Guide to Graduate Studies in Physics & Astronomy

Guide to Graduate Studies in Physics & Astronomy

I this guide we describe the requirements for the various degrees we are offering, as well as some useful information on Services offered by the Department. See also our "Frequently Asked Questions" page. If you can not find the answers to your questions, Jacobus Verbaarschot, Graduate Program Director, at

Table of Contents

The Graduate Program in Physics resides in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. The program offers three graduate degrees, the Ph.D. degree in Physics, The M.A. degree in Physics and the M.S degree in Physics

The Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) is formally offered by the School of Professional Development and is not part of the Physics Graduate Program. This degree prepares students with a BA degree in a physical science or engineering for the New York State certification as a secondary school teacher. This program addresses the widely known shortage of well trained high school physics teachers. Students should apply directly to the School of Professional Development. Students with a physics background generally take special physics course for teachers and work closely with Professor Robert McCarthy to prepare a program of study.

The Ph.D. Degree

Completing a Ph.D. in physics or astronomy is a difficult job, not only because of the large amount of intellectual and emotional effort, but also because of the many requirements. We first discuss the requirements for the Default track.

Requirements for the Default Track

The requirements are neither all sequential nor all parallel; they are presented in their proper relationship in the flow chart below. Each box represents a step that must be achieved and those connected by lines are necessarily sequential. The discussion below is divided into three major sections: 1) required courses, 2) exams, and 3) thesis research. Only the courses with a grade B or better are counted towards the Ph.D. degree.

Core courses

One of the requirements for advancement to candidacy is demonstration of command of four core areas of physics: Classical Mechanics (PHY 501), Electricity and Magnetism (PHY 505), Quantum Mechanics (PHY 511/512) and Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics (PHY 540). If a student already successfully passed similar courses elsewhere a student fulfill the course requirments of one or more of these core courses by taking advanced graduate courses (subject to approval by an Advising Committee appointed by the Graduate Program Director). If that is not the case you can still skip these courses by a sufficiently good performance in the corresponding parts of a placement examination given at the beginning of each fall semester { (2nd year students and beyond need permission from the Graduate Program Director). Most students take the core courses during their first year.

PHY 598 and 599 are required for all Ph.D., M.S.I. and M.A. students. Almost everybody should take them in their first two semesters at Stony Brook as they provide a good way to get acquainted with the department. The two courses cover different areas of physics, and they can be taken in any order.

Students in the M.A. or Ph.D. programs who have taken a strong undergraduate program in physics at an American university are recommended to take the following program of study during the first year. Select the courses in consultation with your advisor; more sample course choices will be discussed during the orientation week.

PHY 501 - Classical Mechanics
PHY 505 - Classical Electrodynamics
PHY 511 - Quantum Mechanics I
PHY 598 or 599 - Graduate Seminars
PHY 600 - Teaching
PHY 698 - Colloquium
PHY 540 - Statistical Mechanics
PHY 514 - Graduate Laboratory
PHY 512 - Quantum Mechanics II
PHY 600 - Teaching
PHY 598 or 599 - Graduate Seminars
PHY 698 - Colloquium

It is assumed that entering students have a sufficiently strong background in mathematical physics, through a formal course or selection of courses, take the regular first-year program. A text, such as Methods of Mathematical Physics by Arfken provides a suitable preparation. Students looking for more preparation should consider PHY 503, 504 (if it is offered), which presents topics that complement traditional material and enable students to fill in gaps in their background.

Other Required Courses for the Ph.D.

Comprehensive exam. If a student does not pass the Comprehensive exam by the beginning of the fifth semester, the case will be discussed at the faculty meeting. The faculty may recommend setting up a special oral exam for the student. In general, this recommendation is contingent upon two factors: the student should be in good standing in terms of the core courses (see above) and the student should have made contact with a research group, and should have a potential advisor.

Oral Exam. This exam can be repeated as long as the student is within the deadlines outlined above.

Financial Support and Ph.D. Thesis Research

Most students receive Department support as TA's for the first year. Those who remain in good standing may be renewed for a second year, but TA appointments are not generally extended beyond a student's second year at Stony Brook.

Students are urged to seek research projects and financial support from faculty members who have research grants. Joining a research group early has several benefits.

Once a student has passed his/her oral examination and begins to concentrate on thesis research, he/she should meet with a thesis committee at least once each year. This committee is made up of the people who served on the student's oral exam committee, and will generally continue to be active until the student defends the thesis. Accordingly, the committee should contain at least one experimentalist and one theorist, and at least one member whose research specialty is different from the student's field of research. Scheduling of the annual meetings of the thesis committee is the responsibility of the student. One member of that committee should provide a written report to the Graduate Program Director, briefly stating whether the student is making satisfactory progress towards a suitable doctoral thesis.

