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PhD Program

A PhD degree in Physics is awarded in recognition of significant and novel research contributions, extending the boundaries of our knowledge of the physical universe. Selected applicants are admitted to the PhD program of the UW Department of Physics, not to a specific research group, and are encouraged to explore research opportunities throughout the Department.


Applicants to the doctoral program are expected to have a strong undergraduate preparation in physics, including courses in electromagnetism, classical and quantum mechanics, statistical physics, optics, and mathematical methods of physics. Further study in condensed matter, atomic, and particle and nuclear physics is desirable. Limited deficiencies in core areas may be permissible, but may delay degree completion by as much as a year and are are expected to remedied during the first year of graduate study.

The Graduate Admissions Committee reviews all submitted applications and takes a holistic approach considering all aspects presented in the application materials. Application materials include:

  • Resume or curriculum vitae, describing your current position or activities, educational and professional experience, and any honors awarded, special skills, publications or research presentations.
  • Statement of purpose, one page describing your academic purpose and goals.
  • Personal history statement (optional, two pages max), describing how your personal experiences and background (including family, cultural, or economic aspects) have influenced your intellectual development and interests.
  • Three letters of recommendation: submit email addresses for your recommenders at least one month ahead of deadline to allow them sufficient time to respond.
  • Transcripts (unofficial), from all prior relevant undergraduate and graduate institutions attended. Admitted applicants must provide official transcripts.
  • TOEFL scores (international students only): official test scores must be sent by ETS directly to the University of Washington (institution code 4854) and be received within two years of the test date.

For additional information see the UW Graduate School Home Page, Understanding the Application Process, and Memo 15 regarding teaching assistant eligibility for non-native English speakers.

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, this year the UW Physics department is not requiring, accepting, or considering GRE scores (either general or subject).

Applications are accepted annually for autumn quarter admissions (only), and must be submitted online. Admission deadline: JANUARY 5.

Degree Requirements

Department standards

Course requirements

Students must plan a program of study in consultation with their faculty advisor (either first year advisor or later research advisor). To establish adequate breadth and depth of knowledge in the field, PhD students are required to pass a set of core courses, take appropriate advanced courses and special topics offerings related to their research area, attend relevant research seminars as well as the weekly department colloquium, and take at least two additional courses in Physics outside their area of speciality. Seeking broad knowledge in areas of physics outside your own research area is encouraged.

The required core courses are:

Phys 513/514/515   Electromagnetism
Phys 517/518/519 Quantum Mechanics
Phys 524/525 Statistical Mechanics
Phys 505 Classical Mechanics
Phys 528 Introduction to Research
Phys 600 Independent Study/Research

In addition, all students holding a teaching assistantship (TA) must complete Phys 501/502/503, Tutorials in Teaching Physics.

Regularly offered courses which may, depending on research area and with the approval of the graduate program coordinator, be used to satisfy breadth requirements, include:

Phys 506  Numerical Methods Phys 555 Cosmology & Particle Astrophysics   
Phys 507 Group Theory Phys 557 High Energy Physics
Phys 511 Topics in Contemporary Physics   Phys 560 Nuclear Theory
Phys 520   Quantum Information Phys 564 General Relativity
Phys 550 Atomic Physics Phys 567 Condensed Matter Physics 
Phys 554 Nuclear Astrophysics Phys 570   Quantum Field Theory

Graduate exams

Master's Review:  In addition to passing all core courses, adequate mastery of core material must be demonstrated by passing the Master's Review. This is composed of four Master's Review Exams (MREs) which serve as the final exams in Phys 524 (SM), Phys 514 (EM), Phys 518 (QM), and Phys 505 (CM). The standard for passing each MRE is demonstrated understanding and ability to solve multi-step problems; this judgment is independent of the overall course grade. Acceptable performance on each MRE is expected, but substantial engagement in research allows modestly sub-par performance on one exam to be waived. Students who pass the Master's Review are eligible to receive a Master's degree, provided the Graduate School course credit and grade point average requirements have also been satisfied.

General Exam:  Adequate mastery of material in one's area of research, together with demonstrated progress in research and a viable plan to complete a PhD dissertation, is assessed in the General Exam. This is taken after completing all course requirements, passing the Master's Review, and becoming well established in research. The General Exam consists of an oral presentation followed by an in-depth question period with one's dissertation committee.

