Physics Academic Program

For students enrolled prior to Fall 2022, please see the older requirements.

General Overview

As students navigate toward their degree, they should be aware of the following rules and regulations. The Graduate School website has additional information concerning Academic Policies & Procedures. Also see the Graduate School Doctoral Toolbox for the PhD program and the Master’s Toolbox for the MS program.

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PhD Degree

The credit requirement for the PhD Degree is a minimum of 54 graduate credits beyond the Bachelor’s degree, of which at least 27 must be earned at UWM. The course requirement includes the core physics courses, Physics 501G, Physics 515G, Physics 531G, Physics 532G, Physics 711, Physics 720, as well as a minimum of 6 credits in physics graduate courses selected from 651 and 700 to 999 levels (excluding 990). Students must complete the core physics coursework within three years of enrollment into the physics graduate program. Students must maintain a GPA of 3.0 or greater in these core courses. Students must achieve a grade of B− or greater in each core course; if a student fails to meet this requirement, the student must either retake the course or demonstrate equivalent proficiency (as determined by the departmental Graduate Academic Committee) in order to continue in the doctoral program.

The normal sequence of steps to the PhD degree is as follows:

  1. Take the Written Placement Test at the start of the first semester and explore the possibilities of research projects with potential PhD advisors.
  2. Choose a PhD Advisor(Major Professor) to supervise your PhD dissertation. You must identify a potential PhD advisor in advance of the Doctoral Preliminary Exam.
  3. Pass the Doctoral Preliminary Exam. You must take this exam before their fifth semester of enrollment into the doctoral program and must pass it within five semesters of enrollment in the doctoral program. At this point, your PhD advisor is formally established.
  4. Pass the Proposal Hearing based on your proposed PhD dissertation work. You must take this exam within four years of enrollment into the doctoral program and must pass it within five years of enrollment in the doctoral program. At this point your Doctoral Committee is formally established.
  5. Obtain dissertator status by meeting the Residence Requirements. At this point you must maintain continuous enrollment in 3 credits of Physics 990 each semester.
  6. Complete your PhD dissertation and successfully defend your dissertation.

The expectations of the department concerning the PhD candidates’ presentation of their research work are set out below. Graduate students should consult these guidelines at least one year before they plan to complete their doctoral studies.

PhD Written Placement Test

Students must take this test upon entry to the PhD program. The test will cover 3 topics: classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and electricity & magnetism, all at the advanced undergraduate level. Depending on the student’s performance on each of the three sections of the test, the graduate advisor will advise the student to proceed directly to the core graduate courses at the 500G/700-level, or first take the 400G level course corresponding to those.

Copies of previous exams may be obtained from the Graduate Program Coordinator in Room KEN 2150.

The PhD Written Placement Test is designed to test a student’s problem-solving capabilities assuming a knowledge of physics equivalent to an advanced undergraduate at a premier institution. Here is a sample of textbooks at the requisite level for the Written Placement Test:

Major Professor

The Major Professor (PhD research advisor) directs the PhD research of the graduate student, and the selection of a Major Professor is one of the most important steps in a student’s graduate career. Students are encouraged to discuss research projects with a number of the members of the research faculty. Students must identify a prospective Major Professor before undertaking their Doctoral Preliminary Examination.

Doctoral Preliminary Examination

The Doctoral Preliminary Examination must be taken before the fifth semester of enrollment into the doctoral program and must be passed within five semesters of enrollment in the doctoral program. The student and the prospective Major Professor recommend to the departmental Graduate Academic Committee proposed members of the Doctoral Preliminary Examination committee. The Committee for the Doctoral Preliminary Examination shall be a committee of three physics faculty members chaired by the prospective Major Professor. The student and the prospective Major Professor then fill out the application for the Doctoral Preliminary Examination and submit it to the department graduate program representative (graduate program advisor), who signs the application and forwards it to the Graduate School for approval. After approval by the Graduate School, the warrant authorizing the Doctoral Preliminary Examination is then sent to the department.

In this exam, the student will be asked to:

  • a. Review a field by selecting and discussing one paper chosen by the student, together with the committee, in the general area of research.
  • Or

  • b. Present and discuss preliminary results from research, placed in the broader context of the area of research interest of the student.
  • Or

  • c. Answer field-specific questions and/or solve problems in the student’s intended area of research either in either an oral or a written format.

In all cases, open-ended questions can be asked to test a student’s general understanding of physics and/or field-specific/related topics.

