Ph.D. in Physics

The Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) supervises program planning and all graduate work. The DGS serves as academic advisor for the period during which the student is completing course requirements. A satisfactory rate of progress toward a higher degree is required at all times. A student whose progress is insufficient may at any time be asked to withdraw.

Program Information

No student may become a candidate for the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degree without first fulfilling the requirements for the Master of Arts (M.A.) and Master of Philosophy (M.Phil.) degrees at Columbia.  A satisfactory rate of progress is required at all times.  A student whose progress is insufficient may at any time be requested to withdraw. 

The following represents the obligation and requirements for students who wish to obtain the Ph.D. degree at Columbia.  Please retain these guidelines for reference throughout your program of studies.

This degree is a prerequisite for the M.Phil. and Ph.D. degrees, unless a student has been awarded two Residence Units of advanced standing. 

Points of Letter-Grade Credit: 30; at least 24 within the department.

Program of Study:  15 points of physics courses numbered 6000 or higher, with an overall performance satisfactory to the Committee on Graduate Work.  The courses are to be chosen in consultation with the student’s academic advisor, to insure knowledge of classical and quantum physics.

Residence Units: 2 (minimum).  Any student who fails to complete the requirements for the MA degree within four consecutive terms (not counting summer terms) must obtain permission from the department chair in order to continue work into fifth term. 

Language Examination: None 

Essay: None 

This degree is a prerequisite for the Ph.D. degree and will be conferred upon certification by the department.

Typical length of program:  Three years, including the time spent for the

Examination:  Qualifying Examination

Languages:  None

Residence Units:  Six full-time, including the two earned for the M.A. degree.

Points of credit:  30 earned for the M.A. degree; none if the student  has been awarded two Residence Units of advanced standing.

Required courses:  See the list of required courses below.

The qualifying examination is taken by all students without exception, after no more than one term of residence. The examination begins with a written test, given in three parts in January – Part I covers Classical Physics, Part II covers Modern Physics and Part III covers General Physics including contemporary research and order of magnitude estimate. Each part consists of two sections. The written test is followed after approximately one week with an oral interview in which each student meets with three faculty members to go over the questions done on the written exams and to discuss research plans. 

The material covered in the Physics Qualifying Examination is at the level of advanced undergraduate courses.  It is intended that students will use their first semester in the program to review their overall knowledge of undergraduate physics and to fill in any gaps in their knowledge.  The Qualifying Examination is intended as a diagnostic tool to help the faculty and the students know where there may be preparation gaps and allow these to be addressed before moving on to research.  The Department relies on filtering that is done pre-admission by the Graduate Admissions Committee.  Our experience is that the admissions process successfully identifies students with appropriate preparation so that the Qualifying Examination can be relied on as a fine-tuning diagnostic tool NOT a filter.

Following the oral exams, the faculty meets to consider for each student the results of the qualifying examination, the student’s academic record to date and other available information.  These criteria determine whether to permit a student to continue work toward the doctorate. Each student will then be placed in a category:

Pass:  qualified to continue in doctoral program

Conditional Pass:  decision withheld pending completion of specific course work

Retake Exam:  must repeat the examination again when it is next given

Fail:  cannot repeat the examination and must terminate

The results of the meeting are made available to the students shortly after the meeting by the Physics Director of Graduate Studies. Generally about 80% of the students pass the exam on the first try.

For students that do not pass on their first try, they are automatically allowed to take the exam the following year.  Based on the results of the qualifying exam,  in some cases students may be asked to either: (a) retake specific portions of the written exam, (b) retake the entire exam or (c) take advanced undergraduate courses in areas where the faculty have found weaknesses in preparation.

Generally, if a student fails to pass the exam on a second try, they will not be allowed to continue on to a PhD. They will be allowed to complete the spring semester, giving them the opportunity to consider their future options. In exceptional cases a student may be allowed to take the exam for a third time.

Copies of examinations given in previous years can be found here.  From these, students may judge the scope of knowledge expected.


