Graduate Program Comprehensive Exam Guidelines for Ph.D. Students

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 for students in the Physics & Astronomy programs twice a year (once a year for the PhD in Medical Physics program). 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, astronomy, or medical physics.  We offer a separate version of the exam for students enrolled in those three degree programs (the first medical physics-specific exam was offered in September 2021). Although the material covered by the physics 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.

NOTE FOR STUDENTS IN THE PhD IN MEDICAL PHYSICS PROGRAM: Students in the PhD in Medical Physics program take a separate tailored version of the exam, which is offered once a year in August/September.  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.

When must I take it?

Our department recommends attempting it at the soonest available opportunity once you are registered as a PhD student. 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. 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 as soon as possible, not waiting a full year, as currently the exam is offered twice a year.

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 has been discontinued, 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 April/May). 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.)  The pass mark for the exam is 50%, and the exams are marked anonymously for fairness.

The next written exam for students in the PhD in Physics and PhD in Astronomy programs will be offered on Wednesday May 8, 2024.  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


Specific information for PhD students in Medical Physics:

Starting in September 2021 students in the PhD program in Medical Physics take a separate version of the exam.  Students who are enrolled in the PhD in Physics program (as opposed to the PhD program in Medical Physics) should take the regular physics version of the exam, even if their field of study is medical physics.  Students who have previously passed the general physics version of the exam are not required to re-take the exam.  Note that the Medical Physics version of the exam is offered only once a year, typically in the fall.

The topics in the Comprehensive Exam for the PhD in Medical Physics exam are chosen from the CAMPEP syllabus taught in our Medical Physics courses. There is substantial (but not complete) overlap with the CCPM Membership Exam which covers these areas:

  •  Radiation Oncology Specialty
  •  Diagnostic Radiology Specialty
  •  Nuclear Medicine Specialty
  •  Magnetic Resonance Specialty

We have marked questions in the CCPM Membership Exam catalogue that would fall within the scope of the exam that you can expect for the Medical Physics Comprehensive Exam. (Yellow signifies knowledge in the general CAMPEP curriculum, green is special since it's only covered in the corresponding elective):

Note that we will not be asking questions of this style. Instead, questions will require you to develop solutions to longer problems posed in those knowledge domains. As a sample, here is a problem that is representative of the style of questions you can expect.

Additional study material for the medical physics exam may be found here:

In addition, the final exams for the courses PHYS 534, 535, 536, 539, 540, 545, and a choice question from one of 541, 542, 543 (elective) also provide a very good indication of material to expect.

When are the exams offered?

The exam is offered in late August or early September, and again in late April or early May.   The next exam for students in our PhD programs in physics and astronomy will be held on May 8, 2024.

Please bring your student ID and a handheld scientific calculator (no graphing calculators or computers). You may also use your own self-prepared two-sided 8.5"x11" formula sheet with anything you want written on it.    [Students taking the astronomy exam may have two self-prepared double-sided formula sheets, and those taking the medical physics exam may have three.] 

Logistical Issues for the May 2024 Exam

The May 8, 2024 exam will be offered in-person in Hennings 200, from 9:00-15:00 PDT (with an intermission for lunch.)

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 double-sided 8.5"x11" formula sheet (which you provide yourself) and a calculator.  [Students taking the astronomy exam may have two self-prepared double-sided formula sheets, and those taking the medical physics exam may have three, although the medical physics exam will not be offered in May 2024.]  You may not access Google, textbooks, online sources, or any other resources during the exam. 

The exam format for May 2024 will be as follows:

  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.

Information about how to register for the exam 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, 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. August 2023 physics comprehensive exam, August 2023 astronomy comprehensive exam
  2. May 2023 physics comprehensive exam, May 2023 astronomy comprehensive exam
  3. August 2022 physics comprehensive exam, August 2022 astronomy comprehensive exam, and August 2022 medical physics comprehensive exam
  4. May 2022 physics comprehensive exam and May 2022 astronomy comprehensive exam
  5. September 2021 physics comprehensive exam, September 2021 astronomy comprehensive exam, and September 2021 medical physics comprehensive exam
  6. April 2021 physics comprehensive exam and April 2021 astronomy comprehensive exam (part 1 and part 2)
  7. September 2020 physics comprehensive exam and September 2020 astronomy comprehensive exam
  8. August 2019 physics comprehensive exam and August 2019 astro-specific exam (Day 2, see physics exam for Day 1)
  9. August 2018 physics comprehensive exam and August 2018 astro-specific exam (Day 2, see physics exam for Day 1)
  10. September 2017 physics comprehensive exam and September 2017 astro-specific exam (Day 2, see physics exam for Day 1)
  11. September 2016 physics comprehensive exam and September 2016 astro-specific exam (Day 2, see physics exam for Day 1)
  12. September 2015 physics comprehensive exam and September 2015 astro-specific exam (Day 2, see physics exam for Day 1)
  13. August 2014 physics comprehensive exam and August 2014 astro-specific exam (Day 2, see physics exam for Day 1)
  14. August 2013 comprehensive exam
  15. August 2012 comprehensive exam
  16. September 2011 comprehensive exam
  17. September 2010 comprehensive exam
  18. September 2009 comprehensie exam
  19. August 2008 comprehensive exam
  20. January 2008 comprehensive exam
  21. 2006 comprehensive exam: Part A and Part B
  22. 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.

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