The Doctoral Preliminary Examination formally establishes the student’s Major Professor.

Doctoral Dissertation Proposal Hearing

The Doctoral Dissertation Proposal Hearing must be taken within four years of enrollment into the doctoral program and must be passed within five years of enrollment in the doctoral program. The student and the Major Professor recommend committee members of the Dissertation Proposal Hearing to the departmental Graduate Academic Committee. The Committee for the Dissertation Proposal Hearing shall be a four- or five-member committee chaired by the candidate’s Major Professor. Upon passing the exam, this committee will become the candidate’s Doctoral Committee. The candidate will submit a written proposal outlining the proposed dissertation research program to the committee members and an outline of the approved proposal will be submitted to the Graduate School. The committee will examine the candidate on their preparation and proposed dissertation research program. The committee shall consider:

  • The suitability of the proposed program for a PhD dissertation.
  • The candidate’s preparation and potential for performing the proposed research.
  • The candidate’s knowledge and understanding of the literature that is pertinent to the proposed research.

The Doctoral Dissertation Proposal Hearing form is filled out by the student before the exam and is taken to the exam. At the conclusion of the exam, the committee members sign the Doctoral Dissertation Proposal Hearing form and indicate the result of the exam.

Dissertator Status

Doctoral students apply to the Graduate School to obtain dissertator status. The doctoral student must have accomplished the following: passed the Doctoral Preliminary Examination, passed the Doctoral Dissertation Proposal Hearing (including submission of summary to the Graduate School as outlined above), met the residence requirements, and completed all the major course requirements for the PhD degree. (Students who elect to have a minor course of study also need to complete the minor course requirement.) Students who have attained dissertator status are required to register for 3 credits of research (Physics 990) per semester. (The fee for these credits is at the dissertator rate.) All students with dissertator status must register for 3 credits in the Fall and Spring semesters. Additionally, dissertators must register for 3 credits in the Summer semester if: they receive RA or Fellowship support, they plan to graduate that summer, or if the use University facilities or faculty time. Dissertators must continue to meet these registration requirements until the final PhD dissertation is accepted by the Graduate School.

Dissertation and Dissertation Defense

A final oral examination is taken by the candidate in defense of their dissertation. Prior to the exam the Major Professor first recommends five or more potential exam committee members to the departmental Graduate Academic Committee. An application form is prepared by the candidate, signed by the Major Professor and the department Graduate Program Representative (Graduate Program Advisor), and then sent to the Graduate School for approval. After approval of the application by the Doctoral Student Specialist, a warrant is sent to the department authorizing the examination. Upon completion of the exam, the examination committee members sign the warrant and indicate the results of the exam. The warrant is then given to the Graduate Program Representative (Graduate Program Advisor) for their signature, and the signed warrant is transmitted to the Graduate School.

For the Graduate School regulations and requirements on the PhD dissertation, see the Thesis & Dissertation Formatting and Submission Requirements. The PhD candidate must notify the Graduate School of their intention to graduate no later than the second week of the semester of expected graduation.

  1. Before the session in which the candidate plans to graduate, their Major Professor with submit the following items to the departmental Graduate Academic Committee: the list of the names of the proposed Dissertation Defense Committee, which is to consist of five or more members, including the Major Professor who will chair the committee. (Normally this is the candidate’s Doctoral Committee, though it is recognized that the final makeup of Dissertation Defense Committee is subject to the availability of the proposed members at the time of the final examination.) At the same time the candidate will submit to the departmental Graduate Academic Committee a brief statement of the dissertation research goals or abstract (1 to 2 typewritten pages.) The departmental Graduate Academic Committee will collate these items and advise the physics faculty of the following:
    • the candidate’s intention to graduate,
    • the candidate’s Major Professor,
    • the Dissertation Defense Committee members,
    • the dissertation research goals or abstract.

    Note: The candidate should be aware that the physics faculty and the departmental Graduate Academic Committee rarely meet during the Summer session. Hence, those candidates planning to graduate in the Fall session should complete the requirements of this guideline during the preceding Spring session.

