PhD in Physics

Course Requirements

A total of 16 four-credit courses (64 credits) are required to fulfill the PhD degree requirements (with grades of B– or higher). Of these, 10 must be lecture courses numbered between 500 and 850. The 10 lecture courses must include CAS PY 511, CAS PY 512, CAS PY 501, CAS PY 521, CAS PY 541, and CAS PY 581.

The Advanced Laboratory course, CAS PY 581, may be waived if a student submits evidence of having taken an equivalent course at their undergraduate institution. If PY 581 is waived, it must be replaced with another 4-credit lecture course.

The remaining four lecture courses must include two distribution courses for either Category I (elementary particle and mathematical physics) or Category II (biological physics and condensed-matter physics). A student whose research lies within Category I topics must take two courses from among those listed in Category II and vice versa. The courses in each category are listed below.

Category I: Elementary Particle, Computational, and Mathematical Physics CAS PY 502, 551, 561, 621; GRS PY 701, 702, 713, 714, 731, 751, 752, 761, 762, 811

Category II: Biological Physics, Computational, and Condensed-Matter Physics CAS PY 502, 542, 543, 571, 621; GRS PY 741, 742, 743, 747, 771, 841, 842. Note: Only one of PY 502 and 621 may be counted toward the distribution requirement.

Up to six non-lecture courses (numbered above 850) may be counted toward requirements, but no more than two directed study courses and two seminar courses may be counted.

In addition to the courses listed above, first-year students are required to take the one-credit courses GRS PY 961 and 962, Scholarly Methods in Physics. Students who serve as teaching fellows are required to take the two-credit course GRS PY 699, Teaching College Physics, each semester that they teach.

Students are encouraged to audit courses after the completion of formal course requirements. Doctoral students who are registered for Continuing Study or for a two-credit course are entitled to officially audit one course each semester without further tuition charge.

Qualifying Examinations

A student is required to demonstrate proficiency in physics on a comprehensive written examination that covers a range of fundamental topics, and a more specialized preliminary oral examination. The student must achieve a high pass on the written examination before being eligible to attempt the oral examination. The oral examination involves the presentation of results of a limited-scale research project. In this examination, the candidate is expected to demonstrate both research competency and mastery of the basic underlying knowledge. The detailed requirements for each examination are outlined below. The written and oral examinations together constitute the PhD Qualifying Examination required by the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. Upon successful completion of both sections, the student is formally advanced to PhD candidacy and may begin a doctoral research project.

Written Comprehensive Examination

The Written Comprehensive Examination consists of two sessions that are given twice each year in August and January, prior to the beginning of instruction. The examination tests knowledge of five basic areas of physics at approximately the advanced undergraduate/beginning graduate level, corresponding to the 500-level physics courses at Boston University. These areas are: (1) classical mechanics, (2) thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, (3) general physics, (4) electromagnetic theory, and (5) quantum mechanics. The possible examination grades are fail, pass, or high pass. While a pass is sufficient to qualify for the master’s degree, a PhD degree candidate must attain a high pass.

The Written Comprehensive Examination is given over a two-day period. The “day one” exam consists of two problems each on classical mechanics, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, and general physics. Students must do four problems, with at least one problem for each of the three areas. The “day two” exam consists of two problems each on electromagnetic theory and quantum mechanics. Students must do three problems. Students may high pass, pass, or fail on day one, day two, or both. Students need to retake only the exam(s) for the day(s) that have not been “high passed.” However, each time the exam is taken, students must attempt all days that are not yet “high passed.”

Post-bachelor’s Program

Post-bachelor’s students are expected to take the examination initially no later than September of their second year of study at Boston University. Students not achieving a high pass on the first attempt are expected to retake the examination when it is next offered. Generally only two examination attempts are permitted. However, students may take the exam just before the start of their first year as a “free trial.”

If a high pass is not achieved by the second attempt, a student who has satisfied the appropriate course and language requirements may receive a terminal master’s degree if a pass grade was achieved on the comprehensive examination or if a master’s dissertation is completed.

