Physics PhD Degree Requirements

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

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

Course requirements

PhD students in Physics 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)

Can the core courses be waived?

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

How many electives do students take?

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 Examinations

The qualifying examinations are based on the physics covered in the first-year graduate courses. The examinations consist of three written parts which cover:

  • Electrodynamics
  • Quantum Mechanics
  • Classical & Statistical Mechanics

When are the next scheduled exams?

Spring 2017 Qualifying Exam Schedule All tests begin at 9:00 AM and end at 1:00 PM.


Monday, June 5th in Tech F160
Quantum Mechanics Wednesday, June 7th in Tech F160
Classical and Statistical Mechanics Friday, June 9th in Tech F160

The order of the exams is subject to change.

Are there any practice materials?

PDF copies of past examinations are available at this link. This page is password protected: students enrolled at Northwestern can obtain the password from the Graduate Program Assistant.

How often are the exams held?

The examinations are held twice per year: after the Spring quarter (early June) and before the Fall quarter (mid-September).

What is the deadline for passing the exams?

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.

Research and the thesis

When do students start doing research?

We encourage students to become engaged in research as early as possible in their studies. Incoming students on University 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.)

When do students choose an advisor?

Students may choose a thesis advisor and/or topic at any point in their first two years.

When is the Candidacy Exam (Prospectus)?

A proposed thesis topic must be defended before a faculty committee no later than by the end of the student's fourth (4th) year at Northwestern.

How long does it take students to complete the degree?

The thesis must be defended by no later than the end of the student's ninth (9th) year at Northwestern.

The median number of years to completion is six (6) years.

Can students receive their Master's degree along the way?

Yes, students may apply to receive a Master's degree en route to their PhD degree. This may be helpful on applications for outside funding.

Program Handbook

For more information on the program and what to expect, please see the Program Handbook (Updated Fall 2016).

Further questions? 

Contact the Graduate Program Assistant.