The qualifying examination is usually taken just before the beginning of the fall semester of the student's second year. The examination, considered together with the candidate's course work and other activities, has two possible results: pass sufficient for the Ph.D. program, or not pass sufficient for the Ph.D. program. If necessary, this examination may be retaken at the beginning of the following semester. Any student not passing the examination will be evaluated by the faculty to determine if his or her performance was adequate to warrant awarding the M.S. degree upon completion of the core curriculum.
The qualifying examination consists of three half-day written examinations. The examination deals with undergraduate material, with the contents of the first year graduate courses, and with material that a first-year graduate student should have obtained from seminars, colloquia, and journals. The results of the written examination are considered together with the candidate's course grades, recommendations from the faculty, and all other aspects of the candidate's academic record.
The following guidelines have been adopted by the physics faculty:
- Candidates are normally allowed two attempts to pass the qualifying examination. Further attempts may be allowed by the Departmental Graduate Studies Committee on the basis of a petition by the candidate.
- Entering graduate students without a master's degree may, with the consent of their advisors, take the qualifying examination without it counting as one of their two attempts when they arrive or after they have been in residence for one semester.
- Those entering students who already have an M.S. or an M.A. degree in physics are normally required to take the examination on arrival. Special circumstances will be dealt with by the Graduate Studies Committee on a case by case basis.
- Entering students taking undergraduate courses will have their qualifying exam clock postponed appropriately in consultation with the Graduate Studies Committee.