Thesis defense

This is the last exam taken by a Ph.D. student in Stony Brook; an oral presentation to a committee consisting of faculty members and an external representative. Usually, the student's Oral Exam committee serves as the core of the Defense Committee. The committee must have at least three members (adjunct or full time) from the Department, and one external member - a scientist from another Department in Stony Brook, or another institution. At least half of the committee, and the chair, must be full time faculty. There should be at least one experimentalist, at least one theorist, and at least one department member from a research field other than that of the thesis topic. The external member may also serve as the required theorist or experimentalist. The thesis supervisor is an ex officio member of the committee, and can not serve as the chairperson.

The committee must be approved at least 28 days in advance by both the Graduate Program Director and the Graduate School. The Doctoral Degree Defense form should be also sent to the Graduate Program Director at least four weeks before the scheduled date of the defense (the deadlines have been changed from three weeks to four weeks in the Spring 2007 semester).

The written Ph.D. thesis should be distributed two or three weeks before the exam, so that committee members can read the work carefully.

PhD Degree with Concentration in Astronomy

Students whose emphasis will be in astronomy constitute the main exception to this plan. During their first two years, they should take three of the four core astronomy courses, PHY 521, 522, 523, 524, which are offered one each semester. Therefore a possible astronomy sequence looks like this:

PHY 524 - Cosmology
PHY 501 - Mechanics
PHY 505 - Electrodynamics
PHY 598 or 599
PHY 600 - Teaching
PHY 698 - Colloquium
PHY 522 - Interstellar medium
PHY 540 - Stat. Mech.
PHY 517 - Astronomical Techniques
PHY 598 or 599
PHY 600 - Teaching
PHY 698 - Colloquium
PHY 521 - Stars
PHY 511 - Quantum I

PhD Degree with Concentration in Astronomy

Students whose emphasis will be in astronomy constitute the main exception to this plan. During their first two years, they should take the four core astronomy courses, PHY 521, 522, 523, 524, which are offered one each semester. Therefore a possible astronomy sequence looks like this:

PHY 524 - Cosmology
PHY 501 - Mechanics
PHY 505 - Electrodynamics
PHY 598 or 599
PHY 600 - Teaching
PHY 698 - Colloquium
PHY 522 - Interstellar medium
PHY 540 - Stat. Mech.
PHY 517 - Astronomical Techniques
PHY 598 or 599
PHY 600 - Teaching
PHY 698 - Colloquium
PHY 521 - Stars
PHY 511 - Quantum I
Other courses
PHY 523 - Galaxies
PHY 512 - Quantum II
Other courses
The particular order of the astronomy courses is determined by the actual course offering in those semesters. PHY 505 can be interchanged with PHY 511. PHY 515 or PHY 517 (discussed above) can be taken in any semester during the first two years.

Master of Arts (M.A.) Degree

This degree gives students the opportunity to earn an MA Degree in Physics in one year. Many students in this program move on to a PhD program at Stony Brook or elsewhere. It is often used by exchange students, or is awarded as a milestone along the way to completion of a Ph.D., or as a terminal degree for students leaving the program. The degree requires 30 graduate credits, 24 of which must be taken at Stony Brook.

The requirements for the Master degree can be satisfied in two ways. Requirements for the "No thesis" option:

  • Having a B or better grade in a program of graduate courses approved by the Graduate Program Director. Such program usually includes two semesters of the graduate seminar (PHY598 and PHY599).
  • Passing the written Comprehensive exam at the Masters level.
  • The total number of credits with grade B or better should be at least 30.
Requirements for the "Thesis" option:
  • Completing a Master thesis project with includes writing a Master thesis and its public defense in the form of an oral presentation for a committee that has the same composition rules as the oral exam committee for the PhD degree.
  • Passing a program of courses approved by the Graduate Program Director. Normally such program includes two approved graduate courses and two semesters of the graduate seminar (PHY598 and PHY 599).
  • The total number of credits with grade B or better including the Master Thesis should be at least 30.
If a thesis is submitted, it must be prepared in accordance with the guidelines presented in the university's "Guide to the Preparation of Theses and Dissertations." The thesis should be based on a major project which is the main focus for a year of the student's work. Multiple authorship of a thesis is not allowed.

Credits transferred from another university must be for courses comparable to our own graduate courses. Transfer eligibility must first be approved in writing by the professor teaching the comparable course at Stony Brook and then by the Graduate Program Director, who will authorize departmental approval. Such credit transfers should be requested in the student's first semester at Stony Brook.

Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT)

Master of Science with concentration in Instrumentation (MSI)

Completing a Degree

Degrees are awarded three times each year (May, August, December), although a student can submit a thesis and/or vacate the university for following employment at any time.

