Comprehensive Exam for Physics Graduate School: A proposal on rules and procedures

by Quirino Sugon Jr.


Comprehensive exams for graduate students are a source of headache for the department.  First, from the students’ point of view, preparation for the comprehensive exam requires an investment of time and resources to the exclusion of everything else, e.g. for Mechanics, the coverage is the whole of Goldstein from cover to cover, and the actual comprehensive exam questions may not even be found in Goldstein, depending on the faculty making the exam.  Second, from the teacher’s point of view, it is difficult to think of comprehensive exam questions that are comprehensive enough, so that many hours and even days is spent just to think of a good set of exam questions per topic. And third, from the department’s point of view, many students cannot proceed to their thesis because they fail the comprehensive exam, and many students who are capable of doing research and write papers are dismissed from the graduate school.

So the question is this: how do we make a standardized comprehensive exam that requires less preparation time for both students and faculty, but at the same time satisfy the minimum knowledge needed for graduate school as defined by the Department of Physics?


I would like to propose the following procedure for the conduct of comprehensive exams.  I shall divide this procedure into three parts: before the exam, during the exam, and after the exam.

A. Before the Exam

At the start of the school year (March 1), the department chair appoints a group of faculty who shall serve as the comprehensive exam committee. The committee’s task is to make the list of comprehensive exams for each topic: Mechanics, Electrodynamics, Quantum Mechanics, and Statistical Mechanics. For each topic, the committee shall decide on one or two books as references for each topic. From these references, the committee shall choose a set of 100 problems for each topic. Each problem should have a parenthetical reference, e.g. (Jackson 1975, p. 302). After the committee approves the list of 100 questions per topic, the department publishes the list and informs the students who will take the comprehensive exam about the existence of such a list.

The students gets a copy of the list of 100 questions per topic. If a student feels that he is not sufficiently prepared for the comprehensive exams, he can defer the taking of the comprehensive exams at most a year after the publication of the list. On the other hand, if a student feels that he is sufficiently prepared for the comprehensive exams, he informs the department and the Office of the Graduate School. The Graduate School and the Department then determines the date of the comprehensive exam.

B. During the Exam

In the presence of the student, the committee uses a random number generator to pick a problem from the list of 100 questions for a particular topic. The student is given 30 minutes to outline and explain the solution of the problem selected. If a student cannot answer the problem, he is given a second problem, but his highest grade will be A-. If he cannot answer the problem, he is given a third problem, but his highest grade will be B+. If he cannot answer the problem, he is given a fourth problem, but his highest grade will be B. If he still cannot answer the problem, he fails the comprehensive exam for that topic and gets a grade of C.  Any member of the committee may ask the student questions anytime during his presentation.

C. After the Exam

After all the students have taken their comprehensive exam for a particular topic, the committee chooses the best and worst students and assigns an individual letter grade to the two students. The other students are then arranged in order between these two extremes and graded accordingly. The committee then gets the average of each student’s grade for the four topics. If the student gets an average of B, he passes the comprehensive exam. If his average is less than B, then the Department of Physics and the Office of the Graduate School schedules a retake of the comprehensive exams. If his average is still less than B after the retake, the student may be asked again to take the exam at another date.  The department and the Office of the Graduate School shall decide on the number of possible retakes.


About ateneophysicsnews
Physics News and Features from Ateneo de Manila University

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