Student presenting her comps 2

Comps 1 Information

Comps 1 is a one-day written examination designed to test a student's mastery of basic material deemed necessary to proceed to a Ph.D. thesis and research. The Comps 1 will be given each January and will normally be taken by all students about to begin their fourth semester of graduate studies. The test consists of five required questions, covering material in the five APS Core Courses: Atomic and Molecular Processes; Radiative and Dynamical Processes; Introduction to Fluid Dynamics; Mathematical Methods; and Observations, Data Analysis, and Statistics. The questions will be broadly based on material in these classes. The examination will be given in one day, with sessions in the morning (2 questions) and afternoon (3 questions).

Any student who fails Comps 1 will be allowed to retake the written exam once, normally in the next year. All students are encouraged to proceed with their Comps 2 research. By APS faculty vote (Feb 17, 2010) and following current Graduate School rules, there will no longer be any opportunity for a follow-up oral exam, after two failures of Comps 1.

Comps 1 FAQ (Written by faculty member Andrew Hamilton, October 2010)

1. If a student fails Comps 1, what further recourse do they have?

A student is permitted to take Comps 1 twice. Graduate School rules prescribe that a qualifying exam may be taken at most twice. If a student fails Comps 1 twice, they have no further recourse.

2. What rules regarding Comps apply to students who transfer from elsewhere?

There are no set rules. The APS Graduate Admissions Committee may recommend to the APS Chair forgiveness of some requirements. For example, the Admissions Committee could recommend that an exam comparable to one or both of Comps 1 and 2 passed elsewhere be taken as equivalent to having having passed in APS. A transfer student should obtain written agreement from the Admissions Committee about any credits, prior to transfering.

3. Can Comps be postponed for medical or parental reasons?

There is no specific departmental policy regarding leave for medical, parental, or other reasons. Graduate School rules describe the Time Out Program, which offers a way for students to leave CU for up to one year for any extenuating circumstance, including medical or parental reasons.

Comps 2 Information

Comps 2 is designed to examine a Ph.D. candidate's ability to carry out semi-independent research and to encourage students to develop skills in written and oral communication and time management.

The Comps 2 project is also meant to encourage students to become involved in research early in their graduate careers. These skills and experience are critical in the academic and industrial market.

Comps 2 is an independent research project, which student organizes, completes, and presents to a 5-person committee approved by the Chair (or delegated to the Associate Chair). After taking Comps 1, the student selects a Comps 2 committee and a non-advocate chair, who is not his/her research advisor. Early in the process, the student should obtain formal approval from the committee of a short research proposal that describes the scope of the research project. After 4-8 months of work, the student should submit a written research paper or its equivalent and make an oral presentation to the committee. Approval of the Comps 2 project will be made by the APS faculty, upon recommendation of the committee. In the event that the student fails to pass Comps 2,the student and committee will work out a plan to remedy the shortcomings.

Through their paper and presentation, the student should demonstrate that they have learned many of the professional skills needed to succeed as a scientist. A well-written paper is one which, after further development, could be publishable in a refereed journal or conference proceedings. The committee's judgment of the appropriate level of the project should be based on objective criteria. For example, the project should create new knowledge and utilize significant research skills. In the written and oral presentation, the student should demonstrate a well-defined contribution to the project and be able to explain the scientific background and context of the research. Expectations for a successful Comps 2 project include three criteria:

(1) the research quality of the paper; (2) the clarity and professionalism of the oral presentation; (3) knowledgeable responses during the questioning on the broader physical basis and technical context of the project.

Historically, 10-15% of APS students have earned a grade of  "High Pass’”. Those who exhibit a strong performance in all three criteria may receive this honor.

Comps 2 FAQ (Written by faculty member John Stocke, October 1996, Amended in October 2010 by Andrew Hamilton)

1. The research for Comps 2 can't be part of my thesis research, it must be on an unrelated topic.

NOT TRUE. Often the Comps 2 becomes a portion of the student's PhD thesis but sometimes the student WISHES to broaden her/his reasearch horizons and so ELECTS to take on COMPS 2 research in an area broadly related to or completely unrelated to his/her PhD thesis topic. The choice is left to the student with concurrence by the Comps 2 committee.

2. My RA advisor cannot be my Comps 2 research advisor.

NOT TRUE. In fact, it is usually the case that the RA advisor (and possible thesis advisor) is also the Comps 2 advisor. But the Comps 2 project should go beyond the work the student does as an RA in the sense that the Comps 2 work should be more independent--it is best done as an extension to or "side effort" of the RA work, if Comps 2 is on a related topic.

