PhD Program

Expected Progress of Physics Graduate Student to Ph.D.

This document describes the Physics Department's expectations for the progress of a typical graduate student from admission to award of a PhD.  Because students enter the program with different training and backgrounds and because thesis research by its very nature is unpredictable, the time-frame for individual students will vary. Nevertheless, failure to meet the goals set forth here without appropriate justification may indicate that the student is not making adequate progress towards the PhD, and will therefore prompt consideration by the Department and possibly by Graduate Division of the student’s progress, which might lead to probation and later dismissal.

Course Work

Graduate students are required to take a minimum of 38 units of approved upper division or graduate elective courses (excluding any upper division courses required for the undergraduate major).  The department requires that students take the following courses which total 19 units: Physics 209 (Classical Electromagnetism), Physics 211 (Equilibrium Statistical Physics) and Physics 221A-221B (Quantum Mechanics). Thus, the normative program includes an additional 19 units (five semester courses) of approved upper division or graduate elective courses.  At least 11 units must be in the 200 series courses. Some of the 19 elective units could include courses in mathematics, biophysics, astrophysics, or from other science and engineering departments.  Physics 290, 295, 299, 301, and 602 are excluded from the 19 elective units. Physics 209, 211 and 221A-221B must be completed for a letter grade (with a minimum average grade of B).  No more than one-third of the 19 elective units may be fulfilled by courses graded Satisfactory, and then only with the approval of the Department.  Entering students are required to enroll in Physics 209 and 221A in the fall semester of their first year and Physics 211 and 221B in the spring semester of their first year. Exceptions to this requirement are made for 1) students who do not have sufficient background to enroll in these courses and have a written recommendation from their faculty mentor and approval from the head graduate adviser to delay enrollment to take preparatory classes, 2) students who have taken the equivalent of these courses elsewhere and receive written approval from the Department to be exempted. 

If a student has taken courses equivalent to Physics 209, 211 or 221A-221B, then subject credit may be granted for each of these course requirements.  A faculty committee will review your course syllabi and transcript.  A waiver form can be obtained in 378 Physics North from the Student Affairs Officer detailing all required documents.  If the committee agrees that the student has satisfied the course requirement at another institution, the student must secure the Head Graduate Adviser's approval.  The student must also take and pass the associated section of the preliminary exam.  Please note that official course waiver approval will not be granted until after the preliminary exam results have been announced.  If course waivers are approved, units for the waived required courses do not have to be replaced for PhD course requirements.  If a student has satisfied all first year required graduate courses elsewhere, they are only required to take an additional 19 units to satisfy remaining PhD course requirements.  (Note that units for required courses must be replaced for MA degree course requirements even if the courses themselves are waived; for more information please see MA degree requirements).

In exceptional cases, students transferring from other graduate programs may request a partial waiver of the 19 elective unit requirement. Such requests must be made at the time of application for admission to the Department.

The majority of first year graduate students are Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs) with a 20 hour per week load (teaching, grading, and preparation).  A typical first year program for an entering graduate student who is teaching is:

First Semester

  • Physics 209 Classical Electromagnetism (5)
  • Physics 221A Quantum Mechanics (5)
  • Physics 251 Introduction to Graduate Research (1)
  • Physics 301 GSI Teaching Credit (2)
  • Physics 375 GSI Training Seminar (for first time GSI's) (2)

Second Semester

  • Physics 211 Equilibrium Statistical Physics (4)
  • Physics 221B Quantum Mechanics (5)
  • Physics 301 GSI Teaching Credit (2)

Students who have fellowships and will not be teaching, or who have covered some of the material in the first year courses material as undergraduates may choose to take an additional course in one or both semesters of their first year.

Many students complete their course requirements by the end of the second year. In general, students are expected to complete their course requirements by the end of the third year. An exception to this expectation is that students who elect (with the approval of their mentor and the head graduate adviser) to fill gaps in their undergraduate background during their first year at Berkeley often need one or two additional semesters to complete their course work.

Faculty Mentors

Incoming graduate students are each assigned a faculty mentor. In general, mentors and students are matched according to the student's research interest.   If a student's research interests change, or if (s)he feels there is another faculty member who can better serve as a mentor, the student is free to request a change of assignment.

