From database dated 2015-01-16 10:59:15 last edited by Sara Cormier. McMaster University Physics & Astronomy




McMaster University

July 2012





Program and General Degree Requirements    
  Definition of Terms  
  M.Sc. Regulations
Thesis Option
Transfer Option
Project Option
  Ph.D. Regulations
Degree Requirements
Comprehensive Exam
Thesis Defence
  Colloquia & Seminars  
Specific Degree Requirements    
  M.Sc.:Physics & Astronomy Thesis & Transfer Option
Project Option
  Ph.D.: Physics & Astronomy  
Appendix A: Ph.D. Comprehensive Examination


All graduate students are advised to familiarize themselves with the regulations of the School of Graduate Studies as set out in the first six chapters of the Graduate Calendar. In addition to these regulations, Physics and Astronomy graduate students should become familiar with the regulations adopted by the Physics and Astronomy Department. These are described in the following pages.


The Department of Physics and Astronomy (henceforth, the Department) and the Medical Physics and Radiation Sciences Unit (henceforth, the Unit) within the Department, offer three separate degree programs with some shared administrative responsibilities. Within each program students may register for a number of degrees. These are:


Physics and Astronomy program: M. Sc. with thesis
  M. Sc. with project
  Ph. D.


This section (I), contains regulations which are common to these programs, and the following section (II) contains regulations and details specific to individual programs and degrees. Where those sections are contradictory, section II takes procedure

I A. Definitions of Terms

1. Graduate Course Designations

The McMaster terminology regarding graduate courses is described in the following excerpts from the School of Graduate Studies Calendar:

"Courses available for graduate credit are numbered either at the 700 or 600 level (e.g. Phys 750 or Phys 6F03). Courses are restricted in enrollment to graduate students; a course at the 600 level may also be available as a 400-level course to senior undergraduates.... Graduate students taking 600 level courses are regularly required to do extra course work beyond that required of undergraduates in the corresponding 400-level course."

"... courses will be identified as being in one of three categories."

PGC (Prescribed Graduate Course) refers to those courses that are requirements of the current program (including any additional requirements specified by the supervisory committee or Department Chair), or are in excess of the degree requirements and, under some circumstances, may be counted for credit towards a subsequent degree. The passing grades for a PGC are A+, A, A-, B+, B, and B-.

PUC (Prescribed Undergraduate Course) identifies undergraduate material that is an essential part of the student's work. The lowest passing grade in such a course is B-.

EC (Extra Course) identifies courses that the student is taking with the approval of the supervisor but that are not necessary to the program. If a failing grade ... is received in a course taken as Extra, the course (and grade) will not appear on the student's transcript unless because of academic dishonesty."

"Students who have been awarded a failing grade are not granted supplementary examination privileges. All instances of failures are reviewed by the appropriate Faculty Committee on Graduate Admissions and Study. The Committee requests a departmental recommendation regarding the student, and this recommendation is given considerable weight. In the absence of a departmental recommendation to allow the student to continue, the student will be required to withdraw. Those allowed to remain in the program must either repeat or replace the failed course. A failing grade in a PGC or PUC remains on the transcript."

If the work in a course is not complete at the end of the examination period the mark is recorded as either a failure or as "incomplete". Please refer to the Graduate Calendar for the rules regarding incompletes.

In what follows, the term "half-course" means a 700 level course for one term or a 600 level course of 3 units. Currently, the Department offers only half-courses in graduate studies.

2. Supervisory Committees

Every student must have a functioning supervisory committee that determines the appropriateness of the proposed research and course work, monitors the student's progress and approves the thesis for submission. The supervisory committee may prescribe further courses or other work above the minimum degree requirements, and may initiate appropriate action if the student's progress is unsatisfactory. Supervisory committees are appointed by the Department on the recommendation of the student's research supervisor, who will consult with the student.

For a Ph.D. student, the supervisory committee consists of the student's supervisor and at least two other faculty members. Two members, including the supervisor, a member or Associate member of the Department/Unit. At least one member must be from outside the Department/Unit. For this reason an Associate member is allowable. One committee member from another institution is acceptable, but a memo to the School of Graduate Studies regarding their qualifications must be submitted for approval. The supervisory committee of a Ph.D. student must meet at least once a year, by August 31.

For an M.Sc. student, the committee consists of the student's supervisor and two other faculty members, at least one of whom must be from within the Department/Unit. At any time during the first 12 months, a supervisory committee will be appointed. The supervisory committee must meet by the end of the 4th term of studies.

The supervisory committee should meet four months prior to the time limit for financial support in either the M.Sc. or Ph.D. programs in order to review the student's progress and assess the work remaining to be done. After the deadline for financial support for Ph.D. students has passed, the supervisory committee must meet every four months to review the student's progress.

It is the joint responsibility of the student and the supervisor to see that regular supervisory committee meetings are held. It is the student's responsibility to file a progress report of about two pages in length with the committee at least one week prior to any committee meeting. The purposes of the report are to familiarize the supervisory committee with the student's progress in research, and to provide a useful exercise in self-assessment. It is the supervisor's responsibility to submit a written report of each supervisory committee meeting promptly to the Department office.

Graduate students are responsible for reporting cases of inadequate supervision to the Associate Chair or Program Co-ordinator in a timely fashion.

