The University of Michigan is on a semester system: Fall, Winter, Spring/Summer. Physics PhD students enroll in the Fall and Winter terms only; they are expected to spend the Spring/Summer term pursuing research/internship opportunities.
Once admitted to the program, students work with the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies and a faculty mentor to develop a course plan to meet their educational and research needs. Most students will complete a series of courses in Electricity and Magnetism, Quantum Mechanics, and Statistical Mechanics. Additional specialty courses, dependent on the student's chosen area of physics, will also be taken.
In addition to these courses, during the first year in the program, students are expected to complete the following courses:
- PHYSICS 501: First-Year Mini Colloquium
- UC 415: Methods in Research for the Natural Sciences
- PHYSICS 993: Graduate Student Instructor Training Program
Most students complete their coursework after their second year in the program and advance to candidacy. Once advancing to candidacy, students have the option to enroll in one course a term, but otherwise enroll in an independent research course as they work on their dissertation.
All students begin the PhD program as precandidates. Students spend, on average, two years as a precandidate. During this time, they enroll and complete their foundational coursework and also complete three milestones: the Qualifying Exam, the Preliminary Exam, and Advancement to Candidacy.
- Qualifying Exam - Used as an assessment tool by the department to make sure a student is prepared for graduate level courses and able to demonstrate familiarity with undergraduate physics material; taken in the student's first year within the program.
- Preliminary Exam - A written prospectus on the research the student is doing. An oral presentation of the prospectus before a committee is required to complete this milestone and advance to candidacy.
- Advancing to Candidacy - Endorsed by the Department and Rackham Graduate School once a student has completed a total of 30 credits at the graduate level with a GPA of 3.0 or better; passed the Qualifying Exam; passed PHYSICS 501 and UC 415; completed 3 credits of Cognate courses; and passed the Preliminary Exam.
Once becoming a candidate, the only remaining milestone for a student is the thesis defense. Students spend, on average, three to four years conducting research that will ultimately lead to a dissertation. Candidates meet annually with their thesis advisor to discuss their progress, develop goals, and to decide when they are ready to hold their defense. Information on forming a thesis committee and defense timelines is available through Rackham.
MS Degree Availability
Master of Science (M.S.)
The department does not have a stand alone Master of Science program; students can only be admitted to a PhD program. However, students admitted to the PhD program usually fulfill the requirements of an MS degree some time in their second year. An embedded MS in Physics can, therefore, be requested by a Physics PhD student upon advancement to candidacy.
Students admitted to the Physics PhD program are offered a guaranteed funding package. This funding package typically promises five years of funding in the Fall and Winter terms, with summer funding possible if working in a research group or teaching. Students are most commonly funded through a combination of fellowships, Graduate Student Instructor assignments, or Graduate Student Research Assistant appointments. This funding will cover tuition costs and provide a monthly living stipend to the student. It is not uncommon for our students to either come in with their own funding from an outside source (i.e. National Science Foundation) or be awarded additional funding while in the program. All Physics PhD students, regardless of their funding status, are guaranteed medical and dental benefits for them and their qualified dependents from the time they matriculate until they defend.
The most important factor for the successful transformation of a promising student into a capable researcher is the identification of research advisor. This is a delicate match between interests, skills, and personalities.
Prospective graduate students are strongly encouraged to explore the department webpages devoted to research. Michigan has many excellent research groups. It is one of the largest of all U.S. Universities when measured by the size of the federal grants we receive. The Physics program embraces interdisciplinary studies that apply physics methods in related areas. Not only does much physics research involve our own faculty members, each pursuing distinct goals and research styles; physics research is also led by faculty members in other departments.
At Michigan, a central aspect of matching students to research groups is the weekly graduate mini-colloquium. Each mini-colloquium features a faculty member from the department or a related area presenting the research in their research group. These presentations are specifically aimed at incoming graduate students, with the dual goal of attracting students to a specific group and educating students broadly about physics research.
Although some incoming graduate students engage in research in the summer before their formal start in the program, students generally select a research group during the winter term of the first year. The commitment made at this time is preliminary and pertains only to the first summer (mid-April to September). This presents a significant opportunity for graduate students to engage in serious research.After the first summer, students may continue with their preliminary research advisor or they may move on to another research group to find a better match of research focus and/or research style. In some circumstances, this process may continue through one or more additional iterations.