Graduate Student Examination Guide

The principal goal of graduate study is to train the student to conduct original research. To provide timely feedback and to help the student plan and execute their dissertation research, we conduct the following examinations:

Step 1: Research Examination

This oral exam is given in the beginning of the second year (typically in the 3rd full week of September). The exam serves a dual purpose:

  • to evaluate students’ progress in research conducted during the first year,
  • to assist students in learning to present their scientific research.

No special report is required in advance of the exam. Research report must be submitted for each of the three periods of conducted research (fall, spring, and summer of the first year). It is understood that some of these research projects may be just past the level of a reading course, while others may be more advanced and even yield publishable results. Students who have participated in multiple research projects in their first year should pick one topic to present in depth at the research exam.

The research exam includes the following parts:

  • a 15-minute presentation explaining the motivation, background, and progress made in their research. The first 10 minutes should be accessible and interesting to a broad audience, with the last 5 containing more specialized parts.
  • a 15-minute question-and-answer period. The questions typically focus on the research presented, but can reach beyond that to explore how well the student understands the context of their project and its physics background.
  • a 10-minute closed discussion by the exam committee.

The exam committee consists of three faculty members from all areas of physics. The student’s research advisor cannot be a member of the committee. Therefore, students should avoid excessive technical jargon and abbreviations. The exam committee will evaluate the following aspects of the student’s presentation:

  • Motivation. Has the student explained, in terms understandable to a non-expert physicist, why the project was undertaken and what new information it was meant to provide?
  • Intelligibility. Has the student conveyed main results of the research project and explained their significance in a way understandable to the non-experts on the committee?
  • Engagement with the audience. Has the student provided clear and satisfactory answers to questions?
  • Broader context. Is the student knowledgeable about the chosen field of research and its foundational physics background?

After the exam, the student is provided with oral and/or written feedback from the research exam committee and the academic advisor. The outcome of the exam can be a Pass, a Conditional Pass, or a Fail. In the cases of a Conditional Pass or a Fail, the research exam committee and the graduate program committee will require remedial measures specific to each individual case.

  • Unconditional Passmeans that the student has successfully completed the exam to the satisfaction of the committee.
  • Conditional Passmeans that the committee will require the student to remedy some knowledge gap, weakness, or error exhibited in the exam, e.g., by taking a particular course, completing a research project and producing satisfactory results, making another presentation at a research group meeting, etc. Conditions will vary by student and may be developed by the committee in consultation with the graduate program committee and the research advisor and will be delivered to the student within a week of the research exam. A conditional pass is resolved by the advisor reporting to the graduate program committee that the conditions have been satisfied.
  • Fail indicates that the committee has found a serious deficiency in the student’s research progress and reporting. A failing grade is reported to the graduate program committee. The graduate program committee determines the appropriate action, e.g., academic probation if the research exam has revealed a lack of research engagement. The student will be notified of the exact ramifications and of any plan for corrective action within three weeks of the exam.

Step 2: Graduate Board Oral (GBO) Examination

The GBO is a University-mandated exam which follows the University rules laid out here. As per these regulations, the GBO in the Department of Physics and Astronomy is of the preliminary type and focuses on the student’s thesis proposal. The purpose of the exam is to:

  • Test the depth and breadth of the student’s knowledge in physics and astronomy and his/her reasoning ability
  • Determine the student’s readiness to embark on PhD-level research and the student’s preliminary understanding of the field of the proposed dissertation topic

To achieve these goals, the Department of Physics and Astronomy requires the student to prepare a thesis proposal (about 3–5 pages long), which should be provided to members of the GBO committee at least one week in advance of the exam. The exam starts with an approximately 20-minute presentation by the student describing the proposal. (While the student’s PhD thesis will usually focus on the topic discussed at the GBO, this is not a requirement. The student is not expected to have an expert’s detailed knowledge in the proposed thesis subject.)

The exam should be taken in the fall of the third year of the program, soon after the student has chosen an area of research and has been accepted by an adviser. Students should contact the academic affairs administrative coordinator approximately six weeks prior to the desired exam date for scheduling. The grade for the exam is Pass or Fail and is documented on a form signed by all committee members. If the student fails the exam, he or she can take the GBO the second time. If a student fails the GBO twice, he or she cannot continue on to a PhD.

The five members of the GBO examination committee are selected, according to the rules of the Graduate Board, by the Department of Physics and Astronomy:

  • Two faculty members from the Department of Physics and Astronomy (one of them being the formal JHU adviser)
  • Two faculty members from other science departments in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences or the Whiting School of Engineering
  • The fifth member could be either from Physics and Astronomy or the science departments of the Krieger and Whiting Schools except in case the adviser is not from the Department of Physics and Astronomy. In this case, the thesis adviser is the fifth member of the GBO Committee and can also be a scientist from outside the University.

The chair of the GBO Committee can be neither a faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy nor the thesis adviser.

It is the policy of the Department of Physics and Astronomy that at least one of the internal examiners serving on the committee should be from a different area of physics than the student (astrophysics, condensed matter physics, particle physics, and atomic and molecular physics are the four different areas).

Step 3: Final Thesis Defense

The thesis defense focuses on the student’s dissertation. The Defense Committee consists of five members:

  • Two who are experts in the field of the thesis topic (at least one of them must be a faculty member in the Department of Physics and Astronomy)
  • One who is a faculty member in Physics and Astronomy with expertise in an unrelated field
  • Two who are usually chosen from other departments of the University; however, they could be affiliated with other institutions of higher education or research

Scheduling of the thesis defense can be during fall and spring semesters, as well as the summer months. Students should contact the academic affairs administrative coordinator approximately six weeks prior to the desired exam date for scheduling. Every member of the committee must receive a copy of the thesis at least two weeks prior to the scheduled defense date. The thesis defense usually begins with the student presenting his or her dissertation for 40-45 minutes, during which the committee may ask questions. The presentation is open to the public, and the student and his or her advisor decide how widely to advertise the presentation. After the presentation, the audience leaves the examination room and the committee proceeds to the questions phase. Most defenses last between 1.5 and 2 hours. The committee may recommend changes to the thesis.

After successful completion of this final thesis defense, the committee documents by signatures that the student has passed. The academic affairs administrative coordinator forwards the appropriate forms to the graduate board notifying them of the newest PhD in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, while the student incorporates any final edits into the dissertation and submits it to the JHU library. If the student fails the defense, thesis modifications can be made and the student can be re-examined.