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Studying for the Physics PhD Qualifying Exam

It All Comes Down To This

As a prospective Ph.D. physics student, the physics qualifying exam (or comprehensive exam depending on what your university wants to call it) will literally be the most important test you've taken in your life. Without passing this exam you cannot continue your program of study and eventually earn your degree. To make the challenge even more daunting, most universities only allow you to take the exam a limited number of times. Thus, if you fail after the allotted number of attempts, you cannot continue in the program at that school - you either have to change your field of study and start over or find a new university to attend! While the exam is a challenge, it's not impossible or there would be no Ph.D. physicists. What follows are a few study tips that I've picked up along my own quest for a Ph.D. in physics that I hope you find helpful.


The Method

While there may be slight variations from school to school, the physics qualifying exam will generally consist of questions from several major branches of physics - classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, electricity and magnetism, thermodynamics, and statistical mechanics. Some schools may also include questions on specific branches of study offered in their program such as optics, astrophysics, particle physics, etc. The exam is designed to test your mastery of physics subject matter at the undergraduate level, not at the graduate level. Now, you will more than likely have taken over a year's worth of graduate level physics courses by the time you take the qualifying exam, but the questions will be geared toward material that should have been presented at the undergraduate level. The idea is to show that you have a full grasp of the basics of physics and that you are prepared to enter the Ph.D. program.

Below is a list of helpful tips to ensure you study effectively and pass the qualifying exam:

Start Early

Your school may offer the test once or twice a year, but probably not more than that. This is a very important exam and you need all the preparation time you can get. Depending on how recently you've entered the graduate program, I would recommend beginning your study about six months prior to your scheduled exam date. If you've entered a graduate program after a hiatus from school it may take you longer to brush up on some of the things you've forgotten about since your undergraduate work so be prepared to spend a little longer than that if you need to go back to your old textbooks for refreshing. Six months may seem like a long time to study, but keep in mind that between doing homework for the graduate classes you're currently taking, working to pay the rent, or managing any other curve balls life throws at you the time will fly by.

Stay Focused, Manage Your Time

The key to studying for six months and maintaining your knowledge is staying focused and managing your study time. Of course, some of you may be able to dedicate most of your time to studying, but for those who can't, setting aside specific time for study and writing out a plan of what you need to study and when will greatly increase the chances of you being fully prepared when test time comes around. Time management and focus will become more and more important when you move into your Ph.D. work as you will both these skills to finish your degree requirements in under a decade! As much as the qualifying exam is about mastering the material, it is also about showing the Ph.D. advisers that you can handle the work load that comes along with a Ph.D. program of study.

Find a Partner

Or partners. One of the best ways to stay focused is to find a solid study partner or small group of fellow students who are planning on taking the test at the same time. You will all be aware of what needs to be done and by setting your goals together you can hold each other accountable. Another advantage of studying with others is that more often than not someone in a group will be strong in a particular topic, whereas, by yourself you may struggle in a topic or multiple topics and it may take longer to learn that material on your own rather than having a source of knowledge sitting next to you. One note, avoid time burglars! You know them, they tend to want to focus more on goofing off and having a good time than studying. While you definitely need to have fun while studying and you will grow to know your study partners well, the last thing you need is someone wasting your time. Choose your partners wisely.

Practice, Practice, Practice

There are differing opinions on exactly what material should be studied and what method should be used. Should you read as many books as you can and learn all of the equations that could possibly be used or should you work as many example problems as you can and worry less about memorizing equations? I personally believe that working problems will better prepare you for the exam. You can memorize equations all day, but if you don't know where to use them or how to apply them then they're fairly worthless. I suggest you browse through your old undergraduate textbooks and pick out problems from some of the subjects mentioned above and begin solving them. There are also books full of undergraduate physics problems complete with solutions that are very handy. Even better still, many universities post exams from previous years - these are an excellent reference if your school does this as it may give you some insight into what type of questions will be asked. Work problems until you can solve any undergraduate physics problem that comes your way - then you are truly prepared.

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Relax, Breathe, Be Confident

By the time your exam comes, you will have been studying for at least six months and working what may seem like an endless number of physics problems. The moment of truth (in reality, most exams will be several hours long, sometimes on multiple days) is finally here, you are going to take the qualifying exam. But you are ready! If you've allowed yourself enough time, you've stayed on task and managed your time wisely, you've found someone or a group of students who has shared your burden, and you've become proficient in solving problems you will no doubt do well on the exam. Most schools have a certain percentage grade required to pass at the Ph.D. level, it may be 60% it may be 80%, but whatever it is you are prepared. Be confident and look forward to the exciting things in store for you as a Ph.D.!

Good luck and happy studying!


SC2002diva on May 31, 2013:

Your article definitely supports the other advice I've received, so I have confidence that it is sound advice! I do have a question though. I was out of school for 9.5 years before returning for my PhD and I must admit that I got sort of rusty on some things, but have done well in all my grad level classes. I am freaking out about this qualifier though because while carrying a course load and working I really couldn't study like I needed to this year so far. I'm only 2.5 months out and don't feel confident in taking it in August right now. I also have to spend a lot of time working this summer which will eat into my study time. Should I wait to take it? My dept. only offers it in the fall right now (I've petitioned for a spring test) so I will wait a whole year for the next one if they don't add the spring one. Is it wise to wait or should I just push through?

FitnezzJim from Fredericksburg, Virginia on March 03, 2013:

Yup, physics is fun stuff. my first thought was, learn the math too, it's got to be by far one fo the best tools you'll have for for carrying forward into a working career. Nowadays, some computer programming smarts will help too. Both my math and physics teachers from years gone by shared the opinions that the tools and techniques you learn in math and physics are the true enablers to innovative thought. The rest is study and practice, study and practice. Wishing you the best of luck.

RocketCityWriter (author) from Alabama on January 21, 2011:

Nic, thanks for the comment and good luck on your exams! Good point about coming from another school, in that case I think the previous exams from the school you're testing at would be handy too - assuming you could access them. I've found that it varies by school - and probably by student too - whether you should review graduate or undergraduate material. If graduate problems are what people tend to work at your school and they do well, then definitely don't ignore that advice.

Nic on January 21, 2011:

Thanks for great post! I'm taking prelims in 2 months and following your advise of having study group. Many students who have successfully passed this exam recommend to review all your homeworks you did in grad school on the subjects you are taking, rather then undergrad. It might be very essensial if you did your BS in other school.

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