Location: 301 Pupin Hall 

Part I: Classical Physics


Section 1 Classical Mechanics (4 out of 5 questions) 10:00 AM–12:00 PM

1:00 PM – 2:45 PM - Break

Section 2 Electricity, Magnetism and Electrodynamics (4 out of 5 questions) 2:00 PM – 4:00 PM

Part II: Modern Physics


Section 3 Quantum Mechanics (4 out of 5 questions) 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM

1:00 PM – 2:45 PM  - Break

Section 4 Relativity and Applied QM (4 out of 5 questions) 2:00 PM- 4:00 PM

Part III: General Physics


Section 5 Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics (4 out of 6 questions) 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM

1:00 PM – 2:45 PM  - Break

Section 6 Various Topics (4 out of 6 questions) 2:00 PM - 4:00 PM 

On each day, each student may bring one 8 ½ x 11” formula sheet, hand written or typed, using both sides. The formula sheets will be collected with the completed exam booklets. The formula sheet (one sheet per day) is the only material to which students can refer during the exams. 

Simple calculators are permitted. However, the use of calculators for storing and/or recovering formulas or constants is NOT  permitted.

Classes begin on Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Part IV: Oral Examinations

WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 22 (Afternoon) and  THURSDAY, JANUARY 23, 2020 (All Day)

Days and times to be arranged; approximately one half hour to 45 minutes per student with a three member faculty committee. Orals usually cover a review of questions not answered correctly on the written exams (although a review of other questions is possible) and a discussion of research interests (past and future).

Faculty Meeting to discuss results: FRIDAY, January 24, 2020.

Results will be announced at the conclusion of this meeting by the Director of Graduate Studies. 

Teaching is the principal method of support for first and second year graduate students, who are appointed as Teaching Fellows.  Most assignments are to teach small laboratory sections or problem sessions in elementary courses.  In general, this program concentrates on teaching in the first two years, while the student is taking graduate courses.  The maximum teaching assignment for a Faculty Teaching Fellow is approximately four contact hours per week for four terms.

In order to assist our Ph.D. students in pursuing successful doctoral research and in furthering their professional development, the Department will appoint for each student in their third year and beyond a three-person committee which will meet at least once per year with the student. The committee will consist of the student's Ph.D. advisor and two other members of the Physics Faculty chosen by the student in consultation with the advisor and/or the Director of Graduate Studies. Alternatively, one member of the committee could be a faculty member from another department, university or the equivalent. Physics office staff will assign each student a month in which this meeting is to take place and the student will have responsibility for arranging a time for the meeting.

These annual meetings are important required evidence of the student's satisfactory progress toward meeting the requirements of the Ph.D. degree.

Virtual Orientation for physics graduate students entering their first year will be held August 31 -  September 4, 2020  (Zoom)

The following schedule is tentative and subject to change. You can find it here.

Please revisit this page for future updates and additional information.

A reminder to please complete our Doodle Poll (Tuesday, September 1st and Wednesday, September 2nd) to meet with Professor Erick Weinberg, Director of Graduate Studies, in preparation for registering for courses for Fall 2020.

The departmental open house will take place on Monday, March 23, 2020. A schedule can be found here and information about reimbursement can be found here.

All candidates who are admitted to the Columbia Graduate School in Physics are invited to attend the department's Open House. This is usually held during the last weekend in March. If you are in the USA at the time, we will be able to support your travel costs and we will supply accommodations during the Open House weekend. Unfortunately, our budget constraints will not allow us to pay your way here if you do not reside in the United States. However, should you be in the US during the period in which Open House is held, we can arrange to try and pay for your travel from wherever you are in the US to New York for the Open House weekend.

A visit is the best way to get a feel for the department, the faculty, the students, and the research that is carried on in the department. We certainly encourage you to come if at all possible.

There are a number of things you should do as soon as possible:

Let us know (e-mail, Randy Torres, Director of Academic Administration) if you will be attending (when you will arrive, when you will leave, what activities you will be attending, will you want a hotel room, or are you staying with friends).

Note: Virtual Open House will be held on Monday, March 23, 2020 at 9:15 AM EDT

In accordance with Columbia's campus events policy and response to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, we will hosting a Virtual Open House for admitted students.

We encourage you to download Zoom in preparation for our Virtual Open House. A tentative schedule can be found here. The participant link and meeting ID will be sent via e-mail along with more details about faculty office hours.

