PhD in Physics

The Physics PhD program educates students to become scholars and researchers in physics. Our graduates are trained to teach and to carry out original research that is theoretical, experimental, computational, or a blend of these approaches. Research specialties include:

  • Biological physics
  • Computational physics
  • Experimental condensed matter physics
  • Theoretical condensed matter physics
  • Particle astrophysics and cosmology
  • Experimental particle physics
  • Theoretical particle physics
  • Photonics
  • Statistical physics

Our program prepares professional scientists for careers in academic, industrial, and government settings. To be admitted to the program, a student needs at least a bachelor’s degree in physics or a closely related discipline.

Our program offers numerous interdisciplinary opportunities, particularly with Boston University’s College of Engineering and the Photonics Center. Major resources include the Scientific Instrument Facility, the Electronics Design Facility, and the Center for Computational Science.

Learning Outcomes

  • Demonstrate a thorough and advanced understanding of the core areas of physics, including mechanics, electricity and magnetism, thermal and statistical physics, and quantum mechanics, along with the mathematics necessary for quantitative and qualitative analyses in these areas.
  • Demonstrate the capability of acquiring, analyzing, and interpreting quantitative data in the core areas of physics.
  • Demonstrate the ability to conduct theoretical, experimental, or computational research that makes original contributions to our understanding of the physical world.
  • Demonstrate the ability to effectively communicate the results of research in both written and oral presentations.
  • Demonstrate the ability to use advanced computational methodologies in research and teaching.
  • Demonstrate the ability to conduct scholarly activities in a professional and ethical manner.

Course Requirements

A total of sixteen 4-credit courses (64 credits) are required to fulfill the PhD requirements (with grades of B– or higher) and with an overall average of B or greater. Course requirements are as follows:

  • Ten lecture courses numbered between 500 and 850, including:
    • CAS PY 511 Quantum Mechanics I
    • CAS PY 512 Quantum Mechanics II
    • CAS PY 501 Mathematical Physics
    • CAS PY 521 Electromagnetic Theory I
    • CAS PY 541 Statistical Mechanics I
    • CAS PY 581 Advanced Laboratory (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.)
  • GRS PY 961 Scholarly Methods in Physics I

The remaining courses must be chosen from an approved list of lecture courses found on the department website, including at least two distribution courses from outside the student’s research specialty (see PhD degree requirements on the department website for more details).

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.

Students are encouraged to audit courses after the completion of formal course requirements or en route to the PhD. Audit course requests must be approved by the student advisor and the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS).

Language Requirement

There is no foreign language requirement for this degree.

Demonstration of Proficiency in Physics

Each student is required to demonstrate proficiency through coursework by maintaining an average grade of at least B in the five core Physics courses, with no grade lower than B–.

Students who fail to achieve the qualification standards will be asked to either:

  1. Retake one or more the core courses (credit will not be given for a course taken more than once).
  2. Audit or self-study the material in one or more of the core courses and retake the final exam of the appropriate course(s); the result(s) will be used to evaluate if the student meets the qualification standards in that area.

Students who have already taken the equivalent of one or more of the core physics courses may petition to alternatively demonstrate proficiency by one of three options: (i) retake one or more core courses at Boston University; (ii) present evidence of satisfactory performance in the equivalent core courses at another university, corresponding to a minimum grade of B– and at least an average grade of B in the equivalent core courses; or (iii) opt for an oral examination. The petition should be filed immediately upon entering the graduate program. Under exceptional circumstances, the DGS may decide to accept a late filing of the petition. Determination of satisfactory performance is made by a faculty committee appointed by the DGS. If the committee judges that either options (ii) or (iii) are not satisfied for one or more courses, the student will be required to enroll in the appropriate course.

A student who has failed to achieve the qualification standard may file a petition to demonstrate proficiency by an oral exam in the subject(s) in question.

Qualifying Examination

The PhD qualifying examination is an oral examination, which is required for PhD candidacy. Students prepare an oral presentation from 30 to 45 minutes in duration on a particular topic in the area of their proposed thesis research. The presentation should broadly explain the underlying physics and the problem they are addressing, and review the appropriate literature as well as describe the particular mechanisms and techniques they are proposing and reviewing. The presentation must contain preliminary results or analysis on the research topic of the proposed thesis. The examination committee is formed by five faculty members from the Department of Physics or faculty members from related departments who are approved by the DGS. After the presentation, the candidate will be examined by the committee through a series of questions and discussion on both specific topics that were presented and general knowledge of physics.

Dissertation and Final Oral Examination

Candidates shall demonstrate their abilities for independent study in a dissertation representing original research or creative scholarship. A prospectus for the dissertation must be completed and approved by the readers, the DGS, and the department chair/program director approximately seven months before the final oral exam, and no later than the fall semester of the student’s seventh year. Candidates must undergo a final oral examination in which they defend their dissertation as a valuable contribution to knowledge in their field and demonstrate a mastery of their field of specialization in relation to their dissertation. All portions of the dissertation and final oral examination must be completed as outlined in the GRS General Requirements for the Doctor of Philosophy Degree.

Interim Progress Report

The student must submit an Interim Progress Report to the DGS by the end of the fourth year. This report is a 3-to-5-page (single-spaced, 12-point font) description of the student’s PhD research activities. It should include the anticipated research scope, research accomplishments, and time scale for completion of the PhD. The report should be prepared in consultation with, and the approval of, all members of the PhD Committee.

Departmental Seminar

The student is required to give a generally accessible seminar related to their dissertation project as part of a Graduate Seminar Series. All five members of the PhD Committee must attend the seminar; other faculty and students are encouraged to attend. The seminar should be presented shortly after the dissertation prospectus is prepared and no later than six months before the final oral exam.

Immediately after the seminar, the PhD Committee meets privately with the student to discuss the details of research required for the completion of a satisfactory PhD dissertation.

Any PhD student who has fulfilled the requirements of the master’s degree program, as stated here, can be awarded a master’s degree.