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Graduate Study Degree Programs

All students admitted to graduate studies in Physics and Astronomy at Rice enter the Ph.D. program. The department also participates in the Professional Masters Program through its Nanoscale Physics option, the Applied Physics PhD Program, and the Master of Science Teaching programs.  The requirements for these degrees are summarized on their respective websites.

To obtain a Ph.D. in the Physics and Astronomy Department at Rice,students complete certain course work, demonstrate their ability to engage in advanced research and demonstrate their knowledge of the discipline.  Each student must complete at least eight approved graduate courses, an oral Ph.D. candidacy exam, write and defend a research proposal, and complete the teaching practicum.  The degree is conferred upon successful public defense of a Ph.D. research thesis. Unlike many similar programs around the country, our graduate program offers a great deal of flexibility. Students may choose from a wide variety of research topics and take courses that are most suited to their interests, while still obtaining the fundamentals needed by any scientist in their chosen subdiscipline. Our graduate students become involved in research as soon as possible, always by the end of their first year in the program. There is no foreign language requirement, and no comprehensive written qualifying exam on coursework.


Note:Requirements were updated February 2015. Students matriculating before this date may choose to follow the requirements given below or they may follow the requirements given in the 2014 Graduate Student Handbook.


M.S. Degree
  Ph.D. Candidacy
  Ph.D. Degree
  Course Requirements
  Previous Graduate Work


Please Note: The following summarizes the Ph.D. and M.S. degree requirements and Department policy regarding admission to candidacy for these degrees. These requirements are given here as a convenience for prospective and enrolled graduate students in our program. While we make every effort to keep the following current and accurate, this web page is not the official document that governs policy. The official Rice University advanced degree requirements are those described in the General Announcements. Thesis requirements are summarized in the Graduate Students area of the Rice pages. It is Rice policy that if requirements change while a student is enrolled, the student may choose to graduate under the rules in effect when they were admitted to the program, or under those in effect when the student graduates. Related documents of potential use to students are the course requirements for the Applied Physics Ph.D. and M.S. degrees, the listing of courses by research area, and course recommendations for the different groups within the Department.

M.S. Degree
The P&A department admits graduate students into the doctoral program. It is not the intent to admit students who only wish to pursue a masters degree. Completion of a masters degree is not a requirement for the PhD. However, it is recognized that this credential is important to some students. Students can request the awarding of a (non-thesis) MS degree on the way to completion of the doctorate upon satisfaction of the requirements listed below.

The MS degree is conferred upon successful completion of specified coursework and engagement in original research. The type of degree and the degree name, either Physics or Astrophysics, will be specified by the student in consultation with the adviser and chair of the graduate program committee. The formal requirements for the M.S. degree are:

  • The student must complete, with acceptable grades, 30 semester hours of approved advanced courses, including research.
  • The student must complete with acceptable grades, or otherwise satisfy the requirements of, at least four of the basic courses for the doctoral degree, as specified below, plus two other approved courses. An average grade of B or better will normally be expected in the student's graduate level physics and astronomy courses, excluding research and teaching.
  • The student must be engaged in a research project involving the student’s own independent and original work. The satisfaction of this requirement is to be certified by means of a written statement from the student’s research adviser stating the area of the research.
  • The student must complete at least one full fall or spring semester in full-time study in a graduate program at Rice University.

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Ph. D. Candidacy
Achieving candidacy for the PhD implies that a graduate student has (a) completed required coursework, (b) passed required exams to demonstrate his/her comprehensive grasp of the subject area, (c) demonstrated the ability for clear oral and written communication, and (d) shown the ability to carry on scholarly work in his/her subject area.

The requirements for candidacy in the Physics and Astronomy Department are:

  • The student must complete with acceptable grades all required courses (see below), or demonstrate equivalent accomplishment elsewhere. An average grade of B or better will be expected in the student's graduate level physics and astronomy courses, excluding research.
  • The student must complete four nominal 5-hour per week teaching practicum assignments.
  • The student must be enrolled in Graduate Research (PHYS 800) and be progressing satisfactorily toward completion of the PhD thesis.
  • The student must complete a Research Progress and Proposal (RPP) report (see below for report requirements) and an oral research presentation of that report to the satisfaction of the examining committee (the advisory committee plus one additional outside-area member assigned by the Graduate Program Committee).
  • The student must pass an oral candidacy exam (see below for exam details), and the examining committee (the advisory committee plus one additional outside-area member assigned by the Graduate Program Committee) must certify the student as an acceptable candidate for the PhD in the research area covered by the RPP. If the student later changes research direction, the candidacy exam should be re-administered in the research area in which the doctoral research will take place.

