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Graduate Study in Physics at Case Western Reserve University

Doctoral Program Objectives

Mission Statement

The Department of Physics at Case Western Reserve University seeks to broaden and deepen the graduate student's understanding of physics, and to promote the progress of physics as a research discipline. Neither of these efforts can be completely separated from the other. A student's understanding of physics is necessarily reflected in research, as research will help to deepen the student's understanding of physics. Thus, the relative emphasis of a student's education gradually shifts during graduate study from early concentration on formal course work to original research that is necessary for a Ph.D. dissertation. Throughout the student's graduate career, s/he will interact with faculty and students from all subdisciplines within the department, as well with faculty from other departments. Additionally, teaching is an important component in a student's education, particularly in his or her ability to transmit information clearly. Early in their graduate careers nearly all students serve as teaching assistants, under the supervision of the director of graduate studies and the undergraduate laboratory director.

Ph.D. research at CWRU has two main foci: condensed matter physics and particle/astrophysics, with a third leg involving medical physics. Condensed matter physics programs include nanoscopic physics, ultrafast spectroscopy, optical materials and optoelectronic devices, surface science, and exciting new opportunities in biophysics and biomaterials. These technologically critical fields are rich in applications in optical and electronic innovations, including displays and telecommunications devices, and in new medical technologies.

The primary thrust of the particle/astrophysics research areas includes both experimental and theoretical efforts to understand the evolution and contents of the universe from its earliest moments to the end of time. These investigations require our faculty and students to develop and apply new measurement techniques, sensor technologies, and detailed computer simulations and analyses. As such, our students receive broad technical training that positions them to pursue a diverse range of careers from basic science to the private sector.

Admission standards

For admission to the Ph.D. program, a bachelors degree in physics, mathematics, or a related field is required. The student should have taken standard upper level undergraduate subjects such as quantum mechanics, electricity and magnetism, statistical mechanics and thermodynamics, and classical mechanics. A grade point average of 3.0/4.0 normally serves as the floor for admissions, although higher grades are almost always required. Applicants are strongly encouraged to take the GRE and GRE physics subject exams.

The manner in which the program addresses the needs of the state, region, and nation

The department's research covers a number of areas relevant to the state, region, and nation, including research related to energy conservation and alternative energy sources, a major focus of the state and nation; soft condensed matter such as polymers and liquid crystals, which ties in with the polymer and liquid crystal industry in northeast Ohio; semiconductor and nanoscopic systems, important for the U.S. technological infrastructure; and medical physics, which couples with the large medical infrastructure in Cleveland, Ohio, and the U.S., as well as with the medical imaging industry, which has a large presence in the area. Our program in particle/astrophysics has impact both locally and around the world, and is a motor that drives K-12 interest in science. The department also is heavily involved in outreach, including regular appearances by our faculty on NPR's Science Friday, consulting as technical experts for area companies and law firms, and direct educational outreach via activities at the Great Lakes Science Center and area high schools and middle schools -- presenting popular lectures, judging science fairs, and supervising high school research projects in our own laboratories.

Placement objectives for graduates

Graduating students generally have one or more job offers before graduation. Typically about half of our graduates take postdoctoral fellowships on graduation, with the remaining students going into industrial or national laboratory positions. Approximately five years out, the employment distribution is approximately one-third each in tenure track faculty positions, industrial positions, and national laboratory positions.

Review Information

Date of last review: Spring, 2008
Date of next scheduled review: Spring, 2016
Date these programs were revised: Spring, 2008

Requirements for Graduation

Requirements for the Ph.D. degree include coursework, the Ph.D. qualifying examination, a topical oral examination, and submission and defense of a written thesis

Required Courses for Ph.D. Degree

With the help of a faculty advisor, students choose a curriculum of course work from among a large array of offerings in physics and related science and engineering departments. The University requires a total of 36 hours of course work for students entering with a bachelors degree, or 18 hours of course work for those students entering with a masters degree. This requirement may be met by supervised research, by lecture courses, by reading courses, or a combination. Twelve of the course hours involve required courses, but any of these requirements may be waived for students who have had the equivalent material elsewhere or, in the case of Graduate Laboratory, equivalent experience elsewhere. The required courses are: Two from the following five:

  • PHYS 441 Physics of Condensed Matter I
  • PHYS 451 Empirical Foundations of the Standard Model
  • PHYS 465 General Relativity or PHYS 428 Cosmology and Structure or PHYS 436 Modern Cosmology
  • PHYS 431 Physics of Imaging
  • PHYS 427 Quantum Electronics
Additionally, students are required to take PHYS 472 Graduate Laboratory plus one additional 400 or 500 level lecture course from the following list*:
  • PHYS 460 Advanced Topics in Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • PHYS 541 Quantum Theory of the Solids I
  • PHYS 544 Advanced Theory of Materials
  • PHYS 566 Advanced Cosmology
  • PHYS 522 Nonlinear Optics
  • PHYS 452 Standard Model II
  • PHYS 442 Physics of Condensed Matter II
  • PHYS 581 Quantum Mechanics III
  • PHYS 591 Gauge Field Theory I
  • PHYS 592 Gauge Field Theory II
* Other courses, either in physics or in other departments, may be substituted by petition. Note that a course having a dual listing at 300 level or below does not satisfy this requirement. Although not required, most students take Quantum Mechanics I & II; Classical Electromagnetism; and Classical and Statistical Mechanics I & II during the first year, as much of the Ph.D. qualifying exam is based on material in these courses.

The classroom lecture courses will be augmented by official reading courses, which will have specified syllabi (published in the catalogue and monitored by the Graduate Committee), graded homework, and final examinations. Courses in special topics, as well as individualized study, can be arranged by mutual consent when the demand is sufficient.

