Degree Requirements

Course requirements

PhD students in Physics and Astronomy must pass the following core courses or demonstrate that they have passed equivalent courses elsewhere:

  • One quarter of classical mechanics (Physics 411-0)
  • Three quarters of quantum mechanics (Physics 412-1,2,3)
  • Two quarters of classical electrodynamics (Physics 414-1,2)
  • One quarter of statistical mechanics (Physics 416-0)

Normally, students who wish to have core courses waived must first pass the corresponding section(s) of the PhD qualifying examinations.

In addition to the core courses, students must complete six elective courses in physics or astronomy.  At least 4 of the 6 electives must be completed by the end of the Spring term of the student's second year.  Descriptions of our graduate courses are available here.

PhD qualifying examination

The qualifying examinations are based on the physics covered in the first-year graduate courses.  The examinations consist of three written parts which cover:  (1) Classical & Statistical Mechanics, (2) Electrodynamics, and (3) Quantum Mechanics.  The examinations are held twice per year:  after the Spring quarter (middle of June) and before the Fall quarter (middle of September).  Students must pass all three parts by the Fall of their second year.  However, students who do not pass by then may submit a written petition and request a final try in the Spring quarter of their second year.

Northwestern graduate Vesna Mitrovic, now an Assistant Professor at Brown University, works with a magnet capable of generating a 3.5-Tesla field.

For Spring 2013, the qualifying examinations will Monday, September 16th (EM), Tuesday, September 17th (QM) & Thursday,September 19th (CM/SM), order of exams are subject to change. Incoming students are free to take the Fall exams, but in general only students with Master's degrees are expected to do so. PDF copies of past examinations are available at this link.  This page is password protected:  students either at or admitted to Northwestern can obtain the password from the physics office.

Although our department does not admit students for Master's study, PhD students who have passed the core courses and the qualifying exams are eligible to receive a MS degree if they wish.  Additional information is available at this link.

Please refer to our Resources page for direct links to The Graduate School (TGS) for information that can guide you in your academic career.

Research and the thesis

We encourage students to become engaged in research as early as possible in their studies.  Incoming students on Fellowship support are especially encouraged to begin part-time research in their first year.  To acquaint themselves with the research opportunities in the department, most new students work with one of the faculty during the summer of their first year of graduate study.  (However, there is no requirement to do so.)  Students may choose a thesis adviser and/or topic at any point in their first two years.

A proposed thesis topic must be defended before a faculty committee no later than by the end of the student's fourth year at Northwestern.  The thesis itself must be defended before a panel of three faculty by no later than the end of the student's ninth year at Northwestern.  Successful completion of this examination is the final requirement of the PhD program.  Further questions?  Contact the Director of Graduate Studies.


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September 20, 2013