The research presentation and the first attempt at the candidacy exam must be completed by early in the student’s fifth semester (no later than the end of the fifth week of the fifth semester). If needed, a second attempt at the candidacy exam must be completed by the end of the student’s fifth semester. If the student does not pass the second time, then the student will be asked to leave the doctoral program.

Research Progress and Proposal report:
The report serves three valuable purposes: (1) To demonstrate that the student is conducting research at an appropriate level; (2) to give students practice at writing about their work; and (3) to provide essential context and background so that the outside-area members and peers can understand the research plan. The report should be carefully written with properly cited references. The RRP should contain:

  • An introduction sufficient to explain the context of the research area and project(s) to the outside members.
  • A summary of what research the student has been doing so far. This could include preliminary results, or a discussion of a particular project, even if that project is unlikely to be the direct doctoral thesis topic.
  • A brief discussion of the expected doctoral thesis topic (or possible topics) – what they would entail and how they fit in with the context provided.
  • Properly formatted references for cited works or use of figures from the literature.

Again, while this does not have to be polished like a publication, it is strongly encouraged that the adviser should read this document and provide feedback to the student prior to the document being given to the committee. The RPP should be no longer than 20 double-spaced pages including figures and references (no longer than about 5 journal pages). The RPP should be given to the committee at least two weeks prior to the presentation. The document will be retained in the student’s internal departmental record.

The oral presentation should be no longer than about 30 minutes, and touch on the three main elements above. The research presentation can be public at the discretion of the adviser.

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Ph. D. Oral Candidacy Exam
The oral candidacy exam will be closed-door (just the student and the committee members) and will be based on the subject-specific topics listed in the Graduate Handbook and on the P&A departmental webpage. The student will demonstrate competence in the chosen research area by being able to correctly answer questions on the topics described in the sub-discipline exam topics list. Typical lists of important topics by specialty are given below, although greater specificity may be defined by discussion between the examining committee and the student in advance of the examination.

The current list of knowledge topics by subdiscipline is shown below:

The questions should cover a significant fraction of the topics on that list. The exam may also end up covering basic core physics competency as examiners attempt to guide the student, and the student should demonstrate competence in core physics and/or astronomy topics by satisfactorily answering questions in those areas. The combined duration of the exam and research presentation in one session is to be no more than two hours. The exam by itself should be no more than 90 minutes.

The outside-area member of the student’s advisory committee will keep track of the questions asked and will write up a brief summary for internal department records.

Ph. D. Degree
To complete the Ph.D. degree a candidate must write a doctoral thesis and publicly defend it in the final oral examination. The committee that administers the final oral examination for the Ph.D. is composed of two faculty members or Faculty Fellows from the department, and an additional Rice faculty member from outside the Physics and Astronomy department. The formal requirements are:

  • The student must complete all course work specified for their matriculating class and any additional courses required by the thesis advisor.
  • The student must satisfactorily complete four semesters of teaching practicum.
  • The transcript must show at least 90 semester hours credit, including research and teaching, beyond the Bachelor's Degree. At least 60 semester hours of this study must be done as a full-time student in residence at Rice.
  • The student must successfully complete a research project involving independent and original work. The work must be reported in an approved thesis, and defended in a public oral examination.

The degree name, either Physics or Astrophysics, will be specified by the student in consultation with the examining committee.

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Departmental Course Requirements
All degree programs in Physics and Astronomy require students to complete certain courses with satisfactory grades. Since course content changes from time to time, these requirements are subject to modification and students should be careful to fulfill the requirements in effect for their class. Requests for modification of the course requirements must be addressed to the graduate committee. If a petition is necessary, students are stronly encouraged to submit the request in advance of taking the course. For students matriculating after 1 August 2015 the requirements are:

a. At least 8 full (3-credit) graduate courses, other than research, in the Physics and Astronomy Department. These courses must be chosen from the list given in the Graduate Student Handbook under Appendix: Graduate Courses by Topic. A student may petition the Graduate Program Committee to use courses outside of this list to satisfy the requirement.

