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 The Ph.D. Degree

Completing a Ph.D. in Physics or Astronomy is a  significant challenge, not only because of the large amount of intellectual and emotional effort, but also because of the many requirements

 The learning goals for the PhD degree are as follows:

  • Should have mastered core physics and should be familiar with areas of physics outside their research specialty.
  • Should be able to think independently and have acquired critical reasoning skills.
  • Should be an expert in their research specialty and have demonstrated the ability to conduct original research.
  • Should be able to communicate research results to an audience of physicists.


Our program has 3 defined tracks to a Ph.D. Most students will follow the Default Track, but there are also the options of a Ph.D. Degree with Concentration in Astronomy and a Ph.D. Degree with Concentration in Physical Biology,  which have modified requirements from the Default Track. We will begin by discussing the requirements of the Default Track and later specifying how the requirements for the other two trracks differ.

Default Track to a Ph.D. Degree in Physics

The requirements for the Ph.D. Degree are  are presented in the flow chart below. The discussion below is divided into three major sections: 1) required courses, 2) exams, and 3) thesis research. Only courses with a grade B or better are counted towards the Ph.D. degree.


Find Advisor

Essential. Needed for oral exam and Ph.D. Degree.

Core Courses


Required courses

3 Advanced Courses with breadth, 515 or 517, 598, 599, 600

Oral Exam

Must be done by end of the second year after preparing with advisor

Comprehensive Exam

On Core Course materials. Offered twice a year, must pass by end of the second year

Advancement to Candidacy

Major Step!


Conduct original research and review work with thesis committee once a year 


Write thesis according to the format of the graduate school. File forms, watch deadlines.


Defend Thesis

Thesis should be completed at least two weeks before the defense



Core Courses

One of the requirements for advancement to candidacy is demonstration of command of four core areas of physics: Classical Mechanics (PHY 501), Electricity and Magnetism (PHY 505), Quantum Mechanics (PHY 511/512) and Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics (PHY 540). If a student already successfully passed similar courses elsewhere a student can fulfill the course requirments of one or more of these core courses by taking advanced graduate courses (subject to approval by an Advising Committee appointed by the Graduate Program Director). If that is not the case you can still skip these courses by a sufficiently good performance in the corresponding parts of a placement examination given during the beginning of the Fall semester. (2nd year students and beyond need permission from the Graduate Program Director). Most students take the core courses during their first year.

PHY 598 and 599 are required of all Ph.D., M.S.I. and M.A. students. Almost everybody should take them during their first two semesters at Stony Brook as they provide a good way to get acquainted with the department. The two courses cover different areas of physics, and they can be taken in any order.

Other Required Courses for the Ph.D.
  • PHY 515 or PHY 517 -  Both laboratory courses provide an introduction to the special problems of experimental physics and astronomy. Students perform a number of classical and instructive experiments to learn why and how we acquire the knowledge upon which physics is based.
  • PHY 600 Teaching (two semesters) -  Because teaching and research are inextricably intertwined in a scientist's career, all Ph.D. students are required to teach (be a TA) for two semesters. Many do this for a second year. The first introduction to teaching begins during the orientation week: entering students participate in a TA training, required for all new TA's. Usually graduate students will conduct laboratory sections associated with undergraduate courses. Senior faculty members closely supervise this effort. Students normally do their teaching concurrently with their own first year courses, and earn 0-3 academic credits per semester in PHY 600.
  • PHY 598 and PHY 599 - Teaching skills are also honed in PHY 598 and PHY 599 where students gain experience presenting research topics to an audience of their peers. This requires very different skills because in PHY 598 and PHY 599 the level of knowledge of speaker and listeners is nearly on a par and because the motivation for the activity is also quite different. Thus, the graduate students are prepared for the time they will present research at seminars or at scientific meetings, as well as for their own thesis defense.
  • Breadth Requirement - All Ph.D. students must take at least three advanced courses in three different areas of physics and astronomy or a related area chosen from a list of courses and areas approved for this purpose (see table below) or courses approved by the graduate program director. No more than one course from the 680 or 690 series or outside the Department of Physics and Astronomy can be used to fulfill this requirement.
Areas and Courses eligible for the Breadth requirement (all course numbers refer to Physics courses.) 