Post-master’s Program

All post-master’s students are expected to take the examination initially no later than January of their first year after admission into the program. Students not achieving a high pass on the first attempt are expected to retake the examination when it is next offered. Generally, only two attempts at the examination are permitted. Students may take the exam as a “free trial” immediately upon entering the program.

Oral Qualifying Examination

The Oral Qualifying Examination has four purposes: (1) to enable faculty to judge a student’s ability to carry out research at the level required for the completion of a PhD, (2) to allow a student to explore in a preliminary way a research field and a possible thesis topic, (3) to allow a student and faculty member to test a working relationship; and (4) to test the student’s breadth of knowledge, awareness of the literature, and understanding of the relationships of the research to other fields of physics. Successful completion of the oral exam is the crucial first step in beginning a research career in physics.


Eligibility for the oral exam requires a high pass in the Written Comprehensive Examination and a passing grade (or waiver) in CAS PY 581 Advanced Laboratory.


The Oral Qualifying Examination is normally taken within one calendar year of successful completion of the Written Comprehensive Examination. In addition, it must be taken no later than January of the third year after admission for post-bachelor’s students and no later than May of the second year for post-master’s students.


An eligible student seeks a faculty advisor and together they formulate a test project. The precise nature of the project and the degree of faculty supervision should be determined after consultations between the student and the supervising faculty member. An experimental project might consist of a feasibility study, a study of the implications of published experimental results, or an actual experiment. A theoretical project might entail concentrated study on a specific topic, or a theoretical calculation based on newly acquired knowledge. It is strongly recommended that the project involve original research. The usual duration of the project is one or two semesters.

When the project is completed, the student undergoes an oral examination, which is conducted by a committee of four faculty members, including the faculty supervisor. The committee is proposed by the supervisor and must be approved by the Director of Graduate Studies. The committee should be finalized at least three weeks prior to the scheduled examination date. At least two weeks in advance of the examination, the student is expected to submit a one-page abstract to the examination committee.

The oral qualifying examination consists of an oral presentation, which should last 30 to 45 minutes. After the presentation, the student may be questioned about the details of the presentation, his/her understanding of related fields of physics, the basic physical principles underlying any aspect of this project, and the relevance of the project to a broader context. The questioning may be far-ranging, as befits a qualifying exam.

A student who passes the oral qualifying examination is advanced to PhD candidacy and may proceed with dissertation research.

Interim Progress Report

The student must prepare a three- to five-page description of her/his research activities. The report should be read and signed by the student’s research advisor and should include a description of the student’s research activities and the anticipated research scope and time-scale for completion of the PhD. The report is to be submitted to the Director of Graduate Studies after passing the Oral Qualifying Exam, and no later than the spring semester of the student’s fourth year in the Physics Graduate Program.

Departmental Seminar

The student is required to give a generally accessible presentation related to the dissertation project as a departmental seminar. The seminar must be scheduled so that the entire thesis committee is present; all faculty and students are encouraged to attend.

The committee will meet privately with the student immediately after the seminar to provide guidance for completion of the PhD project. The seminar should be given after submission of the Interim Progress Report and within two years of completing the preliminary oral exam, and no later than six months before the final dissertation defense.

Dissertation and Defense

When the faculty supervisor determines that the research has matured, the student writes a first draft of the dissertation and submits it to the supervisor and the second reader. This should occur approximately two months before the thesis defense. Revisions may be requested. Once approved, a final draft should be prepared and distributed to the full dissertation committee.

Dissertation Abstract

The dissertation abstract is limited to 350 words and should succinctly describe the subject of the dissertation, the methods used, and the basic results. The abstract must be approved by the first reader, the Director of Graduate Studies, and the Department Chair. After departmental review, the abstract is reviewed by the Dean’s Office.

