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, although minor variations in schedule are possible in response to student, faculty and University schedules). The purpose of the exam is to review the student’s progress through the pre-thesis research program conducted during the fall, spring, and summer of the first year. It also assists in training students to give formal presentations of scientific research, even at preliminary stages. There is no special report required in advance of the test. The reporting requirement is that a research report needs to be in place for each of the three periods of conducted research (fall, spring, and summer). It is understood that some of these research projects may be just past the level of a reading course, while others may be an actual research paper to be published. Students who have conducted multiple rotations in their first year should pick one topic to present in depth at the research exam.

At the research exam, students give a 15-minute presentation on 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. The next 15 minutes are spent fielding questions from the committee. 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. The last 10 minutes are used for committee discussion. The committees consist of three faculty members from all areas of physics, with special care given to avoid using a student’s research advisor. Therefore, students should avoid excessive technical jargon and abbreviations. 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. 

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.

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.