Astronomy 521, 522, 523, 524, 683, 688
Atomic and Molecular Physics 565, 566, 690
Accelerator Physics 542, 543, 554, 564, 693, 694
Computational Physics 504, 604
Solid State Physics 555, 556, 682
Nuclear Physics 551, 552, 684
Particle Physics 557, 612, 686
Physical Biology 558, 559, 687
Quantum Information Science 568,631
Theoretical Physics 541, 610, 611, 620, 621, 622, 623, 680, 681, 685

Students in the Astronomy track have the option to take three of the four astronomy courses (PHY 521-524) rather than the above.

Core Course Plans

How quickly you approach the core courses should depend on your level of preparation. Please do not underestimate these courses and overestimate your own preparation! Remember that you also need to do breadth, grad lab, grad seminars. Here are some example plans you could follow, slowest at the top, fastest at the bottom.

Core Course Plans

Course Waivers

On the basis of work done at other universities waivers may be granted for required courses such as core courses, breadth requirements, teaching experience, PHY 515, etc.  Waivers have to be requested during the first semester of study in Stony Brook and all such requests must be directed to the Graduate Program Director. In general, it is not sufficient to have the transcript. The student must also bring to Stony Brook, and be prepared to show, other supporting documentation, for example a detailed course syllabus, printouts of the course WEB pages, homework assignments, etc. To obtain a waiver of a core course where the student has not taken an equivalent graduate course the student should pass the relevant subject on the Comprehensive Exam at the Placement level.

In the case of the Graduate Laboratory course (PHY 515 or PHY 517) all materials associated with the course taken elsewhere should be presented: syllabus, the faculty supplied instructions or "write-ups" of the experiments done by the student, the laboratory logbook in which the student recorded the day-to-day results of each experiment, and the final written report for each experiment, together with the grades for each of those. Students seeking a waiver in PHY 515 or PHY 517 should submit all materials to faculty teaching the course soon after arrival to Stony Brook. Instead of fully waiving the course requirement, waivers are sometimes granted for individual experiments.


Comprehensive and Placement Exam

The comprehensive exam, which also plays the role of a Placement Exam is offered in four days, and covers classical mechanics (CM), relativity, electricity, magnetism and optics (EM), quantum mechanics (QM) and statistical mechanics and thermodynamics (SM). The exam takes place in August and in January during the week before the start of classes. 

All PhD students are required to pass the Comprehensive exam before the start of their third year as PhD student. The minimum requirement for passing this exam is passing three subjects at the PhD level and one subject at the Master level.  Admission to the fifth semester of graduate study is contingent upon passing the comprehensive and oral exams or by explicit approval of the Graduate Program Director. We encourage all first-year students to take the Comprehensive exam for practice. There is no expectation by the Department that such students will pass, although some do. There is absolutely no disgrace in an unsuccessful attempt.

Most students with an American bachelor degree and no additional advanced studies have passed the Comprehensive by the beginning of the fourth semester; many pass earlier. Students with more advanced background often pass in the first year. In some cases, students pass the comprehensive exam at the beginning of the fifth semester,  but this is not encouraged. In such cases, the Oral exam should be completed beforehand so that a student's status in the department is clear immediately after the written exam results are available.

The comprehensive exam can be passed at three different levels. The highest level is at the placement level, then all three problems in a given subject area have to be passed at a high level set by the faculty. Students passing at this level are exempt from the corresoponding core course requirement. The second pass level is the PhD level -- at this level students have to pass only two of the three problems at a lower level than the placement level. The lowest pass level, also for two out of the three problems for each subject, is as the Master level. The passing level is set by the faculty and is lower than the PhD level. The comprehensive exam is passed in each subject separately. The level is roughly that of the midterm and final examinations in the core courses. With regards to academic integrity, religious observances, disabilities, etc., this exam follows the university wide guidelines for courses and exams. One hand written page of notes (both sides) is allowed for each subject.