b. At least four of the courses must be chosen from a basic group consisting of:
            ASTR 451 Sun and Stars
            ASTR 452 Galaxies and Cosmology
            ASTR 570 Solar System Physics
            PHYS 580 Introduction to Plasma Physics
            PHYS 515 Classical Mechanics
            PHYS 521 Quantum Mechanics I
            PHYS 526 Statistical Physics
            PHYS 532 Classical Electrodynamics
            PHYS 541 Radiative Processes

c. At least one of the eight courses must be outside the student's immediate research area. The courses listed in item 2 may be used to satisfy this requirement, but a single course may not be used to fulfill both item b and item c.

d. Four nominal 5-hour/wk assignments of the Teaching Practicum. This typically consists of some combination of running undergraduate lab sessions, grading homework and exams for undergraduate or (when appropriate) graduate courses. Typically students complete one of these assignments in the spring semester of the first year.

e. Completion of PHYS 710, Graduate Seminar in Physics and Astronomy, during the first Fall semester in residence.

f. Such additional courses as the thesis adviser may require.

Students should consult the appended  list of course recommendations by research area to ensure that their course work provides optimal preparation for thesis research. A list of courses approved to satisfy requirement for each research disciplineis also appended. Grades of B or better are considered evidence of satisfactory performance. An average grade of B or better will normally be expected in graduate level physics and astronomy courses, excluding teaching and research. Some research groups may have additional expectations.

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Affiliation and Research Advisors
Thesis research is the heart of the doctoral program. Students are therefore encouraged to learn about research opportunities within the department, beginning early in the first year of graduate study. At the end of the first semester, the faculty reviews the performance of all beginning students. Those who are making satisfactory progress will receive written notice that they should make a research affiliation during the second semester. Those showing unsatisfactory or marginal classroom records will be so advised, and their eligibility for research affiliation will be considered by the faculty on a case-by-case basis.Once approved to start research, each student is responsible for selecting a suitable research area and making arrangements to join the research group of a faculty member (including Faculty Fellows) within the department. Students may need to be somewhat flexible in their choice because not all faculty can take additional students in any particular year. Students desiring to work with someone who is not a regular faculty member or Faculty Fellow in Physics and Astronomy may do so with the permission of the Graduate Committee. They will be required to submit a brief outline of the proposed work and to obtain the support of a faculty member within the department who will act as departmental advisor. The proposed topic must be appropriate for a degree in physics or astronomy, and the thesis director must be qualified to supervise the project.  All research expenses in the department, including most student stipends, are paid by grants and contracts held by faculty. Thus, a student must make a research affiliation well before May 15 of their first year in order to continue in the program and to receive further support.

The department considers teaching experience an essential part of graduate training. Thus, full-time graduate students should expect to assume some teaching duties (e.g., teaching labs, grading papers,grading exams, etc.) for the department in addition to research. The amount of time required for any individual student for such tasks will normally not exceed an average of five hours per week. Assignments will be made for 4 semesters, beginning with the second semester at Rice. Questions about teaching assignments should be directed to the associate chair. Up to two semesters of required teaching may be waived for students who have had significant experience teaching physics or astronomy elsewhere. Service as a graduate TA would generally qualify for exemption, but work as an undergraduate grader would not. Requests for a waiver should be discussed with one of the chairs of the Graduate Committee soon after arrival at Rice.

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Previous Graduate Work
Certain requirements may be modified for students who have done equivalent graduate work elsewhere. Students should consult with one of the chairs of the Graduate Committee to verify the application of the guidelines described below to their particular case. Graduate-level courses taken elsewhere will be evaluated by means of an interview with an appropriate faculty member. Courses will be waived in areas where the student has sufficient background. 

Advice and Support for Graduate Students
Further details on the program, especially on advising, is given in the Department's Graduate Student Handbook. The hanbook is meant as a resource for P&A graduate students, providing a handy , concise guide to essential information about the graduate degree program, but it is only one source of information. If you cannot find the answers to your departmental programmatic questions here, please do not hesitate to contact the departmental staff (including the graduate program coordinator, Ms. Rosa Almendarez), the Chairs of the Graduate Program Committee (currently Prof. Thomas Killian), the Associate Chair of the department (Prof. Stan Dodds), or the Departmental Ombudsperson (currently Prof. David Alexander). All faculty and staff serve as part of the support network for graduate students, but the ombudsman in particular is a good person to contact for confidential discussion and advice on a wide range of topics.

For current students, faculty are specifically assigned as graduate student advisors to answer academic questions. We are available to guide you through the process. That being said, graduate students are adults, and there is a presumption that students will take responsibility and initiative – these are certainly necessary for a successful doctoral degree! Please ask questions and keep on top of deadlines and requirements. We look forward to working with you.

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