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The goal of the graduate program is to train students at the leading edge of physics research and to prepare them to become the next generation of leaders in academia and industry. The first two years of the graduate curriculum is designed to provide students with the solid foundation necessary to start research in their chosen area of specialization. Graduate students have the opportunity to study traditional core physics areas of astrophysics, biophysics, condensed matter physics, high energy and medium energy particle physics, or perform interdisciplinary work at the boundaries of chemistry, biology, materials science, or engineering.

In general, candidates for the degree of Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) in Physics should expect to spend at least four years, or the equivalent, in full-time graduate study, including a minimum of one year of full-time work at Carnegie Mellon. The first three semesters are devoted to concentrated study of fundamental courses.  During their second year, students take the written and oral part of the Qualifying Examination. Following successful completion of this examination, students have to seek affiliation with one of the department's research groups and select a supervisor and subject area for their thesis research. Formal admission to candidacy for the Ph.D. depends on acceptable performance in teaching, research and course work, as well as the Qualifying Examination. Affiliation with a research group is encouraged to happen before admission to Ph.D. candidacy and can take place as early as the first semester.

The primary elements of the Graduate Program in the Department of Physics at Carnegie Mellon University are described below.

1. Placement Process

To determine the preparedness for graduate studies, every student takes a placement test on basic undergraduate physics. This test will consist of questions on Quantum Mechanics, Electrodynamics and Mathematical Physics, which are the standard courses for first year graduate students. The results of the test together with student interviews held by the students academic advisers are used to determine the optimum choice of courses in the first (and second) semester. The placement test does not affect the student's grades in any way. The responsibility for advising incoming graduate students is handled by the Director of the Graduate Program. Each first year graduate student is assigned an adviser who is typically one of the first semester instructors teaching the core graduate courses.

2. Course Requirements

Students must successfully complete a series of courses before being admitted to Ph.D. candidacy. The typical pre-qualifying course program is as follows:

Fall Semester, First Year
Number Name Units Requirement
33-755 Quantum Mechanics I 12 required
33-759 Mathematical Physics 12 required
33-761 Electrodynamics I 12 required
33-775 Introduction to Research I 2 required
33-794 Physics Colloquium 1 suggested


Spring Semester, First Year
Number Name Units Requirement
33-756 Quantum Mechanics II 12 required
33-762 Electrodynamics II 12 suggested
33-765 Statistical Mechanics 12 required
33-776 Introduction to Research II 6 required
33-794 Physics Colloquium 1 suggested


By the end of the second year of graduate stduies, students muct complete as a course breath requirement two courses out of the following list of classes.

33-758 Quantum Computation and Information
33-767 Intro. to Biophysics
33-777 Introductory Astrophysics
33-779 Intro. to Nuclear & Particle
33-783 Theory of Solids

Individual research groups may impose further course requirements on their students.

3. Academic Performance

Students must pass all required courses with a grade of B- or higher before being admitted to Ph.D. candidacy. Exceptions can be made only if a student demonstrates proficiency in the subject matter of a particular course and receives prior approval by the Graduate Program Director.  Students are also required to maintain a satisfactory academic record in order to continue in the Graduate Program. This means students cannot have a grade point average of less than 3.0 in each of two consecutive semesters.

4. Qualifying Exams.

Two qualifying exams have to be passed for a student to be admitted to Ph.D. candidacy: The General Written Qualifying Exam and the Special Oral Qualifying Exam. Students take these exams during their second year of graduate studies. If both examinations are not passed on the level required for the Ph.D. program, candidates are still eligible to pass the Qualifying examination on the Master level to receive a M.S. in Physics.

a. General Written Qualifying Exam
To qualify for Ph.D. candidacy students have to pass the General Written Qualifying Exam which covers the course material of the first year graduate courses plus Classical Mechanics. The exam is offered twice a year. Graduate students must take both days of the Written Qualifying Exam in August after their first year of graduate study.  The last opportunity for a student to pass the Written Qualifying Exam is in August before the student's third year of graduate study.

b. Special Oral Exam

The purpose of the Special Oral Qualifying Exam is to evaluate the candidate's ability to learn new material and apply knowledge from the Course Work to a new topic, present a coherent talk on a large topic as well as answer questions on various aspects of a given topic.  Students are required to take the Oral Exam in their second year of graduate studies. The exam is given annually in January in the week prior to the start of the spring semester classes. References and suggested reading material will be made available to the students.  If Special Oral Qualifying Exam is not passed on the first attempt it may be taken a second time the following year.

5. Thesis Research and Annual Research Reviews

It is expected that students will find a thesis research supervisor before the end of their second year of graduate studies.  After a student has fulfilled all course requirements and successfully passed both of the Qualifying Exams, the student is passed on to Ph.D. candidacy after vote by the faculty and begins full-time thesis research. No later than one year after the student passes onto Ph.D. candidacy a committee of faculty, which will evolve into the student's thesis committee, conducts annual reviews of the students research progress.

6. Teaching and Language Requirement

All graduate students are required to perform classroom teaching for at least one semester before receiving a Ph.D. in Physics.  Students will benefit from the practice gained by explaining complex physics in an understandable way and by responding to questions.  If a student's native language is not English, a certification of proficiency in spoken English is necessary before the student will be allowed to perform the required classroom teaching. To obtain certification, non-native English speakers must pass an International Teaching Assistant (ITA) Test administered by the Intercultural Communication Center (ICC) at CMU.

  1. Transcript: Arrange for an official copy of your transcript from all college-level institutions that you attended (independent whether you received a degree or not) to be sent directly to the CMU Physics Department by your university.
  2. GRE and TOEFL: Arrange for your GRE General and GRE Subject Test scores as well as your TOEFL scores to be sent to Carnegie Mellon University directly.
  3. Online Application: Complete the online application after creating an account.  The Online Application System opens typically middle/end of October.
  4. Letters of recommendation:  Provide three letters of recommendation from professional references.  At least one letter should be from the institution that you currently attend or attended most recently.  Your recommenders will receive instructions after you complete the online application.
  5. Note, there is no application fee.


Nearly all graduate students in the Ph.D. programs receive financial support in the form of an assistantship or fellowship. Teaching assistantships typically involve four hours of classroom time and, altogether about 15 hours a week including classroom time, preparation and grading. Such teaching experience is considered a valuable part of your graduate training. The hours required are such that you may pursue a full graduate program. Teaching assistants receive a stipend and a tuition scholarship.

Performing the duties of a teaching or research assistant is part of your graduate training. Such service, or its equivalent, is required of all candidates for graduate degrees, whether or not they receive stipends.

To maintain support from the department, all students whose native language is not English must either pass the International Teaching Assistant test administered by the Intercultural Communications Center or must be satisfactorily participating in the English training program prescribed for them.

During their thesis research, candidates for the Ph.D. degree are, in most cases, supported as research assistants by the research group with which they become associated in the second year of residence.  Sometimes, a first-year graduate student will be offered a research assistantship. The principal duty of a research assistantship is to aid in the program of one of the department's research groups. The stipend and the time required are essentially the same as for a teaching assistantship.

Additional financial support is usually available for students wishing to participate in research projects or teaching during the summer months.

Students accepting appointments with the Department of Physics may not accept an appointment elsewhere or engage in any occupation other than their program at the university, unless they receive written permission to do so from the Head of the Department of Physics.

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