Graduate Program Comprehensive Exam Guidelines for Ph.D. Students

 

 

What is the comprehensive exam?

It is a requirement of the University that all Ph.D. students pass a comprehensive examination as defined by their department in order to be advanced to candidacy. In our department, we offer a written comprehensive exam twice a year. You must pass this exam before you can advance to candidacy in the Ph.D. program.

The comprehensive exam is meant to test your mastery of the fundamental concepts of physics (and astronomy, for students in the PhD in Astronomy program). Although the material covered by the exam generally coincides with the undergraduate curriculum (and does not include specialized topics covered only in graduate school), you will be expected to demonstrate a mastery of these fundamentals at a level appropriate to a Ph.D. recipient, beyond that attained even by undergraduates with excellent academic records. Accordingly, the exam will cover the full range of the curriculum, will emphasize deeper understanding rather than rote problem-solving skills, and will require you to synthesize concepts learned in different courses. You will find the comprehensive exam to be rather different than any exams you might have taken as an undergraduate.

NOTE FOR ASTRONOMY STUDENTS: Students in the PhD in Astronomy program take a separate tailored version of the exam that covers both astronomy and relevant physics.  More details are given below.

One way of stating the goal of the comprehensive exam is that being adequately prepared for this exam is equivalent to having mastered the basics well enough to be competent to teach most core courses in our undergraduate curriculum. The goal of the comprehensive exam is to aid you in reaching that level of mastery. You should consider the process of studying for the comprehensive exam to be part of your graduate education---the major benefit is what you yourself learn by preparing for it.

MSc students who pass the comprehensive exam will be given credit for it if they later enroll in the PhD program.

When must I take it?

Our department requires you to attempt the comprehensive exam within 12 months of entering the Ph.D. program, and we strongly recommend attempting it at the soonest available opportunity. This is to ensure that you have the basic grounding needed to continue with Ph.D. studies, while giving plenty of time for you to take the exam again if you don't succeed on the first attempt. (Although about 75% of students will pass on their first attempt, it is not uncommon to fail on the first try, and there is no penalty for taking the exam more than once.)  We strongly encourage incoming Ph.D. students to take the exam at the earliest opportunity rather than waiting a year.

If you do not pass a comprehensive exam during your first 12 months in the Ph.D. program, you are required attempt it again at least once before the end of your second year in the program. Under normal circumstances every student is expected to have either passed a comprehensive exam by the end of the 2nd year, or to have attempted to do so at least once in each year of study. We encourage you to attempt the exam more frequently than yearly, however, until you pass, as currently the exam is offered twice a year.

There is no limit per se on how many times you may attempt the exam. The only requirement is that you must pass a comprehensive exam by the end of your third year in the Ph.D. program.  This is a University rule, not a Department requirement.

University rules require that any student who has not advanced to candidacy by the end of the third year in the Ph.D. program must withdraw, and cannot complete a degree. If you have not passed the comprehensive exam by the start of your third year of study, you are in danger---you should have a detailed discussion with your supervisory committee about your exam performance and about what steps you should take to better prepare for the exam.

SPECIAL NOTE FOR DIRECT TRANSFER TO PHD STUDENTS: If you complete a direct transfer from the MSc to the PhD program, please note that UBC will consider your starting date for the PhD program to be whenever you entered the MSc program.  So if you do direct transfer at the end of your first year in the MSc program, then you will be considered a 2nd-year student and will have just two years left to advance to candidacy, not three.

Is the comprehensive exam meant to flunk students out?

Absolutely not! Our department only admits students who we believe to be capable of completing all of the requirements for the Ph.D. We expect that every student we admit WILL pass our comprehensive exam, even if not always on the first try. (The typical success rate on the first attempt is 75%, and very few students need more than two attempts to pass.) For this reason we encourage you to take the exam early in your Ph.D. studies and allow you to take the exam as many times as you need to. Your Ph.D. supervisory committee will also work with you to improve your performance if you have difficulty passing the exam.

Can I take an oral exam instead?

