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Physics Candidacy FAQs

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.
  • A typical candidacy meeting lasts 90 minutes, with a roughly equal mix of prepared presentation materials from you and questions from the committee.Committee questions often relate to your work done, work planned, and general knowledge of your field of research.
  • 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.

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.
  • A written report is not expected for candidacy.

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 is the expected candidacy meeting timeline?

  • Your candidacy meeting (or sometimes "candidacy exam") should take place by the end of Spring term of your third year. You should have a discussion with your advisor well in advance about plans and expectations for the candidacy so that you can meet this timeline. In unusual circumstances, the candidacy meeting may take place during the Summer term of your third year. You should speak with the Graduate Option Representative if you think this may be required. Failing to complete candidacy by the end of your 12th term at the Institute (end of Summer term) means you are not making satisfactory academic progress, and you'll need to meet with the Graduate Option Representative and the Graduate Program Director to discuss, and you will need to formally petition the Graduate Dean for an extended registration, with written justification for the extension.
  • If your candidacy is delayed beyond the summer of your third year and into 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 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.