A student must be registered in the semester in which the degree is awarded (the special summer course PHY 800, Summer Research, also satisfies this requirement).

You must file for graduation to get the degree. The application must be completed by a specific deadline well in advance of receiving the degree. There is no charge for applying, and no difficulty created by (optimistically) filing a degree card and then not finishing a thesis by the deadline. It is the responsibility of the student to fulfill all the degree requirements before submitting the application, accepting a job, or undergoing a change of visa status (e.g., practical training).

If the degree requires a thesis, it is important to consult the rules for thesis format, be aware of the deadlines for submission and of applicable fees, etc. Failure to complete all the requirements may result in delayed or denied degree approvals.

Academic and scholarly misconduct

Science relies on the honesty of scientists. Neither academic dishonesty (e.g. cheating on an exam) nor scholarly misconduct (e.g. falsifying data) will be tolerated. For the principles of dealing with these issues refer to the Graduate School's policies, and to statements issued by professional societies, like the American Physical Society.

In the context of written examinations "academic dishonesty" includes (i) the use of notes, books or other material (except when explicit permission has been given by the responsible faculty member) and (ii) the exchange of information between students during an examination. Giving information is as serious an offense as receiving information.

The penalties for academic dishonesty in all written examinations are severe. Any such act will result in automatic failure on the examination in question. More serious penalties will be sought as appropriate. These can include suspension or dismissal from the University.

Given the importance of the Qualifying and Comprehensive Examinations, incidents of academic dishonesty connected with this examination will be viewed with the utmost severity. In such cases, the Department will consider the most serious penalties (i.e., suspension or dismissal).

In physics, like in any other sciences, we are often inspired by other people's ideas. It is absolutely essential to give credit where it is due. Using ideas and words from others, without clearly acknowledging the source, is plagiarism. The most blatant form of this practice is cutting and pasting other's written text into a document that is supposed to be an original work. For more on this subject just type "plagiarism" in any WEB search engine. There are well developed methods to detect plagiarism and the minimum penalty for this practice is an F grade for the project involved. (Note: The best protection against being accused of plagiarism is to mark every quote, and to indicate, clearly and unambiguously, the original source.)

Many great results in physics were the results of collaborations. Correspondingly, there are many cases when collaboration between students is necessary and encouraged. Examples in our Department may include some of the work in the PHY 515 laboratory, or certain homework assignments. In each case clear rules are laid out by the faculty teaching the course. If there is any doubt, here is a simple rule: ask first, and collaborate later.

Libraries, computers

The Math/Physics Library is housed on level C of our building, but is administered by the university library system. Its policies, schedule, and procedures are determined centrally. It is usually open during weekends and study breaks. The Chemistry Department also maintains a Library, and some Journals and books that are not in the Physics Library may be available there. The Ward Melville Library, located on the Academic Mall, offers a wide selection of books, CD's and videotapes.  

The library system contains extensive on-line resources, such as electronic journals, databases such as the Science Citation Index, etc. These are generally available only from computers on campus.

The physics building is wired with a 100MB/s network. The AirNet wireless service, managed by the University, is available in the library and several other spots in the building. All graduate students have direct access to the computers in Room D-119 and in the Graduate Student Lounge. Note: Stealing passwords, breaking into computer systems, falsifying E-mail communications, etc. are not mischiefs but crimes, and will be dealt with accordingly.

Department Services

Like all large universities, Stony Brook is a complicated place with many departments and offices. Rules developed by these organizations must be observed, and we make every effort to help our students deal with the administration.

The Department office is staffed by secretaries and other assistants who are available to help. Over the years, these devoted people have earned the respect of all the graduate students (as well as others in the Department). They have various special functions, but are often flexible and knowledgeable enough to overlap one another's areas of expertise.

  • For Photocopy machine help, transparencies. and related matters see Ms. Maria Hofer.
  • For parking information and paychecks, also see Maria.
  • For doors, locks, building security, air conditioning or heating concerns, offices, and other physical plant matters, see Mr. Bob Segnini (Director, Physical Laboratories) or Mr. Rich Berscak.
  • For keys, photocopy machine cards, and other fee-related items, see Ms. Sara Lutterbie.
  • For all interfaces to the administration, including tuition, visa status, degree requirements, registration, and other academic matters, see Ms. Pat Peiliker, Assistant Director of the Graduate Program.
  • For departmental administrative matters, such as TA assignments, course requirements, etc., also see Pat. Also, see Pat for the processing of application materials and the processing of oral and Ph.D. committee written departmental approvals.
  • For reserving a seminar room, acquiring a mailbox, mail distribution, aid in FAX sending and receiving, see Ms. Maria Hofer.
  • For undergraduate information of any kind, see Ms. Elaine Larsen.