The role of the faculty mentor is to advise graduate students who have not yet identified research advisers on their academic program, on their progress in that program and on strategies for passing the preliminary exam and finding a research adviser.  Mentors also are a “friendly ear” and are ready to help students address other issues they may face coming to a new university and a new city.  Mentors are expected to meet with the students they advise individually a minimum of once per semester, but often meet with them more often.  Mentors should contact incoming students before the start of the semester, but students arriving in Berkeley should feel free to contact their mentors immediately.

Student-Mentor assignments continue until the student has identified a research adviser.  While many students continue to ask their mentors for advice later in their graduate career, the primary role of adviser is transferred to the research adviser once a student formally begins research towards his or her dissertation. The Department asks student and adviser to sign a “mentor-adviser” form to make this transfer official.  

Preliminary Exams

In order to most benefit from graduate work, incoming students need to have a solid foundation in undergraduate physics, including mechanics, electricity and magnetism, optics, special relativity, thermal and statistical physics and quantum mechanics, and to be able to make order-of-magnitude estimates and analyze physical situations by application of general principles. These are the topics typically included, and at the level usually taught, within a Bachelor's degree program in Physics at most universities. As a part of this foundation, the students should also have formed a well-integrated overall picture of the fields studied. The preliminary exam is meant to assess the students' background, so that any missing pieces can be made up as soon as possible. The exam is made up of 4 sections, as described in the Preliminary Exam Policy*, on the Department’s website.  Each section is administered twice a year, at the start of each semester. 

Entering students are encouraged to take this exam as soon as possible, and they are required to attempt all prelims sections in the second semester. Students who have not passed all sections in the third semester will undergo a Departmental review of their performance. Departmental expectations are that all students should successfully pass all sections no later than spring semester of the second year (4th semester); the document entitled Physics Department Preliminary Exam Policy* describes Departmental policy in more detail. An exception to this expectation is afforded to students who elect (with the recommendation of the faculty mentor and written approval of the head graduate adviser) to fill gaps in their undergraduate background during their first year at Berkeley and delay corresponding section(s) of the exam, and who therefore may need an additional semester to complete the exam; this exception is also further discussed in the Preliminary Exam Policy* document.

* You must login with your Calnet ID to access Physics Department Preliminary Examination Policy.

Start of Research

Students are encouraged to begin research as soon as possible. Many students identify potential research advisers in their first year and most have identified their research adviser before the end of their second year.  When a research adviser is identified, the Department asks that both student and research adviser sign a form (available from the Student Affairs Office, 378 Physics North) indicating that the student has (provisionally) joined the adviser’s research group with the intent of working towards a PhD.  In many cases, the student will remain in that group for their thesis work, but sometimes the student or faculty adviser will decide that the match of individuals or research direction is not appropriate.  Starting research early gives students flexibility to change groups when appropriate without incurring significant delays in time to complete their degree.

Departmental expectations are that experimental research students begin work in a research group by the summer after the first year; this is not mandatory, but is strongly encouraged.  Students doing theoretical research are similarly encouraged to identify a research direction, but often need to complete a year of classes in their chosen specialty before it is possible for them to begin research.  Students intending to become theory students and have to take the required first year classes may not be able to start research until the summer after their second year.  Such students are encouraged to attend theory seminars and maintain contact with faculty in their chosen area of research even before they can begin a formal research program. 

If a student chooses dissertation research with a supervisor who is not in the department, he or she must find an appropriate Physics faculty member who agrees to serve as the departmental research supervisor of record and as co-adviser. This faculty member is expected to monitor the student's progress towards the degree and serve on the student's qualifying and dissertation committees. The student will enroll in Physics 299 (research) in the co-adviser's section.  The student must file the Outside Research Proposal for approval; petitions are available in the Student Affairs Office, 378 Physics North.   

Students who have not found a research adviser by the end of the second year will be asked to meet with their faculty mentor to develop a plan for identifying an adviser and research group.  Students who have not found a research adviser by Spring of the third year are not making adequate progress towards the PhD.  These students will be asked to provide written documentation to the department explaining their situation and their plans to begin research.  Based on their academic record and the documentation they provide, such students may be warned by the department that they are not making adequate progress, and will be formally asked to find an adviser.  The record of any student who has not identified an adviser by the end of Spring of the fourth year will be evaluated by a faculty committee and the student may be asked to leave the program. 

