PROGRAM >> PHD Qualifying Examinations
PHD Qualifying Examinations
Revised December 2012
The PhD Qualifying Examinations are comprised of two parts: general knowledge and thesis proposal. Both parts must be successfully completed in order to continue in the doctoral program.
General Knowledge Examination
Evaluate the student’s mastery of general astronomy and astrophysics, at a level required of all doctoral astronomy and astrophysics graduate students.
The General Knowledge Examination is an oral examination. It is divided into 5 broad subject areas: Cosmology, Extragalactic Astronomy, Galactic Astronomy, Stars + Planets, and Mathematics + General Physics.
Week of May 13th: General qualifier part 1 (Cosmology & Extragalactic)
Week of May 27th: General qualifier part 2 (Galactic, Stars, & Physics)
3 lead-off questions will be randomly selected from a pre-supplied test bank in each subject area. Each question leads to 7 minutes of Q&A: 2 minutes of answering the lead-in question followed by 5 minutes of follow-up questioning. Rigid timekeeping is enforced.
The Test Bank of approximately 100 lead-off questions (with approximately 20 questions from each subject area) is prepared by the Department and is provided to students in advance of the General Knowledge Examination. While the topics covered by the exam are introduced by the lead-off questions in the test bank, students are given an opportunity to demonstrate a deeper knowledge through the follow-up questioning. The test bank is intended to illustrate the topics that the students can be tested on in order to clarify the expectations and to ensure that the questions asked are neither overly broad (as to appear vague), nor overly narrow (as not allow for further follow-up questioning). The test bank questions can evolve from year to year but no changes will be made after October 31st of the exam year.
The student may pass, pass conditionally, or fail the exam. Conditional passes are considered an option if it is felt by the committee that a deficiency exposed in the exam is not widespread, and that it can be rectified by satisfactory performance in one or two more courses or by other remedial activity (defined by the examination committee). The schedule for completion of the conditions is similarly at the discretion of the committee but must be clearly defined. If the student fails, they can take the examination a second time by January 31st of the third year. If the student fails the second time, the student will be required to withdraw from the program.
The General Knowledge Examination should be scheduled in May of the second year; the date is set by the Associate Chair, Graduate Studies. (For students in the 4-year PhD track, this is May of the first year.)
The quorum is set by the Associate Chair, Graduate Studies and typically consists of five professors (with a minimum of four), each covering a test subject area. Postdocs may not serve on the quorum.
Our Astro Librarian, Lee Robbins, created a pathfinder for Astronomy Reference Recommendations. The guide may be used for a variety of purposes and is a great resource for studying for the General Knowledge Examination. The references are organized by subject area and many have personal comments on why the resource is useful.
Thesis Proposal Examination
The purpose of the Thesis Proposal Examination is to evaluate the feasibility and value of the proposed thesis, and verify that the student has sufficient preparation in the proposed thesis area to engage in guided independent research.The student is required to provide background material to the examiners, a 10-20 page summary of the proposed thesis, including scientific motivation, techniques, feasibility, and a proposed schedule, a minimum of 4 days in advance of the examination.
The Thesis Proposal Examination is an oral examination. It begins with a 20-25 minute presentation outlining the proposed thesis, including scientific motivation, techniques, feasibility, and a proposed schedule. The presentation is followed by at least one and typically two rounds of questioning by the examination committee. Unlike the General Knowledge Examination, where rigid timekeeping is enforced, the times for questions in the Thesis Examination are general guidelines. Each questioner will typically ask questions for approximately 10 minutes in each round. Occasional follow-up questions that occur out of sequence from other examiners are permitted. There will be a 5 minute break partway through if needed. The exam is generally expected to be be complete at the end of 2 hours; 3 hours is the absolute maximum time limit.
The examination covers the thesis proposal itself and closely related topics. The student must be able to defend the scientific motivation and feasibility of the thesis, as well as demonstrate sufficient mastery of closely related topics to be able to begin effective research. The exam does not cover general knowledge outside the area of the thesis, as this is tested during the General Knowledge Examination.
The final grade is based on both the presentation and on the questions. The student may pass, pass conditionally, or fail the exam.
Pass conditionally: the exam committee may require that the student complete further coursework or other similar conditions. The schedule for completion of the conditions is at the discretion of the committee but must be clearly defined.
Fail: the exam may be taken a second time by January 31st of the third year. If the student fails the second time, the student will be required to withdraw from the program.
The Thesis Proposal Examination should be held in June or July of the second year after the General Knowledge Examination. (For students in the 4-year PhD track, this is the summer session of the first year.)
A quorum consists of five faculty members. Typically this is comprised of the PhD Supervisory Committee + two additional faculty members not closely connected with the project. Postdoctoral fellows may not serve on the quorum. The composition of the committee should be discussed in the student’s first supervisory committee meeting to take place in March of the second year (first year for students in the 4-year PhD track). If there are exceptional circumstances in which one supervisory committee member is unable to attend (e.g. sabbatical leave), and this will cause a significant delay, the exam may go forward. This does not apply to the supervisor or the two additional faculty members.