The Comprehensive Exam is prepared by the Graduate Examinations Committee. The Department's faculty meets to discuss the results of the Comprehensive exam about one week after each exam. After that meeting, the answer books are available in the Department office for inspection by the students for grading errors, or for removal by the appropriate student. No grade changes are allowed to an exam book after it has left the office. It is a student's responsibility to ask a professor to regrade a particular question, and this must be done in the office. A large number of small grade changes is not an acceptable way to make a significant change in a total score. Unclaimed books may be discarded after four weeks.

Waivers: A transfer student who has been admitted into the Ph.D. program in Physics at Stony Brook and who has passed a written comprehensive examination as a matriculated student in the doctoral program of the physics or astronomy department at another university may request a waiver of the written comprehensive examination. To request such a waiver a student should:

  • First, discuss the situation with the Graduate Program Director.
  • Submit to the Graduate Examination Committee a copy (in English or in the original language with an English translation) of the examination which the student passed.
  • Supply a signed statement by a the Chair or Graduate Program Director of the student's previous university certifying the maximum possible grade on the examination, the minimum grade for a pass at the Ph.D. level, and the grade obtained by the student.

The Graduate Examinations Committee will consider both the level of the test and the quality of the student's performance in deciding whether to recommend to the faculty that the student be exempted from taking the written comprehensive exam at Stony Brook.

Oral Exam

The oral exam consists of a presentation of an  approved and interesting topic in physics or astronomy to a committee of at least three faculty members and should be prepared under the guidance of one of them. The committee members must be approved in advance by both the Graduate Program Director. The committee should contain at least one experimentalist and one theorist, and at least one member whose research specialty is different from the student's field of research. At least half of the committee, and the chair, must be full time faculty.

The faculty advisor for the oral exam will generally become the student's thesis advisor. This exam is a demonstration that the student is capable of beginning Ph.D. level research. The student should show that he/she is conversant with the basic phenomenology of the chosen research field, but it is not necessary to show a completed research project.  

The Oral exam, like the Comprehensive Exam, should be passed by the end of the student's fourth semester at Stony Brook. In practical terms, the latest passing date is week 2 of the 5th Semester. 

In some cases a student may pass the Oral Exam on time, but a thesis advisor will not be identified before the beginning of the fifth semester. In this case, students will be provisionally readmitted for the fifth semester (but not for later semesters, except if an advisor is identified). The Department can not guarantee financial support to students readmitted this way.

Thesis Defense

This is the last exam taken by a Ph.D. student at Stony Brook; It is the defense of the thesis in the form of an oral presentation before the Thesis Defense Committte. This Committee has at least four members: typically the three members of the student's Oral Exam Committee, and one more member, outside of the Department. The outside member should be able to give an independent evaluation of the thesis work and cannot be a collaborator or co-author. At least three members must be Physics and Astronomy faculty (full time or adjunct). At least half of the committee, and the chair, must be full time faculty. There should be at least one experimentalist, at least one theorist, and at least one department member from a research field other than that of the thesis topic. The external member may also serve as the required theorist or experimentalist. The chair can not be your advisor. At most one committee member can attend by Skype, and the defending student, the Chair and the Advisor have to be physically present. All defense committees are subject to approval by the Graduate Program Director. Usually, the student's Oral Exam committee serves as the core of the Defense Committee. The committee must have at least three members (adjunct or full time) from the Department, and one external member - a scientist from another Department at Stony Brook, or another institution. At least half of the committee, and the chair, must be full time faculty. There should be at least one experimentalist, at least one theorist, and at least one department member from a research field other than that of the thesis topic. The external member may also serve as the required theorist or experimentalist. The thesis supervisor is an ex officio member of the committee, and can not serve as the chairperson.

