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Applied Physics Degree Requirements

Comprehensive information about the Applied Physics degree requirements and program policies are detailed in the Applied Physics Program Handbook (updated Feb. 2019)

In summary, 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: The Qualifying Exam takes the form of a presentation made to an examination committee followed by a closed session question and answer period before the committee. The length of the exam is nominally one hour, but the duration may be extended at the discretion of the examination committee.

    Committee: The examination committee consists of three members. The Applied Physics Graduate Program assigns one faculty member as the chair of a student’s qualifying exam committee. The second member of the examining committee is the student’s research adviser. The third member is invited by the DGS based on recommendations of the student and research advisor. The members of the qualifying exam committee are approved by the DGS and entered into the GSTS prior to the qualifying exam by the candidate.

    Format: The student gives a 20 minute presentation on a topic that is distinct from the student's research past and present, and selected from the literature within the past 5 years on research done outside Northwestern University.  The student should select two papers from different research groups, ideally with contrasting perspectives. The presentation should describe these results reported, and provide a critical perspective and review of the research findings. For example, a student might discuss an experimental paper from one group reporting results which are analyzed or explained in a theoretical paper from a second group. The presentation must be original; slides prepared by others may not be used.

    The oral presentation is followed by a closed session with the committee covering the presentation, content of the research, publications, and topics that explore the student’s knowledge and readiness for research, including knowledge based on the first-year graduate course work.

    Schedule: The date of the qualifying exam is set by the student in consultation with all committee members and the DGS. The exam must take place during the Spring Quarter of the first year. The student is responsible for reserving an appropriate room for the exam. The title of the oral presentation, as well as copies of the scientific publications to be discussed in the oral presentation, must be submitted to the committee two weeks prior to the date of the exam.
    If the student fails the qualifying exam and chooses to retake the exam, a second attempt must be scheduled before the end of the Summer Quarter of the first year. Students who do not pass the Qualifying Exam by the end of the first academic year are excluded from 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 (Prospectus): Students must present and defend their dissertation proposal (prospectus) by the end of the Spring quarter of their third year. Committee: Students form a committee of three faculty members, two of whom, including the advisor, must be members of the Applied Physics faculty. If the student has two co-advisors, the committee will consist of four faculty members. The student records the makeup of the committee on the GSTS website before the date of the prospectus.


    • Written Proposal: Students must submit a written thesis proposal to their committee at least 14 days prior to the date of the prospectus. The written proposal should be 15–20 pages (double-spaced, including references). The proposal must include a title, abstract, introduction and a review of the relevant literature. The document should motivate and describe the proposed research, and highlight the possibilities for discovery and advancement of knowledge.
    • Oral Defense: Students summarize their proposed research in an oral presentation that is nominally 30 minutes in length. Following the oral presentation, the committee may ask the candidate questions about the proposed research project.

    Schedule: The thesis proposal and oral defense must be completed by the end of Spring Quarter of the third year. The date of the defense is set by the student in agreement with the student's examination committee members. Students must submit their written thesis proposal to the committee members at least 14 days in advance of the defense, and make an appropriate room reservation.

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

The Graduate School links:

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