Graduate Handbook

About Our Graduate Program

The Department of Physics aims to prepare its graduate students for a broad range of careers, from academia and teaching to high-tech and industry. Students first develop a solid and broad base of physics knowledge through our core curriculum and departmental colloquia. Upper level courses and departmental seminar series provide more specialized exposure. Learning and research take place in both formal and informal settings with a wide range of colleagues, including faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, research scientists, and graduate student peers.

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Degree Requirements

Degree Requirements

Degree requirements for both the Master of Arts (AM) and PhD in Physics are detailed in the Bulletin.


Further Information for PhD Candidates


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 of their first 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.

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 with 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. Audited courses and courses taken pass/fail are not eligible for tuition remission.
  • 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 and may lose their financial support for the next year.

The typical PhD graduate student career:

Year One: 

  • Fall: Take 3 or 4 courses, plus 582 and 597.
  • Spring: Take 3 or 4 courses. Assistant in Instruction for one course. Look for a thesis advisor.

Year Two: 

  • Fall: Take 3 or 4 courses. Assistant in Instruction for one course. Confirm your thesis advisor and form your qualifying committee.
  • Spring: Take 3 or 4 courses. Complete the qualification procedure (below).

Year Three:

  • Thesis research. Students no longer enrolling in 9 units of academic courses must enroll in LGS9000.

Year Four:

Year Five: 

PhD qualification: oral examination requirement

To qualify for PhD candidacy, the student must give a presentation to a committee of three physics faculty members (the prospective research advisor and two others). The student should demonstrate a basic understanding of a major topic of current research in the selected area of study, chosen in consultation with the student’s prospective thesis advisor. One week before the oral exam, the student must prepare a written paper (approximately 1500-3000 words) summarizing the content of the presentation, and give it to the committee. The student’s responses to questions raised by the examination committee are graded as adequate or not. Students have a chance to answer inadequately answered questions in writing within 48 hours after the examination. The student is not allowed to receive assistance in preparing the written response from any other individuals. The answers should be either given in person to the Chair of the examination committee, or emailed to the Chair as a pdf file so that it is time stamped. The committee will determine whether the written answers are sufficient.

The committee must be chosen and approved by the department chairman by the end of a student's third semester (typically in December of the second year). The oral examination should be taken by the end of a student's fourth semester (typically in May of the second year). If the student fails the oral examination, they can take it again one additional time.

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 PhD candidacy." They are then ready to focus on their research.

Thesis advisor and faculty mentoring committee

In their first and second years, students learn about the research groups and begin making contact with potential research advisors with whom thesis research will be performed.  It is up to students to take the initiative to find an advisor by the end of their second year.

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.
  • Students who are interested in mentored research experiences with faculty in other departments (i.e., with a professor who cannot be their formal thesis advisor, but should be a member of their faculty mentoring committee) should first discuss their plans with the Director of Graduate Studies.

Here are some specific suggestions for finding a thesis advisor.

  • Course 582: (Required in the Fall of the 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 (Wednesdays at 4pm), and hear invited speakers give introductory talks about a wide variety of research.
  • Graduate student seminar: 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 topic specific seminars.
  • Talk to professors: Students are encouraged to meet with professors and talk with them about their research.
  • Graduate peer mentors: They organize regular social events for graduate students and offer their advice and experience.

After choosing a thesis advisor, the student 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 give the completed form to the graduate secretary. 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.

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 at Washington University.

The student is required to meet with their 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. In the unusual case of unsatisfactory progress, the committee may recommend that the student withdraw from graduate school, that the chairman or research supervisor cut off funding, or that the faculty remove the student from candidacy.

Teaching Requirements

In addition to the teaching requirements listed in the Bulletin, each student must submit an Oral Presentation Form to the Graduate Studies Committee detailing how the oral presentation requirement was completed. Certain outreach activities sponsored by the department may also count towards the oral presentation requirement. Students are expected to devote 10-15 hours per week to their mentored teaching experience and are required to be conscientious and to complete all grading tasks accurately and promptly.

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:

Counseling is also available from Student Health Services.

Calendar of PhD Milestones

This generic calendar applies to PhD students who follow the typical timeline, starting graduate school in August, taking their oral qualifier at the end of their second year, and graduating in May a few years later. Students who arrive in January or plan a September or December graduation may have their milestones shifted by a few months.

Please note: this webpage is a collection of helpful reminders, not a definitive listing. Students should consult with the Physics Graduate Secretary (Sarah Akin) to make sure that they are aware of all relevant deadlines and milestones.


4th year students (those about to begin their 5th year) must submit the Title, Scope, and Procedure form to OGS.

November (early)

Qualified (typically 3rd year and above) students should meet with their faculty mentoring committees for a progress review. The committee then submits a Faculty Mentoring Committee Report form to the Physics Graduate Secretary.

November (late)

By the end of the fall semester, 2nd year students must choose their oral qualifier committee and submit to the Physics Graduate Secretary the Proposal to Form Oral Qualifier committee form to have it approved by the chairman of the department. Students who plan to graduate the following May must file the "Intent to Graduate" form with OGS in WebSTAC.


By the end of January, 2nd year students should have scheduled their oral qualifier exam for some date in the spring semester.


Students who plan to graduate in May must have completed the thesis defense and must submit their thesis to OGS. Deadline for electronic submission is the last Monday in April. The Doctoral Dissertation Guide is available on the Office of the Provost's website.


By May 15, 2nd year students should have taken their oral qualifier exams and submitted the Oral Exam for PhD Qualification form.

"I knew from my first visit to the Physics Department that I would feel right at home here. Everyone is so welcoming and kind; I feel like I’ve gained another big, happy family through choosing to pursue my PhD at WashU. Over the years I’ve greatly enjoyed the opportunities to get to know students, faculty, and staff through various organizations and committees as well as social events such as weekly BBQs and department picnics."

―Kelsey MeinerzPhD Candidate

Students should be aware of additional policies and requirements of the Office of Graduate Studies in Arts and Sciences (OGS).

Office of Graduate Studies Degree Requirements