Guide to Graduate Studies in Physics & Astronomy

Guide to Graduate Studies in Physics & Astronomy

This present WEB page is updated more frequently than any of the printed or other documents related to our graduate program. See also our "Frequently Asked Questions" page. If you can not find the answers to your questions, contact Professor Laszlo Mihaly, Graduate Program Director, at

Table of Contents

The Physics & Astronomy Department offers four graduate degrees.

The Ph.D. Degree

Completing a Ph.D. in physics or astronomy is a complicated job, not only because of the large amount of intellectual and emotional effort, but also because of the many requirements. These 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 the command of four core areas of physics: Classical Mechanics (PHY 501), Electricity and Magnetism (PHY 505/506), Quantum Mechanics (PHY 511/512) and Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics (PHY 540). In each subject this obligation can be fulfilled either by passing the corresponding Placement Exam (see below), or by obtaining a B or better grade in the corresponding course(s). Therefore PHY 501, 505/506, 511/512 and 540 are required of all incoming students, with the following exceptions. PHY 598 and 599 are required of 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 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 take the following program during the first year. Select the courses in consultation with your advisor; more sample course choices are listed here.

PHY 501 - Classical Mechanics
PHY 505 - Classical Electrodynamics I
PHY 511 - Quantum Mechanics I
PHY 598 or 599 - Graduate Seminars
PHY 600 - Teaching
PHY 698 - Colloquium
PHY 540 - Statistical Mechanics
PHY 506 - Classical Electrodynamics II
PHY 512 - Quantum Mechanics II
PHY 600 - Teaching
PHY 598 or 599 - Graduate Seminars
PHY 698 - Colloquium

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 I
PHY 598 or 599
PHY 600 - Teaching
PHY 698 - Colloquium
PHY 522 - Interstellar medium
PHY 540 - Stat. Mech.
PHY 506 - Electrodynamics II
PHY 598 or 599
PHY 600 - Teaching
PHY 698 - Colloquium
PHY 521 - Stars
PHY 511 - Quantum I
PHY 515 (can be postponed to fourth Semester)
PHY 523 - Galaxies
PHY 512 - Quantum II
PHY 515 (if not taken in third Semester)

The sequence is shown for students entering in the Fall, 2006. The particular order of the astronomy courses is determined by the actual course offering in those semesters. PHY 505/506 can be interchanged with PHY 511/512. PHY 515 (discussed below) can be taken in any semester during the first two years.

It is assumed that entering students have a sufficiently strong background in mathematical physics, through a formal course or selection of courses, to 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, which presents topics that complement traditional material and enable students to fill in gaps in their background.

Required courses for the Ph.D.

Thesis AreaPossible Breadth Course
  52(1-4)551 555 557 565 566 612 620 680
682 683 684
Astronomy * * * * * * * * * *   *
Accelerator Physics * * * * * * * * * * *  
Atomic and Optical * * * *    * * * * * *
Biological Physics * * * * * * * *   * * *
Condensed Matter Experiment * *   * * * * * *   * *
Condensed Matter Theory * *   * * * * * *   * *
Nuclear Experiment *   * * * * * * * * * *
Nuclear Theory *   * * * * * * * * * *
Particle Experiment * * *   * *   * * * * *
Particle Theory * * *   * *    * * * *
Statistical Mechanics * * * * * * * * * * * *
X-ray Physics *   * *    * * * * * *

Additions and exceptions to this table are possible. Eligibility for breadth courses in the 680 series may vary, depending on the subject matter (accelerator physics, physics of hot dense nuclear matter, microelectronics, etc.), and usually announced before the beginning of the semester. See this link for the latest announcements. If in doubt, students should consult the Graduate Program Director before taking the course.

Other science departments in the University offer courses which may be considered as possible breadth courses. Students wishing to fulfill the breadth requirement with courses offered outside the physics department should clear their choice with the director of the graduate program.

