This page provides a summary of the requirements for the PhD in Physics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. While we do our best to provide accurate and complete information on this page, the Graduate Student Handbook is the only official resource for the complete set of policies and procedures.
By default, PhD students in their first year will take a suite of four or five core courses that provide foundational preparation for future research work. They are: Dynamical Systems (Classical Mechanics), Electricity and Magnetism, Quantum Mechanics I and II, and Statistical Mechanics. Incoming students who have taken one or more equivalent courses before joining our program can test out of any of the core courses by taking and passing an exam that is similar to the core course final exam. Incoming students who already have a MS degree may test out of all core courses with a single oral, which will be administered during the orientation period before the start of fall semester classes (see also the next section on exams).
Some incoming students may benefit from taking one or more undergraduate-level course(s) before enrolling in the corresponding graduate core course(s). This option is available for Electricity and Magnetism, Quantum Mechanics I and II, and Statistical Mechanics. To help with that decision, all incoming students will participate in a diagnostic pre-test during the orientation period. Depending on the outcome of this pre-test and the academic transcript of a student, the student's academic advisor may recommend that the student enroll in undergraduate-level course(s) for one of more subject areas. The student would then take the corresponding graduate core courses in the second year.
B. Preliminary and Comprehensive Examination
All PhD students are expected to pass the Preliminary Evaluation by the end of the first academic year in the program. To pass the preliminary evaluation, a student must achieve a score of at least 50% in the final exam of a graduate core course or at least 75% in the final exam of an undergraduate-level course in the following three subject areas: Electricity and Magnetism, Quantum Mechanics, and Statistical Mechanics. Reaching this score in either Quantum I or II is sufficient to pass the Preliminary Evaluation in Quantum Mechanics. Furthermore, a QPA of 3.0 or better is required for the Preliminary Evaluation.
By the end of the second academic year, all PhD students are expected to pass the Comprehensive Evaluation. The criteria for the Comprehensive Evaluation are: (a) a score of at least 60% in the final exams of the following core courses: Electricity and Magnetism, Statistical Mechanics, Quantum I, and either Dynamical Systems or Quantum II, and (b) a QPA of 3.0 or better.
If a student does not pass either the Preliminary or the Comprehensive Examination in a regular fashion, the Graduate Committee of the Department may decide to terminate the student from the program or propose remedial steps that need to be fulfilled to return to good academic standing.
In general, all graduate students are expected to serve as teaching assistants (TAs) for two academic terms (term = semester or summer session). Most first-year graduate students are supported as TAs, but this requirement can also be fulfilled at a later time. To be eligible as TA, a student must have a QPA of at least 3.0.
All incoming students are required to take a one-credit course (PHYS 2997) on "Teaching of Physics and Astronomy" during the Fall semester of their first year. This course tells them about their responsibilities as Teaching Assistants, introduces them to effective teaching methods, and incorporates extensive teaching practice sessions.
The Department of Physics and Astronomy, in cooperation with the Physics Department at CMU, offers a weekly colloquium series during the fall and spring semesters, with external invited speakers giving presentations on a variety of topics of current reseach in physics and astronomy. These presentations are at a level that is accessible to a general physics audience, and all first-year PhD students are expected to attend the colloquia to expand their exposure to current research areas. The colloquium schedule is posted on the Department calendar.
E. Research Agreement and Dissertation Committee
Within six months after passing the Comprehensive Examination, each PhD student should complete a Reseach Argeement with a research advisor. This agreement indicates that the student has been accepted to work on a dissertation under the guidance of the advisor, which respresents a long-term commitment for both the faculty member and the graduate student. The Research Agreement is binding and can only be terminated through a formal statement signed by all parties.
It may take time for a graduate student to find a research group that is a good fit between the student's research interest and the faculty member's ability to support the student. Therefore all PhD students are urged to begin this seach within their first year of graduate studies. New graduate students are encouraged to visit research group meetings and directly talk to professors and their group members. The Department also organizes weekly research talks by faculty members during the spring semester, as well as a Graduate Student Research Mixer, typically in February.
Within eight months after passing the Comprehensive Examination, a PhD student is expected to assemble a Dissertation Committee. The committee meets with the students at least once every twelve months to assess progress toward completion of the PhD. For each meeting, the student will provide a short written report and an oral presentation to summarize the accomplishments since the previous meeting and outline the plan for the remainder of the dissertation work. The committee helps to ensure that the student's dissertation work is on the right track, the stated goals are realistic, and the student has access to the required knowledge and tools to complete the work.
The Dissertation Committee consists of five members: The primary dissertation advisor, two additional Department faculty members who work in the same major research area (one theorist and one experimentalist), one Department faculty member working in a different area, and member from outside the Department. The outside member could be from a different science-related department within the University of Pittsburgh or from a different institution (in the latter case, prior approval of the proposal individual is required).
F. Dissertation and Defense
At the final meeting of the Dissertation Committee the PhD students report on the completed dissertation project and are examined on the details of their work. In contrast to all of the preceding meetings, the dissertation defense is announced in advance and open to the public until the Dissertation Committee begins its final deliberation.
No written progress report needs to be prepared for the defense, but the graduate student must provide each member of the Dissertation Committe with a copy of the dissertation (by default a PDF file complete with all indexes, chapters, figures, tables, equations, and appendixes) at least four (4) weeks in advance of the meeting date. Practical requirements and information for preparing the dissertation thesis can be found here.
G. Graduate Student Handbook
Details on the requirements and regulations for the Master of Science (MS) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees can be found in the Graduate Student Handbook. The latest version, which supersedes all previous versions, is
- 2021-22 Graduate Student Handbook
- 2020-21 Graduate Student Handbook
- 2019-20 Graduate Student Handbook
General university requirements are described in detail in the University of Pittsburgh Graduate and Professional Studies Catalog.