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Before Candidacy

During the first few years of study graduate students have pre-candidate status. Pre-candidates take a considerable number of courses, and most students receive at least some of their financial support through teaching. This is the time for students to consider options for research groups while maintaining significant flexibility.

Candidacy can be achieved comfortably by winter of the second year in the program. Some students follow an accelerated schedule and get promoted to candidacy in one year while others take two full years.

The Requirements for Candidacy 

  • Take a total of 30 course credits at graduate level, predominantly at 500-level and above. Each course must have a minimum grade of B- and the average grade must be at least B.
  • Take and pass two qualifying exams. They are typically taken early in the winter term of the first year but they are also offered each spring.
  • Attend the mini-colloquium (two terms, each counting 1 credit). The mini-colloquia serve to introduce students to a broad range of research directions and to meet many faculty members.
  • Attend an ethics in research mini-course (eg. UC415 which counts for 1 cognate credit).
  • The total course selection must include 4 cognate credits. These refer to credits outside the physics department. A typical selection is one 3 credit course in addition to the ethics mini-course.
  • Endorsement by a research advisor.

Course Selection 

No absolutes govern the selection of the courses needed to advance to candidate status. However, it is usually required to take:

  • Graduate Electromagnetism (two terms)
  • Graduate Quantum Mechanics or Quantum Field Theory (two terms)
  • Graduate Statistical Mechanics (one term)
  • A two-term sequence of specialty courses: either Particle Physics, Condensed Matter Physics, AMO, or Cosmology.

One standard exception from the suggested core pertains to students with exceptional advance preparation such as a prior Masters degree in physics. In this situation the requirement for candidacy can be relaxed to 21 course credits.

Qualifying Exams

The student must pass a written Qualifying Examination based on material covered in standard advanced undergraduate physics courses.  This requirement must be satisfied before the beginning of the third year.  The exam includes questions on Mechanics, Electricity and Magnetism, Thermodynamics, Statistical Mechanics, and Quantum Mechanics at the level of advanced undergraduate material.  Please note that the format of the qualifying exam was changed in 2018 and that older exams have a different format.

Qualifying Exam Archive

Helpful Texts When Studying for Qualifying Exams

The Preliminary Exam 

Students who are candidates spend virtually full time on thesis research. The primary mentor in this phase is naturally the research advisor.However, students benefit from a full range of mentorship. So as they obtain candidacy they must form a preliminary dissertation committee. The chair of the committee is the research advisor. The two additional members are other faculty members with some expertise in the research area. Interdisciplinary research is easily accommodated as only one of the 3 members must be physics department faculty. At this time the student must present preliminary research results to the preliminary committee. This involves writing a prospectus and passing an oral defense of the prospectus.

The Chair of the Committee (the thesis advisor) is given wide latitude for the precise expectations for the prospectus and its defense.

After Candidacy

After promotion to candidate status students can only take one course (3 credits) each term. A student who takes no course in one semester can take two courses in a later term.

The Dissertation Committee

As students prepare for the final defense they should form a full dissertation committee comprised of five Michigan faculty members, including:

  • The thesis advisor as the Chair of the committee
  • At least one experimental physicist and one theoretical physicist on the committee
  • At least three members of the physics department
  • One cognate member of the committee (a faculty member with an appointment in a department different from the physics department)
  • Usually all three members of the preliminary dissertation committee, but this is not required

Your committee must be submitted to Rackham for approval. You will need to drop this form off to the graduate coordinator. Please clearly indicate your cognate committee member and their home department.

Candidates changing advisors

In rare cases a student changes advisors even after having become candidate. Such transitions are possible but may present challenges. The graduate chair assists in such situations.

Progress Reports

The progress of all students is reviewed each spring. At this time each student meets with his or her advisor to discuss progress in research and agree on timelines for future milestones.


After the meeting the student files a brief report with the graduate program. The advisor must endorse the report and has the opportunity to add comments and concerns.


For candidate students the purpose of the annual progress report is to monitor progress towards graduation. For pre-candidates, the main purpose of the progress report is to monitor progression towards integration into a research group. Pre-candidates are also asked for a timeline to candidacy. 

More Degree Information

Master of Science (M.S.)

The department does not offer a Master of Science program. Our students do not write a Masters’ thesis. However, students admitted to the Ph.D. program usually fulfill the requirements to a M.S. degree some time in their second year. The degree is then conferred upon a request to the department.



The Physics Graduate Student Handbook covers all degree requirements. In addition to the department specific information listed here and in the Physics handbook, see the Master's Degrees and Doctoral Degrees sections of Rackham Graduate School Academic Policies page.