Either course I or course II in the same field can be used, not both (except for 565, 566). For the number II courses PHY 552 and 556, written approval by their instructors that they can be taken as breadth courses is needed (to be submitted to the Graduate Program Director). The guideline for the instructors is that the student shows knowledge of the basic phenomenology in the field (as usually taught in the number I courses).

PHY 610 (Quantum Field Theory) and PHY 541 (Advanced Statistical Mechanics) are not required, but these courses introduce important concepts of very fundamental areas: all students are encouraged to study them.

The core astronomy courses (PHY 521-524) may be used as breadth courses for any student in the Physics track. An astronomy student who has taken all four of these courses has also met the department's breadth requirement.

Ph.D. Exams

Placement Exams. These are an optional exams, offered for entering students during orientation, before the start of the Fall semester. The exams are offered in two days. The first day typically covers classical mechanics (in short, CM) and electricity, magnetism, special relativity and optics (EM). The second day covers quantum mechanics (QM) and statistical mechanics and thermodynamics (SM). The four exams roughly correspond to the four required courses (CM: PHY 501; EM: PHY 505 and 506; QM: PHY 511 and 512; SM: PHY 540). Each exam is graded separately. Passing an exam exempts the student from the corresponding course.

Comprehensive Exam. This exam covers topical areas at the advanced undergraduate level or at the beginning of graduate studies. It is offered twice each year, at the beginning of the Fall and Spring semesters. The problems at the Comp are divided into two categories: 'Breadth' and 'Experimental'. Each category is further divided into four groups: atomic/molecular/optical, condensed matter, nuclear/particle physics and astronomy. There are two problems (one 'Breadth' and one 'Experimental') in each group, except for astronomy, where four problems are offered. Out of the 12 problems students should answer any 4 problems, subject to the restriction that not all questions can be 'Breadth' or 'Experimental'.

Oral Exam. The oral exam consists of a presentation of some approved and interesting topic in physics or astronomy to a committee of at least three faculty members and should be prepared with the guidance of one of them. The committee members must be approved in advance by both the Graduate Program Director and the Graduate School. 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. At least half of the committee, and the chair, must be full time faculty.

The faculty advisor for the oral exam will generally become the student's thesis advisor. This exam is a demonstration that the student is capable of beginning Ph.D. research. The student should show that he/she is conversant with the basic phenomenology of the chosen research field, but it is not necessary to show a completed research project.  

Exam deadlines and auxiliary procedures

Examinations for the last few years can be accessed here. Nearly all of the past exams and solutions are available for review in the Physics Office.

The Placement Exams are administered before the first day of classes, so that students can be advised and registered to the proper courses at the regular time.

The Comprehensive Exam is prepared by the Graduate Examinations Committee. The Department's faculty meets to discuss the results of the Comprehensive exam about one week after each exam. After that meeting, the answer books are available in the Department office for inspection by the students for grading errors, or for removal by the appropriate student. No grade changes are allowed to an exam book after it has left the office. It is a student's responsibility to ask a professor to regrade a particular question, and this must be done in the office. A large number of small grade changes is not an acceptable way to make a significant change in a total score. Unclaimed books may be discarded after four weeks.

Ph.D. students are generally required to pass the Comprehensive by the end of the student's fourth semester at Stony Brook; admission to the fifth semester of graduate study is contingent upon passing the comp and oral exams or by explicit approval of the Graduate Program Director. We encourage all first-year students to take the Comprehensive exam for practice. There is no expectation by the Department that such students will pass, although some do. There is absolutely no disgrace in an unsuccessful attempt.

Most students with American bachelor degrees and no additional advanced studies have passed the Comp by the beginning of the fourth semester; many pass earlier. Students with more advanced background often pass in the first year. In some cases, students pass the comprehensive exam at the beginning of the fifth semester, but that long a delay is not encouraged. In such cases, the Oral exam should be completed beforehand so that a student's status in the department is clear immediately after the written exam results are available.

