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.

*With special permission from the student's PhD advisor and DGS, the student may if justified substitute *one* of the two field specific courses with a 6000 level course outside this list from Physics or another department, by filling out this form and submitting it to physics_dgs AT

As of 2021, a new graduate student mentoring and evaluation plan is being evaluated to replace the qualifying exam.  Its primary features are more proactive advising of first-year students and a research presentation given by the students at the start of their second year. This system will be evaluated in Fall 2021; it may be adjusted based on what was learned, or, if deemed unworkable, the qualification exam may be reinstated.

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.

In advance of this meeting, the student will distribute a few-sentence description of their current research, the plan for their doctoral research and their progress toward completing that plan. This short write-up will also include a list of items related to professional development such as conferences attended, papers submitted for publication and talks presented. This yearly meeting will last about one hour and allow more detailed discussion of the student's research activities with a focus on the plan for completing the Ph.D. thesis project. The meeting may begin with a presentation of the student's current and planned research lasting no more than 30 minutes. While a face-to-face meeting is desirable, it is possible that one or more participants may join remotely.

One of the faculty on the committee who is not the research sponsor will be chosen as chair and will transmit to physics_dgs AT a few-sentence written summary of the meeting, including recommendations for the student and the time for a next meeting if it is concluded that holding a meeting sooner than annually would be beneficial. The final portion of the meeting should be devoted to deciding on the content of this summary. The student's advance submission to the committee and this meeting summary will be become part of the student's Departmental record.

The procedures outlined above are guidelines and exceptions can be made with the approval of the Director of Graduate Studies. These annual meetings are important required evidence of the student's satisfactory progress toward meeting the requirements of the Ph.D. degree.

Orientation for incoming students was held in early September 2021.

Please revisit this page for future updates and additional information.


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 in March.

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.

Please check back for updates and exact dates.

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.

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 $120 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 (if the applicant chooses to) and, if applicable, the TOEFL examination.

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.

Please check the GSAS website for current fellowship support.


  • 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 of resources are available under the External Funding page.

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.