Prior to 2020 students had the option of taking either the written comprehensive exam or an oral exam.  The oral exam option is currently suspended, and students are requested to take the written exam.

Format of the written exam:

The written comprehensive exam is offered twice per year (usually in late August/early September just before classes resume, and again in the spring in late April). It takes the form of a closed book, single day exam given in two parts, with an intermission between the two halves.  (Prior to 2020 we gave a two-day exam, lasting four hours each day.  We switched to a single-day exam in 2020.)  Marks are awarded on a pass/fail basis, and the exams are marked anonymously for fairness.

The next written exam will be offered on April 29, 2021 as 12:30 Pacific time.  Please see important information below about exam logistics.

The exam is written by a committee of faculty members containing both experimentalists and theorists from a broad spectrum of fields in our department, including physics, astronomy, and medical physics. Sample exams are given below.

Specific information for PhD students in Astronomy:

The astronomy version of the exam tests your knowledge of both astronomy and relevant physics.  Prior to 2020 astronomy students took a two-day exam.  The first day of the exam was same exam that the PhD (Physics) students took. The second day of the exam was specific to astronomy.  In 2020 the department switched to a single-day exam which will test both astronomy and physics.  Students in the PhD in astronomy program should request the astro version of the exam.

The subject material of the PhD (Astro) candidacy exam is at the level of the eight graduate courses that are core to the astronomy content at UBC (their outlines are linked to at the bottom of this section so that you can judge the material covered in these courses).  The candidacy exam questions will be comparable to final examination questions in those courses, although they may be constructed in a way that bridges some of the topics (in line with the philosophy that the candidacy exam is testing broad background in graduate astronomy).    As for the Physics candidacy exam, you may bring and use both sides of a regular 8.5x11" piece of paper for a formula sheet you have prepared, and use a handheld, non-graphing calculator.

Relevant course syllabi for the astronomy exam are here:

A502 - Dynamics A505 - Galaxies A506 - High Energy Astrophysics A507 - Planetary
A508 - Stars A509 - Statistics A514 - Observational Astronomy P571 - Cosmology

 

When are the exams offered?

The exam is offered the week before Labour Day (late August or early September), and again in the spring.   The next exam is scheduled for April 29, 2021 from 12:30-18:00 Pacific time. 

Please bring your student ID and a handheld scientific calculator (no graphing calculators or computers). You may also use your own two-sided 8.5"x11" formula sheet with anything you want written on it.

Logistical Issues for the April 2021 Exam

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the April 2021 exam will be taken remotely, with Zoom invigilation.  The way this works is that we will distribute the exam electronically at the announced start time, and students would then electronically submit scanned or photographed copies of their answers at the end of the exam.  A requirement for taking the exam is that you have a working webcam with an open Zoom connection focused on you during the exam, so that the invigilators can see every student and make sure that no one is receiving unauthorized help.  If you are planning to take the April exam, you should start thinking now about how you can set up a webcam and Zoom connection so that the invigilators can clearly see you while you take the exam.  We will do do a practice run of the logistics (Zoom connection and electronic submission) roughly a week before the exam, to help everyone shake the bugs out.

Just as with all previous comprehensive exams, this year's exam remains a closed book exam, and the only aids you are allowed are a 2-sided 8.5"x11" formula sheet (which you provide yourself) and a calculator.  You may not access Google, textbooks, online sources, or any other resources during the exam, which is why we are requiring all students taking the exam to turn on their webcam. 

The exam format for April 2021 will be as follows, and differs a little from the format used in previous exams:

  1. The exam will be given in two parts, with four questions in each part.  In each half students will be given 2.25 hours to answer three out of four questions (their choice).
  2. There will be an intermission between the two halves of the exam, to give students time to submit their answers to the first half and to then have a bit of a break.

The exam will be administered through UBC's Canvas online learning platform, and you must register in advance to take the exam through Canvas.  Information about how to register has been distributed by email to graduate students in the department.  If you have lost the instructions for how to register, contact the exam chair for assistance.

