One of the requirements for a PhD in Physics is comprehension of core physics at the graduate level. Often this level of understanding is not achieved by passing the core courses, and requires additional study as well as being exposed to a wider range of physics problems. The goal of the comprehensive exam is to assess if such understanding has bee accomplished.
The comprehensive exam which also plays the role or Placement Exam is offered in four days, and covers classical mechanics (CM), relativity, electricity, magnetism and optics (EM), quantum mechanics (QM) and statistical mechanics and thermodynamics (SM). The exam takes place in August and in January during the week before the start of classes. All students should register for the comprehesive exam.
Before September, 2004. the "Placement Exam" was called "Qualifying Exam". Before that, there was no placement exam, and problems on the core courses were part of the "Comprehensive Exam". Starting Fall 2014, the Comprehensive Exam has been on the core courses. The comprehensive exam can be passed at three different levels. The highest level is at the placement level, then all three problems in a given subject area have to be passed at a high level set by the faculty. Students passing at this level are exempt from the corresoponding core course requirement. The second pass level is the PhD level -- at this level students have to pass only two of the three problems at a lower level than the placement level. The lowest pass level, also for two out of the three problems for each subject, is as the Master level. The passing level is set by the faculty and is lower than the PhD level. The comprehensive exam is passed in each subject separately. The level is roughly that of the midterm and final examinations in the core courses. With regards to academic integrity, religious observances, disabilities, etc., this exam follows the university wide guidelines for courses and exams. One hand written page of notes (both sides) is allowed for each subject.
All PhD students are required to pass the Comprehensive exam before the start of their third year as PhD student. The minimum requirement for passing this exam is passing three subjects at the PhD level and one subject at the Master level.
Studying for the Comprehensive Exam
There is a vast amount of study material for the comprehensive exam. The first resource should be the lecture notes of both your graduate and undergraduate classes in each of the subjects. There are many standard textbooks for each of the subjects, for example Goldstein for Classical Mechanics, Jackson for Electrodynames, Sakurai for Quantum Mechanics and Huang for Statistical Mechanics. What is also useful as study material are the lecture notes by Prof. Likharev as well as the lecture notes of our recent courses in theses subjects. Mastery of the undergraduate material in the core subjects is essential and should be the starting point for studying for the exam. For your convenience we have created an extensive list of study material. A detailed list of topics for the comprehensive exam is table of contents of each of the above text books. A useful list is topic is given also here, but it should be interpreted broadly.