Students who enter the graduate program have to complete the following milestones before they become eligible for the PhD degree:

  1. Assessment Exams (to assess the preparation for graduate coursework)
  2. Coursework (usually in the first two years).
  3. English Examination Requirements (for non-English speaking students in the first two years).
  4. Preliminary Exam (any time before the end of the sixth semester).
  5. Responsible Conduct in Research (RCR) training (any time, total of 12 credits).
  6. PhD Defense (final milestone).

In addition, each student beyond the first year is required to submit an annual report before March 31 and present at least one research talk each year.

The exact curriculum followed by a graduate student depends on the year that the student entered duke. Curriculum for students who entered before 2010 was adopted in 2004 and is called Curriculum 2004. Curriculum for students who entered after 2010 was adopted in 2010 and is called Curriculum 2010.

Assessment Exams

Since students who are admitted come with a variety of backgrounds, during the orientation week the incoming students take a series of four exams in intermediate mechanics, electricity and magnetism, thermal physics and quantum mechanics. These exams are only used to assess the preparation of students to take graduate coursework and should not be confused with qualifying examinations that many schools may have. The exams cover the basic concepts of undergraduate physics at the level of Duke undergraduate course work. Students performing poorly may be required to take undergraduate classes at Duke to better prepare them. Further details about the exam can be found here.


Each graduate student usually completes the following seven core graduate level courses within the first three semesters:

The main objective of the core courses is to ensure that students understand fundamental concepts in classical mechanics, electridynamics, quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics.

In addition to the core courses students are required to take 6 credits of electives. These can be chosen from any combination of of regular courses (3 credits) or mini courses (1 credit) offered by the department at various times.

Placeout Exams

Students who have already mastered the material in one or more of the core graduate courses may place out of the course by taking a place-out examination. In order to do so, the student should contact the DGS and the core course instructor offering the course and request for such an examination well before the course is offered. The details are then worked out on a case by case basis. It is important to note that to pass a place-out examination the student needs to show mastery of the course material at least at the 75th percentile level.

Preliminary Exam

The purpose of the Preliminary Exam is to verify that the student is ready to pursue full-time research towards a PhD degree. In this exam the student is expected to demonstrate a broad understanding of core physics concepts, familiarity with the current research in the subfield chosen for the PhD and proficiency in mathematical, computational and other techniques necessary to pursue research in the field. A student is not formally accepted as a candidate for the PhD degree until the preliminary examination has been passed. Further details about can be found here.

PhD Defence

In order to receive a PhD degree the student must complete an orgininal written dissertation which he/she must defend in front of a committee and pass an oral examination. Please visit the graduate school web page for more information as to what the PhD defense involves. Further details about what the student needs to do before the PhD exam is given here.