Additional Courses for Cultural Purposes

The University permits graduate students to enroll in up to eight fellowship courses that are not counted toward the degree requirements for no additional charge. These may include, e.g., courses in foreign language, history, philosophy, business and management, music, engineering, etc. These courses will be graded, and a grade will appear on the student's transcript.

Ph.D. Qualifying Examination and Master's Comprehensive Examination

The Ph.D. qualifying examination is based on advanced undergraduate material and that covered in the introductory courses: Quantum Mechanics I & II; Classical Electromagnetism; and Classical and Statistical Mechanics I & II. Additionally, written material from the graduate laboratory course and undergraduate courses (such as relativity) may be incorporated into the qualifying exam. A normally prepared student will be expected to take the qualifying examination in May at the end of the first year of graduate study. Students who fail the first time will speak with the chair of the qualifying committee and Director of Graduate Studies to ascertain if there is a disconnect between knowledge and performance on the exam. They will discuss with the student how best to maximize the chance of passing on the student's second attempt, generally in mid to late August. For students not passing the second time, the chair of the qualifying committee and Director of Graduate Studies will discuss the student's future plans, or for the unusual possibility of a third exam.

Admission to Ph.D. Candidacy

A student will be admitted to Ph.D. candidacy upon passing the qualifying exam and upon a vote of the faculty to determine whether the student is making satisfactory academic progress.

Topical Oral Exam

Within one year of formal association with a research advisor, but no later than the end of the fifth semester after a student matriculates, each student will have an oral examination of her/his research progress with the dissertation committee. The examination will consist of a presentation by the student relating to literature in her/his thesis topic, a proposed direction for work, and a progress report. Passing this examination is a requirement for the Ph.D. degree. If the student has not passed the exam by the deadline, he or she will not be permitted to register in the following term. If the time deadline cannot be met because of extenuating circumstances, the student may petition the graduate committee for an extension.


Upon entry to graduate school the Master's and Ph.D. student's academic advisor will be the department's Director of Graduate Studies. Eventually, each successful student will acquire a research advisor and dissertation committee. At that time the responsibility of the Director of Graduate Studies will greatly diminish, but not vanish entirely. It will remain the Graduate Studies Director's responsibility to assist the research advisor in academic matters. The Director of Graduate Studies, as well as the research advisor, will countersign the student's course program. It is the responsibility of the Director of Graduate Studies to follow the career of the student and see that all requirements for the degree are fulfilled.

The Director of the Physics Entrepreneurship Program will be the academic advisor for the student's in the Entrepreneurship Track of the Master's program. Each successful student will also acquire a research advisor and thesis committee, which will meet with the student at least once per semester. It is the responsibility of the Director of the Physics Entrepreneurship Program to follow the career of the students in this track and see that all requirements for the degree are fulfilled.

Ph.D. Research and Dissertation

A Ph.D. degree implies, in addition to the course and qualifier requirements, the performance of a piece of original research and its presentation as a doctoral dissertation. The research requirement for the Ph.D. is at the heart of the doctoral program. The final requirement for the Ph.D. degree is the written doctoral dissertation and oral defense.

Entering students should interest themselves in the available research possibilities in this department at an early state of their careers. They should be thinking about the area of interest, the kind of problem they would like to tackle, and the faculty member under whose direction they would like to work. As soon as they have passed the qualifier, they should devote themselves more and more to research.

By January or February of the first year the student should begin to speak with faculty members about their research, and ultimately find a faculty member who will sponsor and supervise the student's work. The relationship between a student and research advisor is a very close one. It is in the course of this relationship that students develop their skills in the actual doing of physics. Students should give much thought to their choice of research area and research advisor. Once a student has made this commitment, it takes the highest priority. Students must understand that they are unlikely to bring their thesis research to a successful conclusion without a total commitment on their part. Our policy on financial support of graduate students reflects the importance of such a commitment. Renewal of a student's support will be contingent upon evidence of progress toward a degree.

Colloquia and Seminars

In addition to course work and individualized direction in research, the Physics Department provides a third medium of teaching, one which is shared by students and faculty alike.

Colloquia are talks of a general nature, given at a level that all graduate students in all areas of physics should be able to follow. They are usually held on Thursdays. Notices (and whenever possible brief introductions to the subject) will be distributed well in advance of each colloquium. Graduate students are urged and expected to attend all of these colloquia. (All graduate students are required to register each semester for the zero credit-hour course Frontiers in Physics, PHYS 666, which consists of attendance at colloquia).

Seminars tend to deal more narrowly with specific topics, and often require some expertise in the field. Some groups hold weekly luncheon seminars; others meet whenever a speaker is available. Advanced students are expected not only to attend, but to participate in the seminars in their fields. Students who have not yet chosen a field of research may find the seminars a valuable means of sampling the types of research available. Students in the Entrepreneurship Track are expected to attend all of that Program's seminars, and are encouraged to attend other relevant seminars.

Policy on Working outside the Department

The teaching and research assistantships represent a rich and exciting experience and a total time commitment on the part of both the graduate student and his or her advisor. It is generally not advisable for a student to accept other employment or non-family responsibilities, inside or outside of the department or university. If a student nevertheless desires an additional position, written approval must first be obtained from the student's advisor, and a petition then made to the Graduate Committee. Prior approval of the committee is required in order to avoid a possible reduction or termination in assistantship financial support.

A variety of special circumstances may arise in the case of students in the Entrepreneurship Track. Oversight will be provided by the Physics Entrepreneurship Committee, and approval of the Director of the Physics Entrepreneurship Program Director is required.