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Physics Exams

Preliminary Exams

Each student in the Physics graduate group is required to pass a written preliminary examination that tests undergraduate-level understanding and fundamental concepts in the field.


This exam is administered twice each year, at the beginning of fall and spring semesters. Students may elect to take the exam for the first time at the start of either the first or second semester in residence. The exam may be taken once each time it is offered, but must be passed no later than the start of the fourth semester.


The exam consists of three papers:

Each student in the group is required to pass a written preliminary examination that tests undergraduate-level understanding of the fundamental concepts in the field.

Sample Exams


  • Classical Mechanics
  • Quantum Mechanics
  • Electromagnetism
  • Students need to pass each paper individually, but not necessarily at the same time.

    A student may, however, be deemed to have passed the exam outright if, at any one attempt, their overall performance in all three papers is good enough. Any student who has not passed the exam by the start of his or her fourth semester may be subject to dismissal.

    Qualifying Exams


    All students in the Ph.D. program are required to pass the qualifying exam before advancing to candidacy for their Ph.D. degree. Each student is expected to take and pass the qualifying examination before the end of his or her third year of graduate study unless he or she successfully petitions the Graduate Group chair to take it at a specified later date. The qualifying examination may not be scheduled until the four core courses have been completed the preliminary examination has been passed. The date of the examination is arranged between each student and his or her committee chairperson. All students in the Physics Ph.D. program are required to pass the oral qualifying examination before advancing to candidacy for their Ph.D. degree.

    Exam and Research Proposal:

    At least two weeks before his or her examination date, each student will provide to the committee a research proposal (typically about 10 pages) that describes his or her research topic, summarizes progress to date, and outlines what he or she proposes to do, why it is relevant, and what will be learned. Any student who has not passed the examination may repeat the qualifying examination after a preparation time of at least three months. Failure to pass the examination on the second attempt means the student is subject to disqualification from further study for the doctoral degree.

    The Ph.D. qualification exam has several goals:

    1. To motivate students to review and synthesize course work and research material;
    2. To determine the student’s ability to understand and apply fundamental concepts;
    3. >
    4. To develop and test the student’s ability to communicate orally and to respond to questions and comments;
    5. To evaluate the student’s potential to pursue doctoral research;
    6. To identify areas that need to be strengthened for the student to be successful as a Ph.D. student, independent scholar and teacher
    7. To provide a mechanism for a range of faculty to come to know the student’s capabilities

    Typically, any student who does not pass the qualifying examination will be given one more chance. If a student does not pass on the final attempt, he or she is usually given the opportunity to graduate with a terminal master's degree.

    Applying for the Qualifying Exam

    1. Submit the Application for Qualifying Exam one month before your expected exam date.
    2. Attach a copy of your degree audit. Ensure you have completed the required course work established by your graduate group.
    3. If you have a committee member from an institution other than UC Merced, additional requirements apply. Refer to the UC Merced Graduate Advisor's Handbook.

    In preparation, clarify expectations with your faculty advisor regarding the following:

    • Your written research proposal (typically five to 10 pages). The proposal needs to be submitted to the faculty committee at least 30 days before the exam.
    • Membership of your faculty committee.
    • Schedule preparatory meetings before exam.

    Day of the Exam:

    1. Provide a blank Qualifying Examination Report at the time of your exam. All committee members must sign in original ink.
    2. Provide a copy of the Application for Advancement to Candidacy Form to your committee for their convenience at the time of your exam. All dissertation committee members and the graduate chair must sign the Application for Advancement in original ink.
    3. Submit the Examination Report and Application for Advancement to Candidacy Form to Graduate Division.

    Advancement typically takes effect in the term following the one in which the Application for Advancement is submitted. For additional information, see dates and deadlines or contact Graduate Division.

    Comprehensive Exams

    Each candidate following Plan II must take a final, comprehensive examination, the nature of which is to be determined by the student's graduate group and approved by the Graduate and Research Council.

    The content of the exam represents a capstone requirement that integrates the intellectual substance of the program.

    Physics students must pass a comprehensive oral examination administered by the faculty committee. This examination will test the student's understanding of the main concepts in the field at the graduate level.