Course of Study

Guide to Graduate Study (Yellow Book)

Graduate Courses

Graduate Students should consult with their special committee in choosing courses. Guidelines can be found in the "yellow book”.

General descriptions of the courses can be found in the course catalog, and scheduling information in the course/time roster.

Required Exams

As a graduate student you are expected to pass three examinations on the way to earning a Ph.D.

The first is a qualifying (Q) examination, an oral examination that serves as a check on your progress and as a diagnostic of possible weaknesses that need attention. It is administered at the start of the fall and spring semester. It should be taken by the start of your second semester. Please see the yellow book for more details.  You may have heard that at some schools the qualifying examination is used to pare down class size, to weed out students. This is never the case at Cornell. Each year, the physics department admits the number of graduate students that it anticipates being able to support throughout the length of their stay in the doctoral program. When you come to Cornell, you are secure in the knowledge that the department and your professors have made a valuable investment in your training. The faculty and staff are committed to helping you succeed.

The other two exams (A and B) are given by the members of your permanent special advising committee. The exams will be individualized and reflect the particular emphasis and direction of your program.

Special Committees

Initially, you will be assigned three faculty members who will act as your temporary Special Committee. Together they represent different disciplines within physics. As your research interests become more focused, and after you pass a qualifying examination (usually in your second year), you will invite faculty members to comprise your permanent Special Committee. Usually, you select three faculty members whose research interests you share. These professors will guide you both in designing a curriculum and in demonstrating proficiency through the required examinations. They alone will judge your progress toward a degree.

Your Special Committee will be chaired by a member of the graduate field of physics and include two other Cornell faculty members, only one of whom is required to be a member of the field. If, for example, you choose to complete a minor in applied mathematics or biology or chemistry, you may invite a professor from one of those fields to join your committee as the third member.

Learning Goals and Assessment

As part of your education, we want to ensure that first and foremost you know how to “think like a physicist”. This implies that you can synthesize knowledge from different areas, make educated guesses and take your hard-earned course-based knowledge to the next level, where you will apply it and knowledge that you acquire independently or with your mentors and peers to solve problems of interest. That is why we prefer a broad education and course base, and our education will prepare you for a career not just in the specific area that is your dissertation topic but our Ph. D. should prepare you for a career as a professional scientist, with all the flexibility that that implies.

Physicists must also learn how to communicate using written, spoken and presentation skills. You will acquire these skills as part of our course work (for example in Physics 6510, our Advanced Laboratory course has formal materials on how to carry out “Back of the envelope calculations” and a requirement to write lab reports in standard journal (Physical Review Letters) format as well as make a presentation to faculty and peers in a timed format. These formative skills are essential for the practicing Physicist.

Exams and assessment are part of the learning process. Formal learning in a classroom environment is assessed in exams that are a part of course work, and could be either take-home, timed in-class exams or term-papers combined with presentation of materials. The Q exam (see the section on exams) will assess your knowledge of Physics, ability to express yourself and communicate as well as your ability to analyze a problem, break it down into “bite sized components” and work through to obtain an acceptable solution. All of these will help faculty assess your success in transitioning from a “knowledge-acquirer” to a practicing physicist who can synthesize and attack complex problems as well create new knowledge by carrying out original research.

Feedback – How the results of assessment are used to alter / improve programs
Your initial “special committee” also receives a “charge” from the DGS to provide feedback on the results of Q exams. The DGS also meets informally with the incoming class twice in the academic year to assess their perceptions and obtain their input. This information is then communicated to instructors to help improve outcomes.

Program success and metrics
We compile statistics on the success of our students. We also continually strive to assess whether our effort to attract women and minorities is successful, and whether we are successful in guiding our students through to a Ph.D.