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Physics Candidacy FAQs

The physics option has started an annual info session on candidacy expectations for students. The questions below were gathered from the initial meeting and from other commons questions the faculty and staff often hear.

What is candidacy and why do I have to do it?

  • The candidacy meeting is an oral presentation to a committee of faculty members on your proposed thesis research and the specific problem or problems to be addressed. It demonstrates the commitment to a PhD project by you, your advisor, and your committee. It's an important milestone that confirms you are on track towards completing your PhD.
  • The candidacy meeting is fairly informal, you don't have to think of it as a big, daunting requirement. Instead, you can look at it as an opportunity to check in with your committee, talk to them about what you've been working on, and what you plan to do for the rest of your PhD.
  • To be admitted to candidacy, you must complete the basic physics requirement (written candidacy exams), advanced physics requirement (6 courses in 3/4 areas), and the candidacy meeting.

How do I know if I'm ready to hold my candidacy meeting?

  • Talk to your advisor about whether he/she thinks you are ready. 
  • As a rule of thumb, if you have been working with your advisor for a year or more, have identified a research topic, and have done some preliminary work as a proof of concept that you can tackle your research, then you're ready. 

What happens if I don't do candidacy by the end of the Spring term of my third year?

  • Failing to do candidacy by the end of the third year means that you are not making satisfactory academic progress. You'll need to meet with the option rep and graduate program director to discuss a revised plan and timeline, and you may need to meet with the Dean of Graduate Studies to petition for extended registration. Each case will be handled individually, but a firm deadline of Spring term of your fourth year will be imposed. Students who have not completed candidacy by Spring of the fourth year could risk dismissal from the physics graduate program. 
  • If your candidacy is delayed into the summer or early in the following fall term due only to scheduling constraints, you will still need to petition for extended registration with the Dean's office. If you have the commitment of your committee and a date set, your petition will likely be accepted.

How do I assemble my candidacy committee?

  • Committee members are people you will talk to about your research, career aspirations, and more between candidacy and defense. Some of them are the people who will write your letters of recommendation for the first position you seek after grad school. Choose people who you feel you can talk to, who know your field, and/or who you think can provide guidance.
  • It is recommended that you consult with you advisor and the EO before contacting potential committee members. You'll need to enter your members into REGIS for final approval from the option rep before you can move ahead with scheduling.
  • You must have at least 4 members on your candidacy committee. At least 3 of whom need to be Caltech professorial faculty. 
  • We encourage students to consider including faculty outside the physics department or PMA, if appropriate.
  • There is no strict rule on the number of physics faculty required on your committee, the EO and option rep can help assess if the committee you have selected is appropriate.
  • Unless exceptions are granted by the EO or option rep, your committee should have at least one experimentalist and one theorist.
  • One of the members of your committee should be your research advisor, but the chair should be someone other than your research advisor.

What is the role of the committee chair?

  • The chair's official function is minor, they are just responsible for running the meeting.
  • The more important function is that they are another member of the faculty with whom you can develop a connection during your PhD. They are a faculty resource, someone other than your advisor who you can consult with at any point during your PhD. Typically, the chair continues serving on your Thesis Advisory Committee (see below).

Can I have more than 4 members on my committee?

  • In principle, you can have more than 4 members on your committee, however, the more people you add, the more difficult it will be to schedule your meetings.
  • If you want to have more members, and are not concerned about them officially being part of the committee (e.g. voting member in REGIS), you may invite them to attend your meetings. Just make sure this is ok with your committee chair and advisor first.

How do I organize the candidacy meeting?

  • Once you have the commitment of your candidacy committee members, work on setting a date and time. It can take several weeks or even months to find a date that works for everyone, so start early!
  • Book a conference room by contacting your building admin. Mika can help book conference rooms in East Bridge.
  • Enter the necessary info in REGIS. See Do I have to do any administrative steps before or after candidacy?

What do I present and talk about at my candidacy meeting?

  • Each exam is a little different, but you'll need to strike a balance between work done and proposed work.
  • Sketch out big picture view of field of research you are getting involved in, motivate your work, then get down to the details of what you have already done or what you will do. Describe the goal you are trying to achieve with your PhD and discuss the tools you will use to get there. 
  • The level of the talk should be fairly technical. Remember that you're talking to a committee of experts. You may need to incorporate some additional background and avoid jargon if any of your committee members work in a different field. That said, make sure your talk is accessible to all members of the committee, so take into account their varied backgrounds and expertise. This will vary for everyone, so you're encouraged to talk to your committee members about this beforehand if you're unsure.

What are some suggestions for preparing for my candidacy meeting?

  • Talk to your committee members, especially the chair and your advisor ahead of time, so you're on the same page with respect to expectations for the exam.
  • Practice your talk with friends and colleagues who know your field

What kinds of questions will my committee members ask?

  • Knowledge of your field and proposed research
  • Background and related work
  • What challenges do you expect along the way
  • Back up plans if your approach does not work out

How long does the candidacy meeting usually last?

  • Aim for about an hour to an hour and half with Q+A
  • It is suggested to book the room for 2 hours just to be on the safe side.

Do I have to do any administrative steps before or after candidacy? 

  • Enter candidacy committee members, date, time, and location in REGIS. REGIS will send auto reminders to your committee before the meeting 
  • You don't need to do anything after the meeting, but the committee members will be pinged to enter their result and any comments in REGIS.

What does it mean to pass or fail candidacy?

  • Passing candidacy means that as a result of the candidacy meeting, your committee is confident that you are ready to dive into your thesis work. You've completed a big degree milestone!
  • Failing candidacy is not common, as it is expected that you and your advisor have discussed your readiness and that you have prepared. 
  • In the rare case that your committee doesn't think you've shown enough to pass candidacy during your meeting, you may be asked to perform some additional work before presenting again in front of the committee. Each scenario may look a little different, but one possibility is that your committee asks you to do some more background research on a particular topic and come back in a few weeks or months to demonstrate that you've gained a better understanding.

What happens after candidacy?

  • Once you've passed, you're officially a PhD candidate! You now get to dive into your thesis work!
  • Unless you decide to change the members, you candidacy committee with become your Thesis Advisory Committee, and they will follow your progress until your defense. You'll be meeting with them at least twice before you defend at the end of your fifth year. See the section on the Thesis Advisory Committee for more details.