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Programs PHD comprehensive exams difficulty by major?

  1. Mar 8, 2012 #1
    I was browsing through a few schools websites, and apparently, UCR, UCLA and UCSD do not force Chemistry PHD candidates to take a written comprehensive exam! However, the Physics PHD candidates take a brutal and long comprehensive exam consisting of 2-3 quarters each of advanced quantum, statistical physics, EM and classical mechanics.

    What's up with this? Is it to "weed out" the weak from physics, while chemistry is lacking people so they don't want to weed people out?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 8, 2012 #2
    This is very school specific. Ph.D. programs are set up by the department.

    What happens in a lot of large public schools is that you need X people to teach undergraduate classes, but you have only funding for X/2 to do research. At this point, something painful is going to happen.
  4. Mar 9, 2012 #3
    chemistry is also a GE requirement for almost every major. how come they don't weed chemistry people out?

    is that because chemistry gets more funding than physics?
  5. Mar 9, 2012 #4

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    UCLA's exam is 6 hours long, given over two days, with no oral. This is not "brutal and long". (Mine was 2 full days - bring your lunch - long, followed by an oral portion on the 3rd or 4th day) I've looked at the past UCLA exams, and to be honest, if this test is a serious obstacle, you are not ready.
  6. Mar 9, 2012 #5
    Out of curiosity, which physics department has/had quals of this nature? Is this the norm or an exception?

    Thank you.
  7. Mar 9, 2012 #6

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    Quals seem to have have gotten a little shorter, mostly because the faculty are busy and to be honest, a long test doesn't do any better in determining who isn't ready than a shorter one. Princeton, Stanford and Chicago all have exams like I described. Harvard, I believe has completely eliminated theirs. So there is a lot of variation.
  8. Mar 9, 2012 #7


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    Every school does quals differently. Some (UT Austin and Harvard astronomy departments, for example) don't have them at all. Berkeley has one as soon as you arrive, but not after that (and doesn't require you defend your dissertation, either!). Many other schools have a 3 day (4-6 hours a day) exam near the end of the masters but before the PhD work. Some require you get a minimum score on it to get a masters, some will give a masters without the qualifying exam.
  9. Mar 9, 2012 #8


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    Mine was 4 days, and pretty long. I still had to take an oral exam.
  10. Mar 9, 2012 #9
    why physics alone though? why do the other subjects not have such an exam?
  11. Mar 9, 2012 #10


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    My friends studying math, geology, chemistry, and English all had to take qualifying exams at their own schools. It's certainly not limited to physics or astronomy.
  12. Mar 9, 2012 #11
    thank you. were they all 2 day long and tested comprehensively on the 1st year curriculum?

    i've looked at it and it was much harder than the University of Wisconsin one, so comparatively speaking it is "brutal and long". i guess that means some PhD students, and potential graduates, at UW could be "not ready" even if they get their PhDs!
  13. Mar 9, 2012 #12
    My anecdotal impression is that outside of chemistry graduate programs which have begun to institute policies like a standard first year core course/sequence and lab rotations, most chemistry graduate programs have rather unobtrusive course requirements. The faculty want you in lab doing work, not trying to prepare for a two-day endurance event. My own experience was like this (I took the courses that I was interested in along with some "breadth" requirements) and was in the lab by the end of that first summer full-time, outside of some mandatory TA duty in my second year and the occasional bit of course auditing. My graduate program mandated qualification exams before the first semester of graduate study in general, organic, inorganic, and physical chemistry to test one's knowledge of undergraduate chemistry and then had a cumulative exam requirement which needed to be finished by one's final year.

    One's mileage will vary.
  14. Mar 9, 2012 #13


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    Length and subject matter varies from school to school and program to program. Friends of mine at other universities taking physics qualifying exams ranged from only testing undergrad work, to only testing 2 years of graduate work, to a combination. Length and type of test (written, oral) also changed.
  15. Mar 9, 2012 #14
    thank you, which field of chemistry are you in?
  16. Mar 10, 2012 #15
    I'm a biophysical chemist (currently postdoc'ing in academia). Presently trying to get enough collaborative (with non-bio work) and NMR methods development papers so I won't get pigeonholed as just some bio guy by the bulk of the private sector in a couple of years. :cool:
  17. Mar 10, 2012 #16
    bio is THAT bad?
  18. Mar 11, 2012 #17
    I won't pretend to understand the vast jungle that is the job market for chemists & biochemists. What I have had reinforced to me is that perception is key.

    I interviewed at a bunch of (small) biotech companies a while back. Most of them were run by either MDs or cell biologists. Despite doing protein biochemistry to some extent since I was an undergrad, they basically said, "We'd like to bring you on....but you just don't quite have enough biochemistry in your background." I also interviewed at some smaller chemical firms (with a polymer/materials science bent) - they liked that I had done my graduate work in an actual NMR lab and even had experience with neutron/x-ray scattering, in addition to some other characterization techniques. They were worried about my biochemical background, and that I hadn't done enough materials/polymers. Mind you, shoving sludge into a solids NMR rotor is the same no matter what sludge you're studying, and Guinier analysis is Guinier analysis.

    So, I'm still doing (some) biochemistry. And I'm doing all of the other things I mentioned. And I'm expanding my programming repertoire. And of course trying to keep my networks fresh.
  19. Mar 11, 2012 #18
    Almost all math departments require qualifying exams in Algebra, Analysis, and Topology. Many require an additional qualifying exam if you are doing applied math of some sort (possibly substituting the "applied" exam for ONE of the three areas above).

    I have seen quite a few schools where the quals are merely the finals for year-long graduate courses in those subjects. When this is the case, the exam would just be a 3ish hour long final exam for a two semester, first year graduate course. So I guess this could mean that you end up taking 9 to maybe 16 hours worth of "qualifying exams" ... but if your first year of grad school looked like: algebra, analysis, topology + seminar in some topic, your quals will most likely just be final exams in May/June.

    If you had a very strong background in any of these topics as an undergrad (or you have a masters), most schools usually administer quals in August for incoming students who wish to pass the ones they are able before starting coursework.

    Biophysics departments I've looked at have had a variety of options. Many require formal quals based on first year biophysics seminars. Some require you to pick and choose two or more qualifiers from other departments (like taking physics quals, biochem quals, physical chem quals, etc...). Some do not require anything more than coursework before you start doing directed readings/research.

    Medicine obviously requires passing the licensing exams for whatever country you're in, so I guess you can lump them in with quals.
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