Applied Physics Degree Requirements

The formal requirements for a PhD in Applied Physics are: The core courses, the oral qualifying exam, teaching experience, the research proposal and the thesis defense.

  1. Core courses: See the courses page for the descriptions and schedule for required courses.
  2. Oral qualifying exam: Students are required to pass a qualifying exam before advancing to the second year of the program. This exam takes the form of a short presentation made to an examining committee, followed by a closed question session before the committee. There is no written qualifier.

    Examining committee: One member of the Applied Physics qualifying exam committee will be assigned to serve as chair of each student's three-person examining committee. The other members will be the student's research advisor(s) and one other Applied Physics faculty member.

    Format: The student must make a presentation not exceeding 15 minutes, on a topic that is not the same as his/her intended thesis topic but may be complementary to it. (The intended thesis topic must be discussed at the thesis proposal defense, which is a separate requirement.) The student should select recent results (from within the past five years) from at least two research groups outside of Northwestern University, ideally with contrasting perspectives. The talk should describe these results and provide a critical perspective on the relative merits and prospects for these different results. The talk must be original; slides prepared by others may not be used.

    For example, a student might discuss

    • an experimental paper from one group reporting effects which are only partially explained by a theoretical paper from a different group (the talk should explain the similarities and differences and how these differences might arise).
    • results from (e.g.) electron microscopy and fluorescence light microscopy on the same system, or x-ray scattering and neutron scattering studies of the same system (the talk should explain which techniques can be trusted to reveal which experimental aspects, and which effects might be spurious).

    The talk will be followed by a closed questioning session that may be about the presentation or about other relevant topics that explore the student's knowledge and readiness for research.

    Schedule: It is the student's responsibility to coordinate the exam on a date convenient to all committee members, but it must take place during the Spring Quarter of the first year. The talk title as well as bibliography of scientific papers discussed in the talk are due to the committee four weeks prior to the date of the exam. If the student fails the exam, a second exam must be scheduled the next quarter. A student who does not pass by the end of the first academic year may not continue in the Applied Physics program.

  3. Teaching experience: One quarter of teaching experience is required by the Graduate School. Since AP is a graduate-only program, our students gain this experience by serving as TAs in a variety of undergraduate departments.
  4. Thesis proposal and defense: Students must submit and defend their thesis proposal before the end of the spring quarter of the third year. Committee: Students must form a committee of at least three Northwestern faculty members, two of whom (including the advisor) must be on the Applied Physics faculty. If the students has two advisors, both of these must participate in the committee, and the entire committee must consist of at least four Northwestern faculty members, two of whom must be on the Applied Physics faculty.


    • Written Proposal: Students must submit a written thesis proposal to their committee members at least 10 days prior to the defense. The written proposal should be 15-20 pages long (double-spaced, including references and appendices, but excluding title page). It should contain a title, an abstract, and a review of the relevant literature. Students should describe what they propose to do, explaining why it is interesting, original, and promises significant results. It is understood that as students' research progresses, what they actually do may deviate from what they describe in this document.
    • Defense: Students should prepare a talk that is no longer than 25-30 minutes long. The committee will then ask questions about the proposal.

    Schedule: The date of the defense will be determined by the committee members, but it must take place before the end of the Spring Quarter of the third year. Students must submit their written thesis proposal to their committee at least 10 days in advance of the defense.

  5. Thesis defense: Students must defend their final thesis in front of a faculty committee.

Program Handbook

For more information on  the program and what to expect, please see the Program Handbook (updated Fall 2016)

The Graduate School links: