Comprehensive Exam Overview

    Comprehensive Exams (or Comps) are considered fundamental stepping stones to attaining an advanced degree. In the Department of Physics, there are three levels of Comps.  A Ph.D. candidate must complete all three plus a dissertation defense in order to graduate. A master's degree requires that only Comps I and Comps II are satisfied (and possibly a thesis defense).

    Required Deadlines:

    • Years 1 – 2: Comps I satisfied

    • Year 3: Comps II satisfied

    • Year 4: Comps III satisfied

    Comps I

    Comps I is satisfied by sucessfully completing five of the six courses below with a grade of B– or better:

    • Quantum Mechanics (PHYS5250 and PHYS5260)
    • Electromagnetic Theory (PHYS7310 and PHYS7320)
    • Statistical Mechanics (PHYS7230)
    • Theoretical Mechanics (PHYS5210)

    These requirements may be different for students in the Chemical Physics program, Geophysics program, Applied Physics certificate, IQBio certificate, etc.  If you have taken courses at the graduate level that may be equivalent to those listed, you may be able to get these courses waived by completing the Comps Course Waiver Request.

    Comps II

    Candidates are expected to take the Comps II examination within one year of completing Comps I and no later than their sixth enrolled semester. Comps II consists of the preparation of a formal paper that summarizes a broad research topic. The student then delivers an oral presentation about the content of the research paper, and undergoes an oral examination on the research topic as well as his/her general knowledge of physics. For more information, please review the Comprehensive Exam Process Guide for Students.  Comps II research topic proposals should be submitted to the comprehensive exam committee chair.  Students can obtain assistance with writing the paper by contacting Donald Wilkerson and by taking his Advanced Writing class (PHYS 7820), offered in the spring.

    Paperwork and Deadlines

    A link to the score sheet will be sent to Comps II committee members by the Comps chair. Students do not need to provide forms.

    Graduate students who have not taken Comps II by the end of their sixth enrolled regular semester are considered to have failed Comps II and may not remain in the program. A student who fails a first attempt in the semester before the deadline, or needs to retake any part of the exam, may continue through the following regular semester to allow time to complete the exam process. Retakes in the fall semester must be completed by September 30.

    Scheduling the Exam

    If the candidate wants to use Comps II as a Master's exam, which the department encourages, it must be taken during a term when the student is registered. Normally, this means Fall, Spring, or Maymester. The exam must be completed before the first day of classes for Summer session. In Fall, two weeks prior to the start of classes also counts as Fall term. If Comps II is taken during the summer and the student is not registered for courses, the exam may NOT be used to obtain a master’s degree. To obtain a Master's degree, you must also fill out the Candidacy Application and apply to graduate through Buff Portal by the appropriate deadline (near the beginning of the semester).

    Comps III

    Comps III is also known as Admission to Candidacy and serves two purposes. First is to demonstrate your knowledge of the field and your work. Second is to ensure that you have a plan in place to graduate. The exam is formalized as a thesis proposal, which should include information about your past work and what must be done in order for you to complete your thesis, including a timeline with milestones. This proposal can be a written document and/or presentation slides to be presented in a Comps III meeting (attended by a quorum of the Comps III committee) as decided in consultation between the student, advisor, and committee.

    Comps III must be taken by the end of your 4th year.  If you are unable to make that deadline, then you must submit a request for an extension to the Associate Chair of Graduate Studies, signed by you and your research advisor.  If granted, an extension will be for one semester.  Passing Comps III requires affirmative votes by a majority of the committee and any student who fails is allowed to retake it once after a time determined by the committee.

    For Comps III, each student should follow the guidelines below to choose a five-member thesis committee, although only three (including the research advisor and titular advisor (if applicable)) are required to attend the Comps III exam. Please note: all five committee members must sign the exam form. Students should meet with their entire committee at least once a year. Then, when the student is ready to defend, four of these members will serve on the defense committee along with an outside member. All committee members must be on the graduate faculty. However, a researcher does not need to be a faculty member to have a graduate faculty appointment. Please see the Graduate Program Assistant for a current list of graduate faculty members.

    A student must be registered as full time during the semester in which the Comps III exam is taken.

    Selecting a Committee

    A student's committee is comprised of five graduate faculty members. There must be at least three physicists on the committee. One or two members may come from other departments, but this is optional. All five members may be from the Physics Department. The following are specific requirements for students in special circumstances:

    • Research advisor: this is the person with whom you'll enroll for dissertation hours.
    • Four other physics grad faculty members: one or two may have grad faculty appointments in a department other than physics. All four may be physicists.

    • Research advisor (non-physics faculty member)
    • Titular advisor (member of the physics faculty): this is the person with whom you'll enroll for dissertation hours. His/her research should be related to your own. Ask your research advisor for suggestions. See the Graduate Assistant for help.
    • Three additional graduate faculty members: only one of these may be from outside the physics department.

    • Research advisor (NCAR, NIST, NOAA, NREL, etc.): has a graduate faculty appointment in physics but may not chair committee.
    • Titular advisor (member of physics faculty): this is the person with whom you'll enroll for dissertation hours. His/her research should be related to your own. Ask your research advisor for suggestions. See the Graduate Assistant for help.
    • Three additonal graduate faculty members: two of these may be from outside the physics department, meaning their grad faculty appointment is not in physics.

    The guidelines above were agreed upon by the Department Chair and the Associate Chair of Graduate Studies. To deviate from these guidelines, you must petition the Associate Chair of Graduate Studies in writing.

    Paperwork and Deadlines

    The candidate is expected to prepare and submit the following documents:

    • Comps III Examination Report Form - Please download, complete and submit the unsigned form 2 weeks before the exam. The exam committee must then sign the form upon completion of the exam. The pay rate for RAs is greater for students that have completed Comps III (currently $133 more per month).  To ensure you receive the correct pay, please submit a copy of the signed form to whoever handles your RA pay.
    • Candidacy Application - Please download and complete the entire form with all necessary signatures. Candidacy Applications are due the day of the Comps III exam.
    • Progress Report - Fill out the relevant information (names, dates, and the first short answer item) before the exam.  The other three short answer items should be filled out by the committee.  You, your advisor, and your titular advisor (if applicable) must sign this.

    Dissertation Defense

    The dissertation defense is similar to the Comps III examination.  A committee of at least 5 members should be chosen following the rules for the Comps III committee with the added requirement that one of the members of the committee must be a regular CU Boulder faculty member from a department other than physics.