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Doctoral Degree Milestones

Master's Review

The Master’s Review Committee (MRC) decides whether students can continue towards a Ph.D. or not. The MRC starts its review of the progress of new graduate students at the end of the Spring quarter of the first year. This review, if needed, continues throughout the second year. A final decision must be made before the start of the third year at the latest and will be based on an evaluation of the comprehensive record of the student.

The Master’s Review includes the performance in the 4 Master’s Review Exams (MRE). These MRE’s are integrated with the final exams of the four corresponding first year graduate courses: Phys 524 (in the autumn), Phys 514 and Phys 518 (in winter), Phys 505 (in spring). The exams are written and graded by the course instructors and the exam committee. These final exams test the doctoral candidate’s competency across a broad spectrum of core subjects.

Students who pass all four MRE’s automatically pass the Master’s Review. A significant fraction of the first year graduate students therefore passes the Master Review automatically as early as the start of their first year Summer Quarter.

Students who pass three of the four final exams can pass the Master’s Review as early as the Fall of their second year based on a strong comprehensive record (typically strong research and strong class grades).

Students can retake specific exams during their second year. A special second year preparatory graduate course is being offered in the Winter quarter for second year students who need to retake exams.

The Master’s Review Committee evaluates the students performance in a comprehensive manner. Research potential/achievements, MRE performance and course grades play a central role while all other relevant aspects are considered too.

Students who do not pass the Master’s Review before the start of their third year are required to leave our Ph.D. Graduate program. They are typically allowed to earn a thesisbased terminal Master’s degree, provided their research warrants this and that their grade point average is above 3.0 or close enough to this Graduate School requirement that it can be raised to a 3.0 within one quarter.

Students who pass the Master’s Review receive their Master’s degree provided that Graduate School course credit and grade point average requirements have been satisfied. This will not happen by itself however. You must apply for the so-called “non-thesis Master’s Degree” yourself on the Graduate School Master’s Degree Request web page.

Additional Master's Review Information

The following document specifies the topics covered in the MRE exams, 

Here are compendia of previous MRE exam problems since Autumn 2011 and old format qualifying exam problems from before Autumn 2011 


Research, Advisers, General and Final Examinations

Finding a Research Group

Every student is expected to find a research adviser before the end of the second year, preferably much sooner, and commence independent Ph.D. research under his or her supervision. A student informs the graduate program coordinator (GPC) when she/he has established a research home.

Your first-year faculty adviser remains your main faculty consultation resource until you find your research adviser. After your first year, you select also a faculty mentor, a person different from your research adviser, who can assist and advise you with issues not immediately related to your specific research.

The GPC is always available for advice. This becomes important ,e.g., when you find yourself still unsure about your research direction during the second year or when you need to switch research groups later.

Composition of the Doctoral Supervisory Committee

Every student is expected to establish a doctoral supervisory committee within one year of finding the research adviser and when the research is well on its way.

The doctoral supervisory committee guides and assists a student in working towards a doctoral degree and is expected to evaluate the student’s performance throughout the program. The roles and responsibilities of voting members, chair, graduate school representative (GSR) and student are specified in the Graduate School document “Doctoral Supervisory Committee Roles and Responsibilities”.

The Graduate School Memorandum No.13, “Supervisory Committee for Graduate Students” contains details regarding the composition of a doctoral supervisory committee. The Physics Department has adopted its own policy regarding this:

The standard composition of a Physics supervisory committee includes at least:

  • The Committee Chair, typically your research adviser.
  • Another faculty member in the same research field.
  • A theorist from the same flavor as your own experimental research, or an experimentalist of the same flavor when you are a theorist.
  • A faculty member from another area of physics (can be a theorist or experimentalist).
  • At least three committee members should be regular Physics department faculty (i.e., not adjuncts or affiliates).
  • One member, other than your Research Adviser, should be designated as your Faculty Mentor. This can be one of the members listed above or an additional member of the committee.
  • The Graduate School Representative (GSR), who cannot have a faculty appointment in the Physics Department, or have any direct research link with your adviser. It is your responsibility to find a GSR for your committee. The process of finding a GSR can take a few hours or a few weeks. This often depends on contacts that your Committee Chair or other committee members have with faculty from other departments.

In case your research adviser is from a different UW Department and does not hold Adjunct status in our department, your faculty mentor must be a regular Physics Faculty member, and is typically the one who acts as official Chair of your Supervisory Committee.

Steps in Establishing a Doctoral Supervisory Committee

Your faculty adviser and your mentor form the core of your doctoral supervisory committee. The Department encourages you to select your mentor well before you set-up your doctoral supervisory committee. Make sure this faculty member agrees to be your mentor.

You discuss with your research adviser and mentor which other faculty should be on your doctoral supervisory committee. You ask all these faculty members in person whether they are willing to serve on your committee.

