Physics Courses & Exams

Does physics require graduate placement exams?

The Physics Department no longer requires graduate placement exams.

What courses should I take?

That depends. The only required course is Ph 242ab. All students take it their first year. Depending upon the results of your placement exams, you may want to consider taking some basic physics courses as described in the How to Complete this Program section which contains information for new and current physics graduate students. Your advisor will have some recommendations for courses that are pertinent to your specific research project. All students must register for a minimum of 36 units regardless of whether these units are courses or research units. Students who are finished with courses, which is the case typically by the third year, should register for 36 units of either (Ph 172) Experimental Research, or (Ph 173) Theoretical Research. After passing the oral candidacy exam, all students must register for (Ph 300) Thesis Research. Students typically take three or four 9 unit courses each term the first year as well as two terms of Ph 242 for 3 units. If the total course units do not add up to 36, the student must register for either research or a reading course (Ph 171) with a faculty member. Students may also take any courses they wish outside of physics. Students must also register for 36 units of summer research or reading especially if they expect to be paid.

Can graduate level courses I've already taken be transferred to Caltech for credit?

It is not possible to transfer any graduate level courses previously taken as an undergraduate to Caltech. Course credits do not count towards the Ph.D. As described in the Basic Requirement section, to be admitted into Ph.D. candidacy, the student must first complete one term each of six out of eight of the subjects listed. It is not possible for these course requirements to be waived for courses pertaining to these subjects that were taken elsewhere.

What kind of preparation is required for the physics written candidacy exams?

By far the best preparation for the written candidacy exams is to work sample problems. Some students form study groups and work on the same problems independently and then compare solutions. Taking courses can also help you prepare for the exams, particularly Ph106, Ph125, Ph127, and probably Ph135 and Ph136. However do not expect classes alone to get you through the exams. The written exams are difficult, it's likely you will have to do some serious studying to pass.

When are the written candidacy exams offered?

First year students are expected to attempt both QM and CP by the end of the first year, meaning the summer exam session. The October exam session is mainly for retakes, however, incoming grad students may take either or both exams during the October session at the beginning of their first academic year.  For current first year students, the Fall session at the start of the second academic year is not an alternative to the summer exam session at the end of the first academic year. Exams are offered twice each year, two sessions for each exam over two weeks in June/July and two sessions for either exam during one week in October. Exact dates will be posted on the written exam schedule obtained via email request to the Physics Graduate Office.