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, you can choose to take either a written exam or an oral exam. You must pass one of these exams before being advanced into candidacy in the Ph.D. programme.

Either the written or the oral comprehensive exam is meant to test your mastery of the fundamental concepts of physics (and astronomy, for students in the PhD in Astronomy programme). 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 both the written and oral exams to be rather different than any exams you might have taken as an undergraduate.

NOTE FOR ASTRONOMY STUDENTS: Previously the same comprehensive exam was used for PhD students in physics and PhD students in astronomy.  Starting in 2014 the format of the exam taken by astronomy students changed.  Under the new format, the first day of the written exam is the same for physics and astronomy students.  On the second day, astronomy students take a different version of the exam that tests material covered in the core graduate astronomy courses.  More information on the astronomy exam is posted below.  The format of the exam taken by physics students is unchanged.

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 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 in either its written or oral version within 12 months of entering the Ph.D. programme. 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.)

If you do not pass a comprehensive exam during your first 12 months in the Ph.D. programme, you are required attempt it again at least once before the end of your second year in the programme. 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.

You may attempt both the written exam and the oral exam as often as you like, with the agreement of your supervisor. The only requirement is that you must pass a comprehensive exam by the end of your third year in the Ph.D. programme.

University rules require that any student who has not advanced to candidacy by the end of the third year in the Ph.D. programme 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 programme, please note that UBC will consider your starting date for the PhD programme to be whenever you entered the MSc programme.  So if you do direct transfer at the end of your first year in the MSc programme, 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 either an oral or a written comprehensive exam, even if not always on the first try. (The typical success rate on the first attempt is 75% for both written and oral exams, 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.

What is the difference between the written exam and the oral exam?

The Department of Physics & Astronomy offers both a written exam and an oral exam. You have the option of taking either. The exams cover the same material, and are intended to be at the same level of difficulty. In recent history most students have opted for the written exam. The failure rates for the two kinds of exam have been nearly identical since the exam formats were revised in 2007.

Obviously there will always be differences between the two exams in terms of the kinds of questions that can be asked. Some students will find the written exam more suited to their skills or personality, while others may find the oral exam to their liking. If you attempt one exam and fail, you may wish to try the other exam format instead.

Format of the written exam:

The written comprehensive exam is currently offered once per year (usually in early September just before classes resume). It takes the form of a closed book, eight hour exam spread over two days, with four hours on each day. Marks will be awarded on a pass/fail basis, and the exams are marked anonymously for fairness.

Beginning in 2014, students in the PhD in Physics and PhD in Astronomy programmes will take somewhat different exams.  The first day of the eam will be in common for all students, and will test general physics.  The second day of the exam for physics students will be very much like the first, but the astronomy students will take an alternate astro-specific exam on the second day, drawing on material covered in core graduate-level astronomy courses. See the next section for more details.  Starting with the January 2008 exam we have allowed students to pick from a choice of questions on the exam, allowing for some flexibility in the student's background and preparation..

The next written exam is scheduled for August 29-30, 2019, from 1:00-5:00pm on both days, in Buchanan A202

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 2019 PhD (Astro) exam will be offered August 29-30, 2019.

The first day of the exam will be the same exam that the PhD (Physics) students take, with all the same rules and regulations. On the second day of the exam, a student taking the exam in order to qualify for the PhD (Astro) will still write the exam in the same room as the Physics students, but will request to receive a copy of the Astronomy 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 has been common in the departmental candidacy exams, there will be 8 questions on the exam (roughly corresponding to the 8 graduate courses) but students will pick and attempt 5 of the 8 questions.  As for the Physics candidacyexam, 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.

Grading: To have passed the PhD (Astro) qualifying requirements, a  student must have an average grade across the two exam days of 50%  (as for the PhD (Physics) candidacy  exam).  However, the percentage grade  of BOTH the physics day and the astronomy day must be greater  than 40%.  Failure to meet these conditions means that the entire exam process must be attempted again in future.

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

Format of the oral exam:

The oral exam is conducted by the members of your Ph.D. supervisory committee, with the exception of your supervisor. For the purpose of the oral exam, your supervisor is replaced by a member of the department's committee on comprehensive exams, who will act as chair of the examining committee. Your supervisor has the option to attend the exam as a observer, but only with your permission.

The exam can be taken whenever you and the members of your examining committee find it convenient to do so. The oral exam should be scheduled as its own meeting, separate from any regular meeting of your Ph.D. supervisory committee, and will typically last 2 hours. You will not be asked to make any presentation or to discuss your research progress---the only agenda item for the oral exam meeting should be the exam itself. You should reserve at least three hours for the exam just to be safe.

It is your responsibility to contact all members of your examining committee (excluding your supervisor, but including the chair of the department's committee on comprehensive exams---currently Scott Oser ( will designate a faculty member to replace your supervisor on the examining committee) to schedule an oral exam. At least three members of the examining committee, including a member of the department's committee on comprehensive exams, must be present at the exam in order for it to be valid. It is your responsibility to find a date that works for all members (all or minus 1), book a room (Hennings 309 is a good choice) and time with the Hennings Main Office booking person (Bridget) AND then send an e-mail reminder to your Committee members the day before the meeting to remind them. Also, bring copies of the PhD Committee Report form and the Advancement to Candidacy form with you to give to the committee, which the committee will hand in to the Graduate Coordinator after the meeting. The student should also get a copy of this Committee Report.

When are the exams offered?

The written exam is offered before the start of each new academic year. The next written comprehensive exam is a two-day exam scheduled for August 29-30, 2019, from 13:00-17:00 on each day.  (See above for exam location).  Please bring your student ID and a handheld scientific calculator (no graphing calculators or computers). You are also welcome to bring one two-sided 8.5"x11" formula sheet with anything you want written on it.

The oral exam may be attempted at any time, by agreement between yourself, your Ph.D. supervisory committee, and the department's committee on comprehensive exams. You simply have to agree on a date and time with the members of your supervisory committee (excluding your supervisor, who does not participate in the exam) and with the member of the department's committee on comprehensive exams who has been assigned to your exam. (Contact the chair of the department's committee on comprehensive exams if you don't know who has been assigned to your exam.)

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, for example.

Students in the PhD in Astronomy programme 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 either the oral or the written comprehensive exam, you should plan on spending at least 100 hours in dedicated study for the exam.

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.

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

Oral exam questions may vary considerably, but are intended to be similar in difficulty to the questions of the written exams.

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.