Final Oral Exam:  Adequate completion of a PhD dissertation is assessed in the Final Oral, which is a public exam on one's completed dissertation research. The requirement of surmounting a final public oral exam is an ancient tradition for successful completion of a PhD degree.

Graduate school requirements

Common requirements for all doctoral degrees are given in the Graduate School Degree Requirements and Doctoral Degree Policies and Procedures pages. A summary of the key items, accurate as of late 2020, is as follows:

  • A minimum of 90 completed credits, of which at least 60 must be completed at the University of Washington. A Master's degree from the UW or another institution in physics, or approved related field of study, may substitute for 30 credits of enrollment.
  • At least 18 credits of UW course work at the 500 level completed prior to the General Examination.
  • At least 18 numerically graded UW credits of 500 level courses and approved 400 level courses, completed prior to the General Examination.
  • At least 60 credits completed prior to scheduling the General Examination. A Master's degree from the UW or another institution may substitute for 30 of these credits.
  • A minimum of 27 dissertation (or Physics 800) credits, spread out over a period of at least three quarters, must be completed. At least one of those three quarters must come after passing the General Exam. Except for summer quarters, students are limited to a maximum of 10 dissertation credits per quarter.
  • A minimum cumulative grade point average (GPA) of 3.00 must be maintained.
  • The General Examination must be successfully completed.
  • A thesis dissertation approved by the reading committee and submitted and accepted by the Graduate School.
  • The Final Examination must be successfully completed. At least four members of the supervisory committee, including chair and graduate school representative, must be present.
  • Registration as a full- or part-time graduate student at the University must be maintained, specifically including the quarter in which the examinations are completed and the quarter in which the degree is conferred. (Part-time means registered for at least 2 credits, but less than 10.)
  • All work for the doctoral degree must be completed within ten years. This includes any time spend on leave, as well as time devoted to a Master's degree from the UW or elsewhere (if used to substitute for credits of enrollment).

Typical Timeline

  • Year 1:
    • Pass the required core courses: Phys 513, 517, 524 & 528 autumn quarter, Phys 514, 518 & 525 winter quarter, and Phys 515, 519 & 505 spring quarter. When deemed appropriate, with approval of their faculty advisor and graduate program coordinator, students may elect to defer Phys 525, 515 and/or 519 to the second year in order to take more credits of Phys 600.
    • Sign up for and complete one credit of Phys 600 with a faculty member of choice during winter and spring quarters.
    • Pass the Master's Review by the end of spring quarter or, after demonstrating substantial research engagement, by the end of the summer.
    • Work to identify one's research area and faculty research advisor. This begins with learning about diverse research areas in Phys 528 in the autumn, followed by Phys 600 independent study with selected faculty members during winter, spring, and summer.
  • Year 2:
    • Pass the Master's Review (if not already done) by taking any deferred core courses or retaking MREs as needed. The Master's Review must be passed before the start of the third year.
    • Settle in and become fully established with one's research group and advisor, possibly after doing independent study with multiple faculty members. Switching research areas during the first two years is not uncommon.
    • Complete all required courses. Take breadth courses and more advanced graduate courses appropriate for one's area of research.
  • Year 3:
    • Perform research.
    • Establish a Supervisory Committee within one year after finding a compatible research advisor who agrees to supervise your dissertation work.
    • Take breadth and special topics courses as appropriate.
  • Years 3-4:
    • Perform research.
    • Take your General Exam in the third or fourth year of your graduate studies.
    • Register for Phys 800 (Doctoral Thesis Research) instead of Phys 600 in the quarters during and after your general exam.
    • Take special topics courses as appropriate.
  • Years 4-5:
    • Perform research.
    • Take special topics courses as appropriate.
  • Years 5-6:
    • Perform research. When completion of a substantial body of research is is sight, and with concurrence of your faculty advisor, start writing a thesis dissertation.
    • Establish a dissertation reading committee well in advance of scheduling the Final Examination.
    • Schedule your Final Examination and submit your PhD dissertation draft to your reading committee at least several weeks before your Final Exam.
    • Take your Final Oral Examination.
    • After passing your Final Exam, submit your PhD dissertation, as approved by your reading committee, to the Graduate School, normally before the end of the same quarter.