We generally recommend that first-year students should live on campus. Graduate students may live in the Chapin Apartment Complex, the Graduate Student Housing Complex, called Schomberg, and in certain dormitories. These are not the nicest places in the world to live, but most students regard them as adequate, and much more convenient for a newcomer than trying to find off-campus housing.

Those who wish to live on campus should use Solar to apply. The on-campus facilities are occasionally overbooked, and it is important to reserve a spot promptly.

Off-campus housing for individual students is difficult to find. It is not advisable to try to get off-campus housing during the first semester unless you can come here and look for it no later than early August (earlier is strongly recommended), or if you already know students in the University with whom you could share an off-campus residence. Furthermore, public transportation is very limited so a car is almost necessary. (Some intrepid students survive here for their entire academic career, living off campus with only a bicycle for transportation, but the weather on Long Island does not always lend itself to this arrangement.) Most single students who live off campus arrange groups to rent a house. To join such a group, one should be here, preferably during the academic year. It is then possible to get several people together for such an arrangement or join an existing group when one of its members leaves.


The tuition rates are published at the University's WEB site. If properly handled, the tuition is not paid by you, instead it is either waived, or paid by a research grant. However, serious problems can arise for those who fail to follow instructions, respond to notices, or submit forms on time. Sometimes such failures result in large, irretrievable financial losses.

The first step is based on the campus requirement that all those eligible to become residents of the State of New York do so. The two main conditions for residency are one year of stay in NY state and an appropriate "visa" status (either US citizen, or permanent resident).

The second step is based on the fact that tuition depends on the number of credits taken, and there are limits on this, given in the chart below. The limit is not the same for all students, so find your status from your registration papers and consult the chart to determine the appropriate limit. Students who register for more than the limit will be liable for the difference.

The third step is that every year New York State residents who are classified G1, G2, G3, G4 or G5 must fill out a "TAP Certification" (improperly called a tuition waiver) form which is available in the Department office.

Master's G1 First year graduate student who will have completed less than 24 graduate credit hours regardless of where earned by the start of the semester. 12-18 credits
G2 Advanced graduate student who will have completed 24 or more graduate credits regardless of where earned by the start of the semester. 9 credits
Ph.D. G3 First year graduate student who will have completed less than 24 graduate credit hours regardless of where earned by the start of the semester. 12-18 credits
G4 Advanced graduate student who will have completed 24 or more graduate credits regardless of where earned by the start of the semester. 9 credits
Adv. to candidacy G5 Advance graduate student enrolled in a doctoral degree program that has been advanced to candidacy for the doctoral degree by the first day of classes of a semester or term. 9 credits

Tuition waivers for students classified as Gl and G3 will cover any number of credits up to 18, including remedial ESL if there are at least 12 graduate credits. However, the tuition waivers for G2 and G4 will cover only 9 credits. If G2 or G4 students need to take English as a Second Language (ESL) courses, additional tuition support can be requested - please contact the Department's Office. This request is granted as a matter of routine. G2 and G4 students must register for "exactly" 9 credits for full time status.  Note that many courses are offered for a variable number of credits, providing some flexibility to the students to satisfy these requirements. Sometimes a course may be taken for zero credit; nevertheless, in order to satisfy a Department requirement, full effort is expected from the student.

Tuition costs for 6 credits at the in-state rate will be charged to the research grants as students move on to research appointments (G5 status). For details, see the Provost's memo.

Financial Aid

The Department offers financial support in the form of teaching assistantships or fellowships to essentially every member of the entering class, and all applicants are considered for such support. Awards are renewable on maintaining good academic standing. Support from research grants are available for all full-time students in the doctoral program.

Teaching assistants and fellows receive full tuition scholarships.

Correspondence and information

For application information and more detailed descriptions of programs contact Professor Jacobus Verbaarschot, phone: (631) 632-8279, fax: (631) 632-8176, email:, Mailing address:
Jacobus Verbaarschot
Graduate Program Director
Dept. of Physics and Astronomy
Stony Brook University
Stony Brook
NY 11794-3800, USA
The University at Stony Brook is an affirmative action/equal opportunity educator and employer. Persons requiring special accommodations should contact the Department of Physics & Astronomy at (631) 632-8100.

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Earlier versions of this document were drafted by past Graduate Program Directors (Professors Hal Metcalf, Rod Engelman, William Weisberger, and Peter Stephens). Last updated 05/24/2011 by Jacobus Verbaarschot. Here are links to versions saved on 10/25/2008 , 5/1/2008 , 3/12/2008 , 8/29/2007 , 3/27/2007 , 6/12/2006 , 7/25/2005 , 12/14/2004 , 10/14/2004 , 9/27/2004 , 7/30/2004 , 5/6/2004 and 5/26/2003 .