on this sheet. A book of standard mathematical tables will be provided by the department. The formula sheet will be collected after the exam for grading purposes.
  3. Each of the four subject exams will be allocated one hour and will be administered over one or two days. These policies govern the administration of the tests themselves.
    • Students must take each subject exam when it is offered. Students are not allowed to postpone part or all of the exam for a semester without express permission from the GRASP.
    • All students taking exams during a session must be present at the start of that session.
    • Exams will be anonymized for grading purposes by assigning each student a number. Mechanics exams will then be numbered 1xx, Electromagnetism exams 2xx, etc.
    • Students must take the exams in the order they are given.
    • The coordinator will keep a spreadsheet tracking which exams are given to students in each period, and which numbers. This will ensure effective administration of (3) and (4).
    • Time will be allowed between each exam to collect and distribute exams.
  4. Students who fail parts of the exam will be placed by their advisor in one of following remedies:
    • Take undergraduate classes as deficiency, particularly for those students who did not study the subjects at undergraduate level or if the deficiency is large. When the relevant undergraduate class is at 3xxx level, students should sign up for an independent study at the 4xxx level and will be responsible for doing the work in the 3xxx course plus additional work as assigned by the instructor. The deficiency courses must be passed with a grade B or better. Note that up to two 4xxx level undergraduate courses may be used as general credit hours toward a MS/PhD graduate degree. Deficiency courses cannot be used as substitutes for the required graduate courses on the same subject.
    • Study the subject by working on homework problems assigned by the department. This option is recommended only in cases where the relevant course is not given in the current year or if the student came close to passing. Students are given a large number of homework problems which they have to finish with >80% done correctly before the beginning of the following semester.
  5. The department Graduate Teaching Assistantship (GTA) funds can only be used to pay for at most two deficiency courses.
  6. Students who fail the diagnostic exam and do not complete deficiency work within one year will not be eligible for GTA in the following year.
  7. Students with a GRE physics subject score over 50% percentile are exempt.
  8. Exemptions to the above rules for special cases are subject to approval by the GRASP and the Program Chair.

Diagnostic Sample Exams

Qualifying Exam policy

The Qualifying Exam (QE) tests core areas of physics at the advanced undergraduate level. Passing these exams is required for all students planning to pursue a Physics or Space Sciences Ph.D. in the Department of Aerospace Physics and Space Sciences – a pass on the exam qualifies you to take the Comprehensive Exam (see below). PhD students are required to take the QE for the first time in the Fall term of their second calendar year in the PhD program, with a second attempt (if necessary) in the Fall term of their third calendar year for areas that were not passed. Note that passing this exam is not a requirement for the Master’s Degree.