Zoom is the leader in modern enterprise video communications, with an easy, reliable cloud platform for video and audio conferencing, collaboration, chat, and webinars across mobile devices, desktops, telephones, and room systems.

Applying to Columbia Physics Graduate Program

Three years of fundamental undergraduate physics courses, individual laboratories, and a working knowledge of ordinary differential equations are generally required for admission.

Note: Due to COVID-19 the GRE requirement has been waived for Fall 2021 admissions.

Columbia's Graduate School of Arts & Sciences provides an online teaching manual that is organized around the diverse teaching roles filled by graduate students and offers practical advice concerning issues that arise from instructing students. A manual for those serving as teaching assistants is available at the Teaching Program's Website.

The online application for the Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences can be found here. When filing an application form, the student should specify the department or doctoral program subcommittee under which he or she wishes to study. In any given term, a student may apply for study under only one department or subcommittee. A nonrefundable fee of $115 must accompany the completed form.

A complete application includes transcripts of all previous post-secondary education, a personal statement, three letters of recommendation, scores from the GRE and, if applicable, the TOEFL examination.

The Graduate School requires the submission of scores from the Graduate Record Examination General Test and Subject Test scores for all applicants. Applicants are urged to take either the paper-and-pencil or computerized GRE well in advance of the January 4, 2021 admissions deadline. 

Students denied admission may reapply in a subsequent year if further training or experience is presented to strengthen the application


All admitted students are supported for the PhD program. Typically, students are supported by a Faculty Teaching Fellowship in the first two years followed by a Research Assistantship in subsequent years as students work for a research group.

The fellowship support amount increases on average 2.5-3% per year. Some students supplement their Fellowship by tutoring, teaching recitation sections, or by grading homework.

The fellowship support amounts for the current academic year (2020-2021) are provided below.

Salary Payment

$10,380 as Teaching Fellow salary payment, disbursed semi-monthly, September 2020 through April 2021.  Semi-monthly amount will be $576.67, processed through Payroll with withholding.

Fellowship Stipend

$20,760 as Fellowship stipend, disbursed in two (2) installments of $10,380 each at the start of September and January, processed through Student Services with no withholding for U.S. citizens.

8 Month total of salary and fellowship: $31,140

* Teaching Fellow (TF) Support includes Tuition and Basic Medical Insurance.

For Comprehensive Medical Insurance coverage please visit Columbia Health Services

Summer 2020 Support (6/1/20 through 8/31/20)

Disbursed as Graduate Research Assistant salary payment, and processed through Payroll with withholding:  $3,426.39 per month for June, July, and August 2019 (Salary level for July and August may be increased).

3 Month summer total: $10,279.17

Total for the full year: $41,520

Graduate Research Assistant (GRA) salary is paid semi-monthly from faculty-sponsored research grants, through payroll with withholding. GRAs may also be supported by continued teaching engagements.

  • $3,460.00 per month
  • $10,380.00 over 3 months
  • $31,140.00 over 9 months
  • $41,520.00 over 12 months



  • Year 1: Faculty Fellowship + Research Assistantship during the summer
  • Year 2: Faculty Fellowship + Research Assistantship during the summer
  • Subsequent Years: Teaching Duties or Research Assistantship (12 months each year)


Some students enter graduate school with outside fellowships or awards, or receive such fellowships or awards during their PhD. In this case, support will be supplemented with details dependent on the amount of the outside fellowship.

A number of such funding opportunities are available, and a selected list is provided below. These are all prestigious awards and often provide more research flexibility. Interested graduate students should talk to their supervisor or the DGS about the possibility of applying.


The Columbia Graduate School of Arts and Sciences maintains an extensive list of databases and other resources where additional fellowship opportunities may be found:


Students can supplement their income by:

  • Tutoring undergraduates privately (the Physics office keeps a list of those interested in tutoring). Rates are negotiated privately with the students seeking tutors.
  • Teaching recitation sections (a number of undergraduate courses have weekly recitation sections).
  • Grading homework (all undergraduate courses have weekly homework assignments that require grading).

Interested graduate students should contact the undergraduate secretary if they are interested in any of these possibilities for supplemental income.