Final Oral Examination

After the final draft of the thesis has been distributed to the committee, the student and advisor should plan the dissertation defense. The defense is formally scheduled through the Department Office. Distribution of the final thesis draft and departmental notification of the Graduate School must occur at least two weeks prior to the defense. The dissertation defense consists of two parts. The first is open to the public and consists of a formal presentation of the candidate’s research that should last no more than 45 minutes. The talk should be accessible to a non-specialized audience, with emphasis on a clear presentation. By tradition, only interruptions for minor points of clarification are permissible. The second part, which follows immediately, is a question period that is open only to members of the faculty in the Graduate School of Boston University. The candidate will be asked to defend the dissertation in detail and may be questioned on the background, scope, and limits of the work; the completeness of data or calculations; and the validity of the conclusions. At the end of the defense, the student is excused and the examining committee decides on either a passing or failing grade. In the case of a passing grade, specific revisions may be required prior to the submission of the thesis to the Graduate School. In the case of a failing grade, the committee formulates a plan that could include substantial thesis revisions and possibly additional research or study, and also determines a timetable for resubmitting the thesis and rescheduling the defense.

Graduation Calendar

The PhD Graduation Calendar and related information can be found on the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Graduation Information page.

Miscellaneous Requirements

The PhD program must be completed within seven years for post-bachelor’s students and within five years for post-master’s students. There is a five-year time limit for PhD candidacy status. A student must also be registered in the preceding semester and in the semester during which the degree requirements are fulfilled. Up to two semesters of leave of absence are permitted for appropriate cause. The authorized leave period is counted toward the time allowed for the completion of degree requirements.


  • CAS PY 501 Mathematical Physics
  • CAS PY 502 Computational Physics
  • CAS PY 511 Quantum Mechanics I
  • CAS PY 512 Quantum Mechanics II
  • CAS PY 521 Electromagnetic Theory I
  • CAS PY 522 Electromagnetic Theory II
  • CAS PY 541 Statistical Mechanics I
  • CAS PY 542 Statistical Mechanics II
  • CAS PY 543 Introduction to Solid-State Physics
  • CAS PY 551 Introduction to Particle Physics
  • CAS PY 561 Introduction to Nuclear Physics
  • CAS PY 571    Introduction to Biological Physics
  • CAS PY 581 Advanced Laboratory
  • GRS PY 621 Advanced Scientific Computing in Physics
  • CAS PY 681 Electronics for Scientists
  • GRS PY 699 Teaching College Physics I
  • GRS PY 701, 702 Advanced Mathematical Physics
  • GRS PY 711 Advanced Quantum Theory for Condensed Matter
  • GRS PY 713 Quantum Field Theory I
  • GRS PY 714 Quantum Field Theory II
  • GRS PY 731 Theory of Relativity
  • GRS PY 741 Solid-State Physics I
  • GRS PY 742 Solid-State Physics II
  • GRS PY 743 Low-Temperature Physics
  • GRS PY 744 Polymer Physics
  • GRS PY 747 Advanced Statistical Mechanics
  • GRS PY 751, 752 High-Energy Physics
  • GRS PY 761 Nuclear Physics
  • GRS PY 762 Intermediate Energy Physics
  • GRS PY 771 Biophysics
  • GRS PY 811 Advanced Quantum Field Theory
  • GRS PY 841 Symmetry in Solid-State Physics
  • GRS PY 842 Many-Body Topics in Solid-State Physics
  • GRS PY 891, 892 Seminar: Philosophical Foundations of Physics
  • GRS PY 895, 896 Seminar: Special Topics in Theoretical Physics
  • GRS PY 897, 898 Seminar: Special Topics in Experimental Physics
  • GRS PY 961, 962 Scholarly Methods in Physics 1 & 2

Directed Research

May be taken as semester or half-semester courses. Hours arranged. Variable cr.

  • GRS PY 901, 902 Research in Physics
  • GRS PY 907, 908 Research in Physics and Philosophy
  • GRS PY 909, 910 Directed Study in Physics