  1. The QE consists of four sections, testing the core areas of physics: Classical Mechanics (CM), Quantum Mechanics (QM), Electricity and Magnetism (EM) and Thermal and Statistical Mechanics (TSM) at the advanced undergraduate level. In the Table below, we provide a suggested textbook for each of these core areas of physics. You are expected to be able to solve problems in all chapters of the textbooks listed. Questions on the exam will be at the level of the end-of-chapter problems in the listed textbooks. They may or may not be taken directly from the textbooks. Sample exams are provided on the GRASP website.
  2. Core Area Suggested Textbooks
    • Classical Mechanics Classical Dynamics by Thornton & Marion
    • Electricity & Magnetism Introduction to Electrodynamics by Griffiths
    • Quantum Mechanics Introduction to Quantum Mechanics by Griffiths
    • Thermo/Stat Mech An Introduction to Thermal Physics by Schroeder
  3. Each core area exam of the QE will be two hours long and closed-book. Students may bring a hand-written 8.5x11-inch equation sheet, with formulas on both sides of the page and marked with the student’s name. Note that only equations and physical constants are allowed on this sheet. No problem solutions or descriptions may be included on the equation sheet. A book of standard mathematical tables will be provided by the department.
  4. The CM and EM sections of the QE will be offered on the first Friday of the Fall Term (orientation week), and the QM and TSM sections will be offered on the following Friday of the same term (first week of class). See for the academic calendar.
  5. Students will be allowed two and only two attempts at the QE.  A third attempt will only be granted in a maximum of one exam, and in that case the third attempt will be oral and taken in the same semester as the second attempt.
  6. Students failing one or more core area exams must retake that exam. Students that twice fail two or more sections will only be eligible for a terminal Master’s degree and will not be admitted to Ph.D. candidacy. A student that twice fails one or more sections of the QE may lose financial support at the end of the Spring semester of their second year, but a student who is otherwise in good academic standing may be supported for an extra semester if required to complete their Master’s degree, subject to approval by the GRASP and the PSS Program Chair.
  7. Appeals may be made in writing to the GRASP. Both the student and the Major Advisor must each submit written justification for allowing a third (and final) retake no more than one section of the core physics Qualifying Exam.
  8. Students may obtain a waiver for the QE by taking the GRE Physics Exam and achieving a score in the 67th percentile or higher. An official GRE report must be received from the testing agency and be part of the student’s academic file  (photocopies or scans are not accepted) before the student is required to take the QE.
  9. Students are not allowed to postpone part or all of the exam for a semester without express permission from the GRASP. Students missing from one or more core area exams (no shows) will be given a failing grade, which will count toward their two attempts at the QE. Exceptions for this rule will be made for documented medical or personal reasons (with approval by the Dean of students) and for students who obtain a GRE waiver as described in 7. 
  10. Qualifying Exams will be written primarily for students currently in the PhD program.  MS program students may take the Exams, and if they take the exam, it will count as one of their two tries.  However, if no student currently in the PhD program is taking an Exam, that Exam will not be given.

Qualifying Sample Exams 

Comprehensive Exam Policy

Each Ph.D. student in the PSS program is required to pass a Comprehensive Exam (CE). This exam is required to become a candidate for the Ph.D. degree, and cannot be taken until the student has passed the Qualifying Exams. The exam consists of two parts:

  1. Written Part: Two written, 2-hour exams preferably relevant to the subject area of the student's research but may also include other areas considered appropriate by the doctoral committee. This section is expected to be taken in the semester following the successful completion of the QE, and does not require the completion of all coursework. These exams are at graduate level.
  2. Students must select 2 subjects from the following list after discussing their plans with their Major Advisor
    • Advanced Electrodynamics
    • Advanced Quantum Mechanics
    • High-Energy Particle Physics
    • Condensed Matter Physics
    • Atmospheric Electrodynamics
    • Stellar Astrophysics
    • Galaxies and Cosmology
    • Planetary interiors
    • Planetary Atmospheres
    • Low-Energy Space Physics
    • High-Energy Space Physics
    • Other specialized subject exams, as approved by the GRASP
  3. Oral Part: Following the successful completion of the written subject exams, the student will do an oral presentation of his/her PhD research topic (Proposal Conference). To comply with Graduate School policy, this cannot be done until all classroom coursework is complete.
  4. The examination must be passed at least one year before the PhD is awarded. Scheduling the examination to meet this requirement is the responsibility of the student and his or her doctoral committee. Note that the doctoral committee must be formed 60 days before the written examination described in 1.
  5. The written exams are to be composed by the student's doctoral committee.
  6. The student must be enrolled at the time the oral examination (Proposal Conference) is taken, otherwise, a separate examination fee must be paid. The oral examination must be announced by the Graduate Program Office two weeks in advance.
  7. To pass, the student must have the unanimous approval of the doctoral committee.
  8. Consistent with University Policy, a student who fails a subject exam from the CE will be allowed one opportunity to repeat that subject exam after a suitable period of study if the majority of the doctoral committee approves, taking into account the recommendation of the

PSS contacts

More Resources

Office of Graduate Programs 
Find more information on policies, thesis and dissertation process and other forms, documents and checklists