  2. It is the responsibility of the PhD candidate to keep their Doctoral Committee members apprised of their progress.
  3. A complete draft of the dissertation is to be presented to all members of the Dissertation Defense Committee at least 21 days before the defense.
  4. The candidate must present an announced departmental colloquium on the dissertation research prior to the defense of the dissertation.
  5. The initial part of the final defense of the dissertation is open to the public and is to be well advertised (such as announcements in mailboxes, and, for example, to other interested departments and in the UWM calendar). After the public have left the meeting, members of the Dissertation Defense Committee will conduct the final oral examination.
  6. A closed session of the meeting chaired by the candidate’s Major Professor and comprised only of the members of the committee appointed by the Graduate School will decide on the final acceptance of the dissertation.
  7. Copies of the Guidelines are available in the departmental office and are to be given to all entering PhD graduate students. Compliance with the Guidelines is the responsibility of the candidate and the Major Professor.

Master’s Degree

The MS Degree requires 30 graduate credits, 18 of which must be in physics and 12 of which may be in related fields. Of the 18 graduate credits earned in the Physics Department, at least 6 must be in physics courses numbered above 700, with the remainder in courses at least above 500; research seminar, and independent study credits to not satisfy the above-700-level requirement. However, please note that we rarely accept applications for MS only; rather, ALL students should apply to our PhD program. A student does not need to have previously received a MS in order to apply to the PhD program.

The MS degree can be completed with one of two options: thesis option or a non-thesis option. For the thesis option, the candidate must write an acceptable thesis (which earns 6 credits) and undergo an oral examination on that subject. The non-thesis option is completed by undergoing an oral examination in core physics courses (see MS Comprehensive Examination).

MS Comprehensive Examination

Graduate students should contact the chair of the departmental Graduate Academic Committee to arrange for a Master’s Comprehensive Examination Committee consisting of three faculty members appointed by the departmental Graduate Academic Committee. The MS Comprehensive Examination for the non-thesis master’s degree option should evaluate the student’s achievements in graduate courses and fulfillment of the goals of their program of study. In particular, students should be familiar with the material in the core physics courses (Physics 501, 515, 531, 532, 711, and 720). The MS Comprehensive Examination for the thesis master’s degree option is a comprehensive oral examination, in part a defense of the thesis.

Doctoral Program Notes

Admission to Doctoral Program

Graduate students originally admitted into the Master of Science program must apply for admission into the Doctoral program when they have completed the Master’s program of study.

Program of Study

A PhD student must plan a proposed PhD Program of Study in consultation with and approved by the Major Professor.

Residency

The Graduate School requires that each PhD student complete the following residence requirements: After the Master’s degree (or equivalent level of study) students complete 8 to 12 graduate credits in each of two consecutive semesters, or complete 6 to 12 credits in each of three consecutive semesters, including summer sessions. Residence credit cannot be earned at the master’s level or before the master’s degree is awarded.

Coursework requirement

Coursework must include the core physics courses, Physics 501G, Physics 515G, Physics 531G, Physics 532G, Physics 711, Physics 720, and a minimum of 6 other credits in physics graduate courses selected from Physics 651 and courses at the 700 to 999 level (excluding Physics 990). Students must complete the core physics courses (501G, 515G, 531G, 532G, 711, and 720) within three years of enrollment into the physics graduate program. Students must maintain a GPA of 3.0 or greater over these core courses. Students must achieve a grade of B− or greater in each core course; if a student fails to meet this requirement, the student must either retake the course or demonstrate equivalent proficiency (as determined by the departmental Graduate Academic Committee) in order to continue in the doctoral program.

Minor

There is no minor requirement for a PhD in Physics. However, the Graduate School permits students to complete a minor as described in the two options below.

Option A: 8 credits in a single department with advice of the minor professor.

Option B: 19 to 12 credits in two or more departments with advice of major professor.

Miscellaneous

Graduate School Course Load Requirements for Graduate Research and Teaching Assistants.

Graduate Assistants employed at 33% or more must enroll for and complete at least 6 graduate credits during the Fall and Spring semesters.

Doctoral students who are studying for the preliminary exam may enroll for one credit. This reduced credit load is applicable for one semester only, and the Graduate Assistant must have an approved application for the preliminary exam on file with the Graduate School in order to qualify.

Those who have achieved dissertator status must enroll each semester for 3 graduate credits of Physics 990.

Further information can be found on the Graduate Assistant Policies and Procedures.

Graduate Grievance Procedures

Federal law and UWM policy require programs and departments to have procedures for graduate students to appeal academic decisions such as grades or scholastic standing. These procedures ensure the protection of students’ rights. To request exceptions to Graduate School policies, appeal academic decisions, or file grievances related to conditions of employment, the Graduate School provides procedures for Appeals and Exceptions.