Program Information and Degree Requirements

The Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) supervises program planning and all graduate work. The DGS serves as academic advisor for the period during which the student is completing course requirements. A satisfactory rate of progress toward a higher degree is required at all times. A student whose progress is insufficient may at any time be asked to withdraw.

No student may become a candidate for the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree without first fulfilling the requirements for the Master of Arts (M.A.) and Master of Philosophy (M.Phil.) degrees at Columbia.  A satisfactory rate of progress is required at all times.  A student whose progress is insufficient may at any time be requested to withdraw. 

The following represents the obligation and requirements for students who wish to obtain the Ph.D. degree at Columbia.  Please retain these guidelines for reference throughout your program of studies.

Degree Requirements

This degree is a prerequisite for the M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees, unless a student has been awarded two Residence Units of advanced standing. 

Points of Letter-Grade Credit: 30; at least 24 within the department.

Program of Study:  15 points of physics courses numbered 6000 or higher, with an overall performance satisfactory to the Committee on Graduate Work.  The courses are to be chosen in consultation with the student’s academic advisor, to insure knowledge of classical and quantum physics.

Residence Units: 2 (minimum).  Any student who fails to complete the requirements for the MA degree within four consecutive terms (not counting summer terms) must obtain permission from the department chair in order to continue work into fifth term. 

Language Examination: None 

Essay: None 

This degree is a prerequisite for the Ph.D. degree and will be conferred upon certification by the department.

Typical length of program:  Three years, including the time spent for the

Examination:  Qualifying Examination

Languages:  None

Residence Units:  Six full-time, including the two earned for the M.A. degree.

Points of credit:  30 earned for the M.A. degree; none if the student  has been awarded two Residence Units of advanced standing.

Required courses:  See the list of required courses below.

The qualifying examination is taken by all students without exception, after no more than one term of residence.  The examination consists of two parts: the written part is given in three sections in early January – Section I covers Classical Physics, Section II covers Modern Physics and Section III covers General Physics including contemporary research and order of magnitude estimate.  The written exams are followed after approximately one week with an oral interview in which each student meets with three faculty members to go over the questions done on the written exams and to discuss research plans. 

The material covered in the Physics Qualifying Examination is at the level of advanced undergraduate courses.  It is intended that students will use their first semester in the program to review their overall knowledge of undergraduate physics and to fill in any gaps in their knowledge.  The Qualifying Examination is intended as a diagnostic tool to help the faculty and the students know where there may be preparation gaps and allow these to be addressed before moving on to research.  The Department relies on filtering that is done pre-admission by the Graduate Admissions Committee.  Our experience is that the admissions process successfully identifies students with appropriate preparation so that the Qualifying Examination can be relied on as a fine-tuning diagnostic tool NOT a filter.

Following the oral exams, the faculty meets to consider for each student the results of the qualifying examination, the student’s academic record to date and other available information.  These criteria determine whether to permit a student to continue work toward the doctorate. Each student will then be placed in a category:

Pass:  qualified to continue in doctoral program

Conditional Pass:  decision withheld pending completion of specific course work

Retake Exam:  must repeat the examination again when it is next given

Fail:  cannot repeat the examination and must terminate

The results of the meeting are made available to the students shortly after the meeting by the Physics Director of Graduate Studies. Generally about 80% of the students pass the exam on the first try.

For students that do not pass on their first try, they are automatically allowed to take the exam the following year.  Based on the results of the qualifying exam,  in some cases students may be asked to either: (a) retake specific portions of the written exam, (b) retake the entire exam or (c) take advanced undergraduate courses in areas where the faculty have found weaknesses in preparation.

Generally, if a student fails to pass the exam on a second try, they will not be allowed to continue on to a PhD. They will be allowed to complete the spring semester, giving them the opportunity to consider their future options. In exceptional cases a student may be allowed to take the exam for a third time.

Copies of examinations given in previous years can be obtained by clicking here.  From these, students may judge the scope of knowledge expected.

Teaching is the principal method of support for first and second year graduate students, who are appointed as Teaching Fellows.  Most assignments are to teach small laboratory sections or problem sessions in elementary courses.  In general, this program concentrates on teaching in the first two years, while the student is taking graduate courses.  The maximum teaching assignment for a Faculty Teaching Fellow is approximately four contact hours per week for four terms.