After gaining consent from the faculty members to serve on your committee, you complete the online Supervisory Committee Form on the Physics Department WEB site and submit it electronically. The GPC (1) checks that all required courses have been taken, (2) approves the committee, and (3) informs the graduate program adviser, who creates the committee at MyGrad (the Graduate School administrative system). Once this has been processed, the student, the committee members, and the graduate program assistant receive an email from the Graduate School confirming the doctoral supervisory committee has been officially established. The Graduate School suggests your committee to be created at least four months before the General Examination be scheduled.

Report on Progress

The doctoral supervisory committee is responsible for monitoring student progress. Every member of the supervisory committee is responsible for the progress of the student and for the quality of the degree being sought. The GPC checks on your progress at least once a year, typically in the Spring at the time of the Annual Activities Report are due.

The Physics Department expects that all students enrolled for fewer than five years meet annually with their research adviser, mentor, and their doctoral supervisory committee. Students are not required to submit a report, but are strongly recommended to combine this requirement for an annual meeting with their Annual Activities Report.

Students enrolled for five or more years are required to meet annually with their research adviser, mentor, and a quorum (at least two voting members) of their doctoral supervisory committee. The GSR is not expected to attend the meeting. Students are required to submit a report signed by those committee members to the department chair and the graduate program coordinator. A failure to meet annually represents unsatisfactory progress. The General Examination counts as an annual meeting of the doctoral supervisory committee.

The General Examination

The usual form of a General Examination in the Physics Department is a public presentation of research already completed and research proposed, followed by a closed examination with only members of the graduate faculty. A student should schedule the General Examination at the earliest time agreeable with the Supervisory Committee.

Sequence of steps to set-up the General Examination

  1. The student arranges with the members of the supervisory committee the date, time, and location of the exam (often room C520 in the Physics Tower).
  2. The student reserves the room him/herself with the Physics Main office.
  3. The student applies for the General Examination at the MyGrad WEB site. The Graduate School must receive requests to schedule exams several weeks beforehand.
  4. Hold the exam. You are strongly advised to send reminders to all members of your committee the day before, and also immediately beforehand, including details of the location.

Research credits after passing the General Examination

Students must register for Physics 800 instead of Physics 600. The Ph.D. degree requires a minimum of 27 dissertation credits (Physics 800) spread out over a period of at least three quarters. At least one of these quarters must be after the student passes the General Examination. Therefore, your Final Exam can not take place until 3 quarters after your General Exam, unless you pre-plan taking 800 credits before the General Exam.

Reading Committee

The reading committee consists traditionally in the Physics Department of three members of the doctoral supervisory committee. The research adviser acts as reading committee chairperson. The Graduate School Representative cannot be a member of the reading committee.

Establishing a Reading Committee

After gaining the consent of the faculty to serve on the reading committee, the student completes the online Departmental Reading Committee Form and submits it electronically to the GPC, who approves the committee, informs the graduate adviser, who sets-up the Reading Committee in MyGrad. Once this has been processed, the student, the committee members, and the graduate program assistant receive an email from the Graduate School confirming the reading committee has been officially established.

The Final Examination and the Ph.D. thesis

The Final Examination is an oral presentation and defense of a student’s dissertation. In the Physics Department, the format is similar to that of the General Examination. The Ph.D. thesis must be almost completed and this draft must be accessible during the Final Exam. The dissertation must be in a state that ensures it can be submitted within the time frame required by the Graduate School. -

Sequence of steps in setting-up the Final examination

  1. The student prepares a draft of the Ph.D. thesis in consultation with the Research Adviser.
  2. The student arranging with the members of the supervisory committee, the date, time, and location of the Final Examination (often room C520 in the Physics Tower).
  3. The student reserves the room her/himself with the Physics Main office.
  4. The student submits the final draft of the Ph.D. thesis to all reading committee members.
  5. The student applies for the Final Examination on the Graduate MyGrad WEB site.
  6. The reading committee must inform the GPC about the current status of the thesis by means of a completed Departmental Thesis Draft Report Form, or by individual e-mails from every member of the reading committee. 
  7. The GPC approves the Final Examination Request only when the dissertation can be expected to be submitted within the time frame required by the Graduate School. This process needs to be completed well before the Final Exam day.
  8. Hold the Final exam. You are strongly advised to send reminders to all members of your committee the day before and also immediately beforehand, including details of the location.
  9. The completed dissertation must be submitted to the Graduate School electronically by the last day of the quarter for the degree conferred in the same quarter as the Final Examination. Be aware, electronic submission of the thesis requires also handwritten signatures on the Graduate School Reading Committee Form.
  10. You must be enrolled both at the time of your Final Examination and during the quarter the UW grants the degree.