Qualifying Exam

Rules and requirements associated with the Qualifying Exam are set by the Graduate Division on behalf of the Graduate Council.  Approval of the committee membership and the conduct of the exam are therefore subject to Graduate Division approval.  The exam is oral and lasts 2-3 hours.  The Graduate Division specifies that the purpose of the Qualifying Exam is “to ascertain the breadth of the student's comprehension of fundamental facts and principles that apply to at least three subject areas related to the major field of study and whether the student has the ability to think incisively and critically about the theoretical and the practical aspects of these areas.”  It also states that “this oral examination of candidates for the doctorate serves a significant additional function. Not only teaching, but the formal interaction with students and colleagues at colloquia, annual meetings of professional societies and the like, require the ability to synthesize rapidly, organize clearly, and argue cogently in an oral setting.  It is necessary for the University to ensure that a proper examination is given incorporating these skills.”

Please see the Department website for a description of the Qualifying Exam and its Committee.  Note: You must login with your Calnet ID to access QE information. Passing the Qualifying Exam, along with a few other requirements described on the department website, will lead to Advancement to Candidacy.  Qualifying exam scheduling forms can be picked up in the Student Affairs Office, 378 Physics North.   

The Department expects students to take the Qualifying Exam two or three semesters after they identify a research adviser. This is therefore expected to occur for most students in their third year, and no later than fourth year. A student is considered to have begun research when they first register for Physics 299 or fill out the department mentor-adviser form showing that a research adviser has accepted the student for PhD work or hired as a GSR (Graduate Student Researcher), at which time the research adviser becomes responsible for guidance and mentoring of the student.  (Note that this decision is not irreversible – the student or research adviser can decide that the match of individuals or research direction is not appropriate or a good match.)  Delays in this schedule cause concern that the student is not making adequate progress towards the PhD.  The student and adviser will be asked to provide written documentation to the department explaining the delay and clarifying the timeline for taking the Qualifying Exam.

Annual Progress Reports

Graduate Division requires that each student’s performance be annually assessed to provide students with timely information about the faculty’s evaluation of their progress towards PhD.  Annual Progress Reports are completed during the Spring Semester.  In these reports, the student is asked to discuss what progress he or she has made toward the degree in the preceding year, and to discuss plans for the following year and for PhD requirements that remain to be completed.  The mentor or research adviser or members of the Dissertation Committee (depending on the student’s stage of progress through the PhD program) comment on the student’s progress and objectives. In turn, the student has an opportunity to make final comments. 

Before passing the Qualifying Exam, the annual progress report (obtained from the Physics Student Affairs Office in 378 Physics North) is completed by the student and either his/her faculty mentor or his/her research adviser, depending on whether or not the student has yet begun research (see above).  This form includes a statement of intended timelines to take the Qualifying Exam, which is expected to be within 2-3 semesters of starting research.  

After passing the Qualifying Exam, the student and research adviser complete a similar form, but in addition to the research adviser, the student must also meet with at least one other and preferably both other members of their Dissertation Committee (this must include their co-adviser if the research adviser is not a member of the Physics Department) to discuss progress made in the past year, plans for the upcoming year, and overall progress towards the PhD.  This can be done either individually as one-on-one meetings of the graduate student with members of the Dissertation Committee, or as a group meeting with presentation. (The Graduate Council requires that all doctoral students who have been advanced to candidacy meet annually with at least two members of the Dissertation Committee. The annual review is part of the Graduate Council’s efforts to improve the doctoral completion rate and to shorten the time it takes students to obtain a doctorate.)

Advancement to Candidacy

After passing the Qualifying Examination, the next step in the student's career is to advance to candidacy as soon as possible.  Advancement to candidacy is the academic stage when a student has completed all requirements except completion of the dissertation.  Students are still required to enroll in 12 units per semester; these in general are expected to be seminars and research units.  Besides passing the Qualifying Exam, there are a few other requirements described in the Graduate Program Booklet. Doctoral candidacy application forms can be picked up in the Student Affairs Office, 378 Physics North.

Completion of Dissertation Work

The expected time for completion of the PhD program is six years.  While the Department recognizes that research time scales can be unpredictable, it strongly encourages students and advisers to develop dissertation proposals consistent with these expectations.  The Berkeley Physics Department does not have dissertation defense exams, but encourages students and their advisers to ensure that students learn the important skill of effective research presentations, including a presentation of their dissertation work to their peers and interested faculty and researchers.