The Oral exam, like the Comprehensive Exam, should be passed by the end of the student's fourth semester at Stony Brook. In practical terms, the latest passing date is August 20th for students who entered in the fall, and January 20 for those who entered in the spring. Since many students pass the Comprehensive Exam at the beginning of their fourth semester, the rest of that semester may be dedicated to preparation of the oral part.

Before the exam, the student, with the help of the graduate program director, identifies the Committee members. A sign-off sheet should be picked up in the Department's Office. One of the Committee members should be the de-facto or potential Ph.D. advisor to the student.

In some cases a student may pass the Oral Exam on time, but a thesis advisor will not be identified before the beginning of the fifth semester. In this case, students will be provisionally readmitted for the fifth semester (but not at later semesters, except if an advisor is identified). The Department can not guarantee financial support to students readmitted this way.

Foreign students are urged to be especially careful to avoid problems with their visas that could arise if they fail to complete any part of their advancement to candidacy on time.


Required courses. On the basis of work done at other universities waivers may be granted for required courses such as breadth requirements, teaching experience, PHY 515, etc. (For the courses in the core areas mentioned above the student should take the Placement Exam.) Waivers have to be requested during the first semester of study in Stony Brook and all such requests must be directed to the instructor of the relevant Stony Brook course who may then provide a written approval of the waiver to the Graduate Program Director. In general, it is not sufficient to have the transcript. The student must also bring to Stony Brook, and be prepared to show, other supporting documentation, for example a detailed course syllabus, printouts of the course WEB pages, homework assignments, etc.

In the case of the Graduate Laboratory course (PHY 515) all materials associated with the course taken elsewhere should be presented: syllabus, the faculty supplied instructions or "write-ups" of the experiments done by the student, the laboratory logbook in which the student recorded the day-to-day results of each experiment, and the final written report for each experiment, together with the grades for each of those. Students seeking a waiver in PHY 515 should submit all materials to faculty teaching the course soon after arrival to Stony Brook. Instead of fully waiving the course requirement, waivers are sometimes granted for individual experiments.

Written Comprehensive Examination. A transfer student who has been admitted into the Ph.D. program in Physics & Astronomy at Stony Brook and who has passed a written comprehensive examination as a matriculated student in the doctoral program of the physics or astronomy department at another university may request a waiver of the written comprehensive examination. To request such a waiver a student should:

The Graduate Examinations Committee will consider both the level of the test and the quality of the student's performance in deciding whether to recommend to the faculty that the student be exempted from taking either or both parts of the written comprehensive exam at Stony Brook.

Failed exams, courses

Placement Exams. These exams are optional. Failing a Placement Exams has no consequence (the student is directed to take the core course).

Core courses. Students are required to take the core courses, except if, upon entering Stony Brook, they passed the relevant Placement Exam. If a student does not pass (or take) the Placement Exam upon entering the school in September, and does not pass the course with a grade B or better, he/she can

The "make-up" oral exam may be set up to test the student's knowledge in the particular area.  For example, if a student got a B- in PHY 505, and a B in PHY 506, then the exam will cover "Electricity and Magnetism I". The time of the exam, and the three member exam committee will be chosen by the Graduate Program Director.  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. At an appropriate time before the defense a one page, illustrated summary of the thesis work should be sent to the GPD.

Master of Arts (M.A.) Degree

The Department does not usually admit students seeking only this degree except for those in specially arranged exchange programs. However, the degree is often 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's degree can be satisfied in two ways. Requirements in the "No thesis" option:

Requirements in the "Thesis" option: 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 gradaution 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 in the Graduate Bulletin, 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.


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 Laszlo Mihaly, phone: (631) 632-8279, fax: (631) 632-8176, email:, Mailing address:
Laszlo Mihaly
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.

  Back to Stony Brook Physics & Astronomy
Earlier versions of this document were drafted by past Graduate Program Directors (Professors Hal Metcalf, Rod Engelman, William Weisberger, and Peter Stephens). Last updated 8/29/2008 by Laszlo Mihaly. Here are links to the 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 versions.