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Comprehensive and Placement Exam

One of the requirements for a PhD in Physics is comprehension of core physics at the graduate level. We consider this  level of understanding to be more than simply passing the core courses, requiring additional study and exposure to a wider range of physics problems. The goal of the comprehensive exam is to assess if such understanding has been accomplished.

The Comprehensive Exam, which also plays the role of 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 students should register for the comprehensive exam.

The comprehensive exam can be passed at three different levels. The highest level is at the placement level, at this level all three problems in a given subject area have to be passed at a high level. Students passing at this level are exempt from the corresponding 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. All three passing levels are set by the faculty based on historical norms and the perceived difficulty of the exam after it has been graded. 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.

There is aconsiderable amount of study material for the comprehensive exam. The first resource should be the lecture notes of both your graduate and undergraduate classes in each of the subjects. There are many standard textbooks for each of the subjects, for example Goldstein for Classical Mechanics, Jackson for Electrodynames, Sakurai for Quantum Mechanics and Huang for Statistical Mechanics. Also useful as study material are the lecture notes by Prof. Likharev as well as the lecture notes of our recent courses in these subjects. Mastery of the undergraduate material in the core subjects is essential and should be the starting point for studying for the exam.

A useful list of topics can be found here, but it should be interpreted broadly.

The PGSA has also developed a page with advice and resources for preparing for the comps.

Past exams with solutions for exams since the format was changed in Fall 2014 are provided in the links below.

Fall 2022

Spring 2022

Fall 2021

Spring 2021

Fall 2020

Spring 2020

Fall 2019

Spring 2019

Fall 2018

Spring 2018

Fall 2017

Spring 2017

Fall 2016

Spring 2016

Fall 2015

Spring 2015

Fall 2014