The committee must be approved at least 28 days in advance by both the Graduate Program Director and the Graduate School. The Doctoral Degree Defense form should be also sent to the Graduate Program Director at least four weeks before the scheduled date of the defense. A defense announcment needs to be prepared and sent to the Graduate program director at least 3 weeks before the defense.

The written Ph.D. thesis should be distributed two or three weeks before the exam, so that committee members can read the work carefully.

Procedures when Requirements are not Met


Core courses. Students are required to take the core courses, except if they passed the relevant Comprehensive Exam at the Placement level. If a student  has not passed out of the course and does not pass the course with a grade B or better, he/she can either take the course again or petition for a "make-up" oral exam. The "make-up" oral exam may be set up to test the student's knowledge in the particular area. For example, if a student got a B- in PHY 505 then the exam will cover "Electricity and Magnetism". The time of the exam, and the three member exam committee will be chosen by the Graduate Program Director.

Comprehensive exam. If a PhD student has not passed the comprehensive exam at the beginning of their fifth semester, an ad hoc committee shall be setup. This committee will be chaired by the graduate program director and include the chair of the exam committee, any mentors assigned by the mentoring program, and any advisor if the student has started working with a professor. Additional members as considered appropriate may be added at the discretion of the graduate program director. This committee will decide whether the student shall be given an Oral Exam in the relevant subject(s), whether there are additional comprehensive exam attempts to be given, or whether they will have to leave the program. The criteria on which the decision will be made include past performance on the comprehensive exam, the standing of the student with regard to required courses and their demonstrated potential to proceed to full time Ph.D. research. It is the department’s general policy that if progress on these three criteria is satisfactory a student will be granted an opportunity to either take the written exam again or have an Oral Exam. In the event a student is denied this opportunity and asked to leave the program they may request that their case is discussed at a meeting of the full faculty as a final appeal.

Oral Exam. This exam can be repeated as long as the student is within the deadlines outlined above.

PhD Degree with Concentration in Astronomy

Students whose emphasis will be in astronomy a have modified set of course requirements. During their first two years, they should take three of the four core astronomy courses, PHY 521, 522, 523, 524, which are offered one each semester. Therefore a possible astronomy sequence looks like this:

First Semester Second Semester Third Semester Fourth Semester
PHY 521 -Stars PHY 524 - Cosmology PHY 523 - Galaxies PHY 522 - Interstellar Medium
PHY 501 - Mechanics PHY 505 - Electrodynamics PHY 511 - Quantum I  PHY 512 - Quantum II
PHY 540 - Stat Mech PHY 517 - Astronomical Techniques PHY 585 - Research PHY 585 - Research
PHY 598 or 599  PHY 598 or 599    
PHY 600 - Teaching  PHY 600 - Teaching    
PHY 698 - Colloquium PHY 698 - Colloquium    

The particular order of the astronomy courses is determined by the actual course offering in those semesters. The order PHY540/PHY505 and PHY511/PHY512 can be switched according to the preference of the student.   PHY 515 or PHY 517 (discussed above) can be taken in any semester during the first two years.

PhD Degree with Concentration in Physical Biology

This is an interdisciplenary concentration in connection with the Laufer Center for quantitative biology. Students usually declare their interest in this concentration not later than the end of the first semester. Postponing this decision will result in a loss of time. The main difference with the default physics concentration is a reduction of core courses by one course while several physical biology courses are required. Instead of the graduate lab students do rotations with faculty associated with the Laufer center. Also the Graduate Seminar is substituted by the Laufer Center Journal Club. The Requirements fo a Ph.D. Degree in Physics with Concentration in Physical Biology are as follows:

