Graduate Handbook

This document summarizes the graduate Ph.D. program in physics at Washington University. (Students are occasionally accepted to work towards the M.A., but they typically have to find their own financial support; for Masters degree requirements, see the degree requirements page).

The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) has its own additional policies and requirements that students should be aware of: see the GSAS website.

Further explanation and help is available from

  • Ms. Sarah Akin, Graduate Secretary
  • Prof. Dickhoff, Graduate Student Advisors for first and second year students
  • Prof. Carlsson, Director of Graduate Studies
  1. The typical graduate student career

    We aim to help students to complete their Ph.D. degree in 5 years. The typical graduate student career here looks like this:

    Year Support Activity
    1 fall: UF
    spr: TA
    Course work: 3 or 4 courses, plus 582 and 597.
    Course work: 3 or 4 courses. Look for a thesis advisor.
    2 fall: TA
    spr: UF
    Course work: 3 or 4 courses. Find a thesis advisor.
    Course work: 3 or 4 courses. Complete the qualification procedure.
    3 RA Thesis research. Students will be manually registered for LGS9000 beginning in their third year.
    4 RA as above
    5 RA Complete research, write dissertation and undergo oral defense. Graduation!

    "UF" (university fellowship): university pays the student without requiring any teaching work.
    "TA" (teaching assistant): university pays the student for part-time work as a teaching assistant.
    "RA" (research assistant): the advisor pays the student for research work using grant funds.

    TA support beyond the 2nd year
    Under some circumstances a student may be supported by a TA during part of their thesis research, for example, if research funding becomes unavailable, or if departmental teaching needs require it. Students who remain in good standing, working with a faculty member in the physics department, are guaranteed support through their fifth year.

    Graduate advisor
    In their first year students are assigned a graduate advisor who is a member of the physics department faculty. Once the student joins a research group, the graduate advisor is replaced by a "faculty mentoring committee" consisting of the student's thesis advisor (who supervises the thesis research) and two other faculty members. See the section below on the thesis advisor.

  2. Registration for courses

    • A Diagnostic placement examination is taken by every entering student immediately before their first semester begins. This is a take-home, open-book, undergraduate-level examination. The results are only used by the graduate advisor to help the student choose appropriate first-semester courses; they are promptly discarded and play no part in later evaluations of the student's progress.
    • Permission to enroll in courses.
      Each semester, before registering for courses, students should meet their advisor to discuss their planned course load. Once the advisor has given approval, the student can register.
    • Taking non-artsci or non-physics courses.
      Physics students are enrolled in the school of Arts and Sciences: to take courses in other schools (Engineering, Business, Medical School, Law, Design, Social Work, etc) a student must get permission from the director of graduate studies. Students should consult with their graduate advisor before taking non-physics courses.
    • Permission to drop courses.
      Students must get permission from their graduate advisor before dropping any course. This applies to English Language Program courses as well as physics courses. A student who drops a class without permission will be charged the tuition on the portion attended, which could amount to many thousands of dollars, and may lose their financial support (UF or TA) for the next year.
  3. Finding a thesis advisor

    By the end of their second year every student should have found a thesis advisor within whose research group he/she will perform thesis research. No formal mechanism exists for finding an advisor; it is up to students to take the initiative. In their first and second years, students learn about the research groups and begin making contact with potential research advisors.

    Here are some specific suggestions.

    • Course 582. (Fall of first year, 1 credit course). This consists of weekly lectures by different faculty members introducing their research.
    • Colloquium. Students should regularly attend the department colloquium (every Wednesday at 4pm), and hear invited speakers give introductory talks about a wide variety of research areas.
    • The graduate student seminar series. These regular talks, on Friday at 4pm, are given by upper-level graduate students who explain the work they are doing with their thesis advisors.
    • Research seminars. Students are welcome to attend research seminars (advertised on the department events web page and on the noticeboard outside Compton 245) to get an idea of what work is being done in the department.
    • Talking to professors. Students are encouraged to make appointments to meet with professors and talk with them about their research.
    • Graduate peer mentors. They organize regular social events for first-year students and offer their advice and experience.

    Students who are interested in working for a professor whose primary appointment is not in the physics department (i.e. a professor who cannot be their formal thesis advisor) should first discuss their plans with the Director of Graduate Studies. Summer fellowships, such as the Hughes Fellowships, can be used outside the Physics Department only with the approval of the Director of Graduate Studies.

  4. Ph. D. Degree Requirements

    After obtaining the required grades in specified core courses and passing an oral qualification exam, students are said to have "qualified" or been "admitted to Ph.D. candidacy". They then work on their thesis research, write a dissertation, and offer an oral defense.

    Detailed information is available on the the degree requirements page.

  5. Courses

    Students must plan their curriculum after consultation with and approval by their graduate advisor. In addition to their other classes, all first-year graduate students should enroll in Physics 582 "Research Seminar" and Physics 597 "Teaching Methods in Physics" in the fall semester. Their other coursework should be chosen with a view to completion of the qualification procedure and the beginning of research. Students who want to take advanced graduate courses should note that these are sometimes offered only once every two or three years.

  6. Thesis advisor and faculty mentoring committee

    After admission to candidacy, the student chooses a thesis advisor and nominates a faculty mentoring committee consisting of the thesis advisor and at least two other faculty who are well-qualified to evaluate and help the student in his/her thesis research. The student should inform the graduate secretary of the names of the advisor and committee members. Typically the chairman of the oral examination committee will become the student's thesis advisor and the other members of the oral examination committee will become the rest of the faculty mentoring committee.

    The thesis advisor must be one of the following:

    • A current physics department faculty member with the title of Professor, Associate Professor, or Assistant Professor.
    • One of the specially designated tenured faculty in other departments. This list currently consists of Prof. Sobotka (Chemistry) and Prof. Sarentites (Chemistry).

    If a student wishes to perform research under the direction of a professor who does not meet these criteria, then that professor cannot be their formal thesis advisor, but should be a member of their faculty mentoring committee.

    Apart from the thesis advisor, the faculty mentoring committee must contain at least one person whose name appears on the physics web site faculty listing, as Professor, Associate Professor, Assistant Professor, or Emeritus Professor (or research or joint faculty of these ranks). The other member(s) of the mentoring committee can be faculty members from any department of Washington University.

    The student should meet with his/her faculty mentoring committee at least once a year to review progress in thesis research. Every November the committee sends a report on the student's progress to the chairman (via the graduate secretary). More frequent meetings may be appropriate in some cases. If a student's progress is deemed unsatisfactory by the committee, it may meet more frequently and require continuing progress reports. In the unusual case of unsatisfactory progress, the committee may recommend that the student withdraw from the graduate school, that the chairman or research supervisor cut off funding, or that the faculty remove the student from candidacy.

  7. Resources for students with concerns

    If you have any problems, such as
    • not sure if you are on track to meet the program requirements
    • feeling that you are not being treated properly or fairly by someone
    • feeling that things are not going well; anxiety; depression
    • any other issues that are worrying you

    please come and talk with someone. It could be one of the graduate student mentors or one of the staff or faculty responsible for grad students:

    • the Graduate Secretary
    • the Graduate Student Advisors for first and second year students
    • the Director of Graduate Studies
    • any other faculty member with whom you feel comfortable

    Counseling is also available from Student Health Services.