What should I study?

In general the exam will emphasize topics in quantum mechanics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics/statistical mechanics, classical mechanics, and general physics. We recommend the following textbooks as study guides:

  1. Quantum mechanics:
    • Modern Quantum Mechanics, J.J. Sakurai
    • Quantum Physics, Stephen Gasiorowicz
  2. Electromagnetism:
    • Classical Electrodynamics, J. D. Jackson
    • Introduction to Electrodynamics, David J. Griffiths
  3. Thermodynamics:
    • An Introduction to Thermal Physics, Daniel V. Schroeder
    • Thermal Physics, Charles Kittel and Herbert Kroemer
  4. Mechanics:
    • Classical Mechanics, Herbert Goldstein
    • Mechanics Volume 1 (Course of Theoretical Physics), L. D. Landau and E. M. Lifshitz
  5. General:
    • University of Chicago Graduate Problems in Physics with Solutions, Jeremiah A. Cronin et. al (Paperback) inexpensive and available at amazon.ca, for example.

Students in the PhD in Astronomy program should see the additional notes in on the astronomy exam posted earlier on this page.

How long should I study for the exam?

We expect that, to be adequately prepared for the comprehensive exam, you should plan on spending at least 100 hours in dedicated study for the exam.

We find that students who prepare for the exam as part of a study group with other graduate students tend to do better than those students who study on their own, and encourage you to join a study group, or to form your own.  Working through questions from previous exams is an excellent way to prepare.

What kinds of questions will be asked?

Sample of past comprehensive exams are available below. The exams after 2008 are most representative of what we expect future exams to look like, in terms of difficulty, format, and the range of questions. Previous exams are included for completeness.  Please note that in 2020 we switched from a two-day exam format to a single day exam.

  1. September 2020 physics comprehensive exam and September 2020 astronomy comprehensive exam
  2. August 2019 physics comprehensive exam and August 2019 astro-specific exam (Day 2, see physics exam for Day 1)
  3. August 2018 physics comprehensive exam and August 2018 astro-specific exam (Day 2, see physics exam for Day 1)
  4. September 2017 physics comprehensive exam and September 2017 astro-specific exam (Day 2, see physics exam for Day 1)
  5. September 2016 physics comprehensive exam and September 2016 astro-specific exam (Day 2, see physics exam for Day 1)
  6. September 2015 physics comprehensive exam and September 2015 astro-specific exam (Day 2, see physics exam for Day 1)
  7. August 2014 physics comprehensive exam and August 2014 astro-specific exam (Day 2, see physics exam for Day 1)
  8. August 2013 comprehensive exam
  9. August 2012 comprehensive exam
  10. September 2011 comprehensive exam
  11. September 2010 comprehensive exam
  12. September 2009 comprehensie exam
  13. August 2008 comprehensive exam
  14. January 2008 comprehensive exam
  15. 2006 comprehensive exam: Part A and Part B
  16. 2005 comprehensive exam

 

How will I be tested on specialized knowledge of my subfield?

Previously the department's guidelines for "advancement to candidacy" required you not only to demonstrate mastery of the general material included on the comprehensive exam, but also to "demonstrate a thorough comprehension of the relevant field of specialization". This is no longer a formal requirement for advancement to candidacy. Instead, it is expected that your Ph.D. supervisory committee will regularly test you on your specialized knowledge throughout your academic career at your yearly meetings with your committee. Any serious deficiencies in this regard will be noted on the "Annual Supervisory Committee" meeting report, and you may be asked by your committee to take steps to improve your knowledge of your sub-field as appropriate, such as by taking additional courses or doing independent study.

The rationale for separating the test of your general preparation from examination of your specialized knowledge is that your specialized knowledge is much more closely tied to your research progress, and should be constantly growing throughout your study at UBC. Accordingly the "advancement to candidacy" will now only test your general academic preparation, while it is the responsibility of your advisor, your PhD supervisory committee, and yourself to monitor the growth of your more specialized expertise.