Physics Degree Requirements—PhD & MS

The physics option offers a program of study leading to the Ph.D. degree in physics. The M.S. degree can be obtained after a one-year program of courses, but students are not admitted to pursue only the Master's degree.

The physics program is meant to prepare students for a career in original scientific research or research combined with teaching. Independent research is therefore an essential element of the graduate program. A full spectrum of courses is offered, with the aim of providing a firm foundation in basic physics and in areas of contemporary investigation. Course requirements are minimal; each student takes those courses that are of interest, and which are necessary to prepare for research in his or her chosen field. A full description of these requirements and the courses offered can be found in the Caltech Catalog.

Students are admitted to begin graduate study in the fall term only. Upon arrival in September, first-year students are given a placement examination to determine their level of proficiency in basic areas of physics. These exams cover material in mechanics, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, and mathematical physics, at a level equivalent to material covered in Caltech courses Ph 106, Ph 125, and Ph 129. Emphasis is placed on a broad understanding of basic physical principles, rather than on detailed specific knowledge. Each student then meets with the physics option representative to choose an initial program of courses, using the results of the placement exam for guidance.

During the first two years of graduate study, physics students must pass a written candidacy examination, in two sections, requiring a maximum of three hours per section. These examinations cover that body of knowledge that is felt to be essential, regardless of the candidate's ultimate field of specialization. The exams are flexibly scheduled, and separate sections may be taken at different times. Before the end of the third year, an oral candidacy examination is also required. This is primarily a test of the candidate's suitability for research in his or her chosen field, and consists largely of the student's presenting research already undertaken and work contemplated for his or her thesis topic.

The final Ph.D. examination is an oral examination before a committee composed of the student's thesis supervisor and three other faculty members, in which the Ph.D. candidate defends his or her research dissertation.

For detailed information and answers to many questions an applicant may have, please visit the section for applicants in the Physics Graduate Studies page.

What are the requirements for a Ph.D. in physics?

All students must satisfy both the Basic and Advanced Requirements. The basic requirement consists of two written exams in Classical Physics and Quantum Mechanics. The advanced requirement consists of six quarters of advanced courses based on research interests plus Ph242ab. The student must then pass the oral candidacy exam which is a presentation of the proposed research to a committee consisting of the advisor and at least three other faculty. The PhD student may elect to apply for the Degree of Master of Science in physics after being admitted into PhD candidacy. The student must then defend the thesis in the same manner and turn in the completed final draft before the PhD can be granted. The Institute also requires that the student be in residency for nine academic terms (three academic years). For detailed information to help you get to Commencement, please see the section How to Complete This Program.

How long does it usually take to get a Ph.D. in physics?

For most students, the number of years is typically between 5 and 6. Some well-prepared theorists might finish in substantially less time, but this is the exception. Most often students schedule their final oral Ph.D. defense in April or May for commencement in mid-June. However, students may also schedule the final exam at various times throughout the year to meet potential employer's needs. Matriculating into this program with a Master's degree does not necessarily speed up this process as the Physics Department advanced course requirements will still need to be satisfied.

Is it possible to be admitted for a Master's Degree in physics?

Although the physics department does not admit graduate students to work towards the Master of Science, one can be awarded upon request to physics students who have completed the written and oral candidacy examinations. Alternatively, the MS degree can be awarded to any Caltech graduate student in good standing upon satisfactory completion of a program approved by the option representative that fulfills the requirements as listed in the catalog of at least 135 units of coursework. Basically these requirements include 27 units of Ph125 abc or any quantum mechanics-based course; 81 units of physics electives; 27 units of other electives from physics or other options. All course substitutions must be approved by the option representative.