  • Four Physics core course: Electrodynamics (PHY 505), Quantum Mechanics I (PHY 511), Statistical Mechanics (PHY 540) and either Classical Mechanics (PHY 501) or Quantum Mechanics II (PHY 512).
  • Two Core Courses in Physical Biology: Physical Biology (PHY 558) and Biological Dynamics and Network (PHY 559)
  • Biology For Physical Scientists (PHY 561)
  • Two semesters of Teaching (PHY 600)
  • Two semesters of Lab Rotations (PHY 584 / AMS 531)
  • Two semester of the Laufer Center Journal Club (PHY 665 / AMS 532)
  • Two Life Science courses form an approved list. Currently, the following courses have been approved: Biomolecular Structure and Analysis (CHE 541), Molecular Genetics (MCB 503 ), Structural Biology and Spectroscopy (MCB 512), Graduate Biochemistry I ( MCB 520) and Cell Biology (MCB 656), Introduction to Neurosience I (BNB 561),Introduction to Neurosience II ( BNB 562)
  • Passing of the Comprehensive Exam. 
  • An oral exam on a topic in Physical Biology
  • Student shoud find an advisor working on the topic of Physical Biology
    All courses have to be passed with a grade of B or better.

A typical course sequence for students in the Physical Biology concentration looks something like:

First Semester Second Semester Third Semester Fourth Semester
PHY 511 - Quantum Mechanics PHY 505 - Electrodynamics PHY 501 - Mechanics   PHY 512 Quantum Mechanics II
PHY 540 - Statistical Mechanics PHY 559 - Biological Dynamics and Networks  CHE 541 - Biomolecular Structure and Analysis   MCB 515 - Structural Biology and Spectroscopy
 PHY 558 - Physical Biology PHY 561 - Biology for Physical Scientists   PHY 584 - Lab Rotations PHY 584 - Lab Rotations 
PHY 665 - Journal Club  PHY 600 - Teaching  PHY 665 - Journal Club  
PHY 600 - Teaching      

Additional information on the Concentration in Physical Biology can be found on the webpage of the Laufer Center which also has a list of course requirements.


Tuition rates for the Fall 2023 semester can be found here.

If properly handled, Ph. D students do not pay tuition, which is covered by a tutition scholarship. However, serious problems can arise for those who fail to follow instructions, respond to notices, or submit forms on time. Sometimes such failures result in large, irretrievable financial losses. To make sure that your Ph.D. tuition will be covered there are two important requiements you should pay attention to.

The first requirement is based on the campus requirement that all those eligible to become residents of the State of New York do so. The two main conditions for residency are one year of stay in NY state and an appropriate "visa" status (either US citizen, or permanent resident). Please carefully read the instructions on the bursars website and make sure you follow them.

The second requirement is related to the the fact that tuition depends on the number of credits taken, and there are limits on this, given in the chart below. The limit is not the same for all students, so find your status from your registration papers and consult the chart to determine the appropriate limit. Students who register for more than the limit will be liable for the difference.

Status Description Credit Limit
G3 First year graduate student who will have completed less than 24 graduate credit hours regardless of where earned by the start of the semester. 9-12 credits
G4 Advanced graduate student who will have completed 24 or more graduate credits regardless of where earned by the start of the semester. 9 credits
G5 Advanced graduate student enrolled in a doctoral degree program that has been advanced to candidacy for the doctoral degree by the first day of classes of a semester or term. 9 credits

Tuition scholarships for students classified as  G3 will cover between 9-12 credits, including remedial Oral Academic English courses if required. However, the tuition scholarship for G4 will cover only 9 credits. If G4 students need to take OAE courses, additional tuition support can be requested - please contact the Department's Office. This request is granted as a matter of routine.  G4 and G5 students must register for "exactly" 9 credits for full time status.  Note that many courses are offered for a variable number of credits, providing some flexibility to the students to satisfy these requirements. Sometimes a course may be taken for zero credit; nevertheless, in order to satisfy a Department requirement, full effort is expected from the student.

Tuition costs for 6 credits at the in-state rate will be charged to the research grants as students move on to research appointments (G5 status) as detailed here.