This typical timeline for competing the PhD applies to students entering the program with a solid undergraduate preparation, as described above under Admissions. Variant scenarios are possible with approval of the Graduate Program coordinator. Two such scenarios are the following:

  • Students entering with insufficient undergraduate preparation often require more time. It is important to identify this early, and not feel that this reflects on innate abilities or future success. Discussion with one's faculty advisor, during orientation or shortly thereafter, may lead to deferring one or more of the first year required courses and corresponding Master's Review Exams. It can also involve taking selected 300 or 400 level undergraduate physics courses before taking the first year graduate level courses. This must be approved by the Graduate Program coordinator, but should not delay efforts to find a suitable research advisor. The final Master's Review decision still takes place no later than the start of the 3rd year and research engagement is an important component in this decision.
  • Entering PhD students with advanced standing, for example with a prior Master's degree in Physics or transferring from another institution after completing one or more years in a Physics PhD program, may often graduate after 3 or 4 years in our program. After discussion with your faculty advisor and with approval of the Graduate Program coordinator, selected required classes may be waived (but typically not the corresponding Master's Review Exams), and credit from other institutions transferred.

Advising and Mentoring

  • Each entering PhD student is assigned a first year faculty advisor, with whom they meet regularly to discuss course selection, general progress, and advice on research opportunities. The role of a student's primary faculty advisor switches to their research advisor after they become well established in research. Once their doctoral supervisory committee is formed, the entire committee, including a designated faculty mentor (other than the research advisor) is available to provide advice and mentoring.
  • The department also has a peer mentoring program, in which first-year students are paired with more senior students who have volunteered as mentors. Peer mentors maintain contact with their first-year mentees throughout the year and aim to ease the transition to graduate study by sharing their experiences and providing support and advice. Quarterly "teas" are held to which all peer mentors and mentees are invited.
  • While academic advising is primarily concerned with activities and requirements necessary to make progress toward a degree, mentoring focuses on the human relationships, commitments, and resources that can help a student find success and fulfillment in academic and professional pursuits. While research advisors play an essential role in graduate study, the department considers it inportant for every student to also have available additional individuals who take on an explicit mentoring role.

Satisfactory Progress

  • Students are expected to meet regularly, at a minimum quarterly, with their faculty advisors (either first year advisor or research advisor).
  • Starting in the winter of their first year, students are expected to be enrolled in Phys 600.
  • Every spring all students, together with their advisors, are required to complete an annual activities report.
  • The doctoral supervisory committee needs to be established at least by the end of the fourth year.
  • The General Exam is expected to take place during the third or fourth year.
  • Students and their advisors are expected to aim for not more than 6 years between entry into the Physics PhD program and completion of the PhD. In recent years the median time is close to 6 years.

Absence of satisfactory progress can lead to a hierarchy of actions, as detailed in the Graduate School Memo 16: Academic Performance and Progress, and may jeopardize funding as a teaching assistant.

Financial Support

The Department aims to provide financial support for all full-time PhD students making satisfactory progress, and has been successful in doing so for many years. Most students are supported via a mix teaching assistantships (TAs) and research assistantships (RAs), although there are also various scholarships, fellowships, and awards that provide financial support. Teaching and research assistanships provide a stipend, a tuition waiver, and health insurance benefits. TAs are employed by the University to assist faculty in their teaching activities. Students from non-English-speaking countries must pass English proficiency requirements. RAs are employed by the Department to assist faculty with specified research projects, and are funded through research grants held by faculty members.

Most first-year students are provided full TA support during their first academic year as part of their admission offer. Support beyond the second year is typically in the form of an RA or a TA/RA combination. It is the responsibility of the student to find a research advisor and secure RA support. Students accepting TA or RA positions are required to register as full-time graduate students (a minimum of 10 credits during the academic year, and 2 credits in summer quarter) and devote 20 hours per week to their assistantship duties. Both TAs and RAs are classified as Academic Student Employees (ASE). These positions are governed by a contract between the UW and the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), and its Local Union 4121 (UAW).

Physics PhD students are paid at the "Assistant" level (Teaching Assistant or Research Assistant) upon entry to the program. Students receive a promotion to "Associate I" (Predoctoral Teaching Associate I or Predoctoral Research Associate I) after passing the Master's Review, and a further promotion to "Associate II" (Predoctoral Teaching Associate II or Predoctoral Research Associate II) after passing their General Examination. (Summer quarter courses, and summer quarter TA employment, runs one month shorter than during the academic year. To compendate, summer quarter TA salaries are increased proportionately.)

Last updated: 12/2020