3. I am confused about the role of the chair of my Comps 2 committee, vis a vis my Comps 2 advisor.

The role of the Comps 2 chair is to be both an "impartial" advocate for the student and the official departmental representative. In the former role, the Comps 2 chair advises the student AND the COMPS 2 advisor whether the proposed project is suitable for Comps 2; i.e. substantial enough to determine whether the student can do semi-independent research and yet not too lengthy so it is possible to be completed in the allotted time. In the latter role, the Comps 2 chair is responsible for monitoring the progress of the Comps 2, co-ensuring (with the student) that all deadlines are met and convening progress report meetings during the course of the Comps 2 work.

4. Since this is the second time that I have to take COMPS 1, I am spending all my time this Fall studying for that exam and have put off Comps 2 until the Spring.

BAD MOVE. The Comps 2 research project is used by the faculty to give us additional information concerning the capabilities of the candidate in our decision to determine if they should "advance to candidacy." Indeed, the Comps rules specifically state: "Students may not retake Comps 1 until after Comps 2 has been attempted."

In addition, the Comps rules also make it clear that: "SHORT delays due to extenuating circumstances will be granted by petition only." . . . and further that any petitions for extension should be by recommendation of the entire Comps 2 committee. The committee should meet by Oct 15th anyway to assess progress and prior to Sept 15th if the possibility of an extension is required. Finally, all attempts at Comps 2 must take place before the end of the 6th semester.

It has come to the faculty's attention that several students have stretched the rules beyond these limits. While it is primarily the responsibility of the student to make sure that these rules are followed (or risk failure), faculty oversight and guidance has also been lacking in these cases. At the last faculty meeting, it was the sense of the faculty that those students who are currently testing these limits should not be overly-penalized because faculty oversight has been slack too. Therefore, the faculty will admit those extensions granted recently by the chair to current COMPS 2 projects. However, this is a one-time pardon.

We are particularly concerned about two types of extensions:

1. Extensions on Comps 2 for those students who failed Comps 1 last winter. In these cases, if Comps 1 is retaken without Comps 2 being attempted, the students should be aware that the faculty will be making their decision concerning the continuing progress of the student with only the Comps 1 results being available.

2. Extensions on Comps 2 which are still pending but were due LAST October 15. Such a long extension is simply unacceptable and, in the future, will constitute a failure on Comps 2.

Summary of Comps 2 Deadlines:
  • BEGIN COMPS 2 RESEARCH: Anytime after matriculation but no later than Feb of second year (4th semester).
  • SELECT TOPIC, & RESEARCH ADVISOR: MARCH 31st of 4th Semester; Nothing need be submitted to the department at this time.
  • SUBMIT COMMITTEE FOR APPROVAL: Suggested by end of summer between 4th and 5th semesters. ABSOLUTE DEADLINE: two weeks before oral defense.
  • SUBMIT WRITTEN COMPS 2 REPORT: At least one week prior to scheduled oral exam.
5. If a student fails Comps 2, what further recourse do they have? Can the Comps 2 committee recommend a conditional pass?

A student is permitted to take Comps 2 twice. If a student fails Comps 2 twice, they have no further recourse. The Comps 2 committee may recommend a pass with conditions. The conditions might be, for example, that the student take a certain course, and pass with a certain minimum grade.

6. How many committee members are required on a Comps 2 committee? Who can serve on a Comps 2 committee? Is an "outside member" required or recommended?

A Comps 2 committee should have 5 members. At least 3 of those members should be rostered faculty (Assistant, Associate, Full Professor) in APS.

Other members must have a Faculty appointment in the Graduate School. The latter includes non-tenure track research associates (postdocs). If a prospective member is not Graduate School Faculty, they can apply by filling in a form, and will normally be approved.

An outside member is allowed, but not required.

7. Comps 2 feedback.

The Comps 2 Committee will provide some form of feedback to the student. This could be an informal discussion with the Committee Chair and some other members. Feedback from the advisor is always expected. If desired, a student can request a written summary from the committee, with recommendations.

8. Appropriate decorum during Comps 2.

The faculty will be reminded to try to reserve blackboard-type questions until the audience is dismissed.


Thesis work generally begins in the fifth or sixth semester, after passing Comps 1 and 2. Students establish a progress review committee, which meets regularly to evaluate the student's progress. The progress review committee often forms the core of the student's thesis committee. Graduate students are required to write and defend a thesis before their thesis committee. For the curious, university Ph.D. requirements are discussed in more detail in the requirements for advanced degrees section of the course catalog.

Survival Guide

Survival Guide

The Survival Guide contains pertinent information about the APS Graduate Program.