I B. M. Sc. Degree

1. M.Sc. with thesis

All students are required to complete at least four half-courses registered as PGC, no more than 2 of which may be 600-level courses. A student should make course choices in consultation with her or his supervisor, supervisory committee, or program co-ordinator and with reference to the core course requirements listed in Section II. The student should complete and defend an M.Sc. thesis reporting the results of his or her research within 24 months from entry into the M.Sc. program. It is the policy of the Department and of the University that no student in the M.Sc. thesis program will receive financial support beyond 6 terms from Departmental and University funds.

The M.Sc. thesis will be examined by a committee of not fewer than three people - usually the student's supervisory committee including his or her supervisor. The candidate will defend the thesis at an oral examination normally held about two weeks after the completed thesis has been submitted to the Department.

2. Transfer option

This route enables a student to enter the Ph.D. program without first completing the M.Sc. degree. During the first 16 months in the M.Sc. program, the student is required to complete at least four half-courses registered as PGC, no more than 2 of which may be 600-level courses. At any time during the first 12 months, a supervisory committee will be appointed. Provided the student has obtained at least an A- average in the prescribed graduate courses, he or she can be considered for transfer to the Ph.D. program without submitting an M.Sc. thesis. (Failure to obtain an A- average would compel the student to go into one of the other options.)

The decision concerning transfer to the Ph.D. program will be made by a Transfer Committee consisting of two members of the student's supervisory committee plus two members of the Physics and Astronomy Department's Graduate Admissions Committee. The transfer review must be held between 9 and 20 months after the student's entry into the M.Sc. program. It entails the student's submitting a brief report (typically ten typed pages) describing his or her research to date and outlining future research plans. After receiving this, the Transfer Committee will hold an oral exam to assess the student's progress in research. If this committee considers the student's research to be at a sufficiently high standard for entry to the Ph.D. program, the student will be permitted to transfer to the Ph.D. program right away. If not, the student will be required to complete an M.Sc. degree. Transfers to the Ph.D. program will take effect at the beginning of the next term.

If a student is permitted to transfer to the Ph.D. program by this route, the research performed to date may become part of the student's eventual Ph.D. thesis. However, the student need not continue working on the same research project nor even with the same supervisor after transferring to the Ph.D. program. This transfer option requires students to complete a minimum of six half-courses to obtain a Ph.D. The course requirement is therefore identical to that for those who first complete the M.Sc.

3. M.Sc. with project

This option places greater emphasis on course work and less on research. The student is required to complete six half-courses during the first 8 months of the M.Sc. program, no more than 2 of which may be 600-level courses. Course selection should made with reference to the core course requirements listed in Section II. Research for the project (on- or off-campus) will normally begin at the end of 8 months. The project may report the results of original research or may be a review of work relating to some topic. Students are encouraged to complete and defend the project within 12 months of entry into the M.Sc. program. In no case should it take longer than 16 months from the time of entry. There is no guarantee of financial support for an on-campus project for longer than 12 months following first registration. Off-campus M.Sc. project students do not receive a Departmental Research Fellowship.

I C. Ph.D. Degree

1. Admission of M.Sc. Students to the Doctoral Program

Students completing an M.Sc. may apply to the Graduate Admissions Committee for admission to the Ph.D. program. Applications may be made by April of the student's second M.Sc. year, or after the M.Sc. is complete. The application consists of an "Application to Ph.D. Program for M.Sc. Students" to be submitted by the student, as well as "Confidential Report on Applicant" forms completed by two faculty members most familiar with the student's work. The Committee will review the application on the basis of the following criteria:

1. the potential to carry out independent research at the doctoral level; and

2. at least a B+ (8.5) average in the prescribed graduate courses that have been taken.

3. the student must find, or already have, a supervisor who is willing to supervise the student at the Ph.D. level before she/he may continue on to a Ph.D.

2. Degree Requirements

Once admitted to the Ph.D. program, the student has only one route to follow to the Ph.D. degree. The minimum course-work requirement is completion of at least two half-courses registered as PGC at the 700 level beyond the courses required for the M.Sc. degree, for a total of six half-courses beyond the B.Sc. Additional courses may be prescribed, however, by the Department or by the student's supervisory committee. In fact, it is the expectation of the Department that the actual course requirements for a particular student will normally exceed the minimum. Course selection should be made with regard to the core course requirements discussed in Section II. Students must also pass a Comprehensive Examination and successfully defend their Ph.D. thesis.

It is the policy of the Department and of the University that no student in the Ph.D. program will receive financial support from Departmental and University funds beyond 12 terms from the Ph.D. registration at McMaster as a full-time graduate student.

3. Ph.D. Comprehensive Examination

Candidates for the Ph.D. degree are required to take a Comprehensive Examination during their second year in the Ph.D. program. The form and procedures for the Comprehensive Examination are different for the Physics and Astronomy and the Medical Physics programs, and are described in appendices A and B respectively. The student's grade, reported to the School of Graduate Studies, is one of Pass with Distinction, Pass or Fail.

The Comprehensive Exam is held according to a schedule drawn up by the examining committee. It must be attempted no later than 24 months after a student has been admitted to the Ph.D. program. A student who enters the Ph.D. program in January may defer his/her participation in the Comprehensive Examination until after completion of six consecutive full terms (24 months) of study. This option is strongly recommended for students entering the program in January. Postponements are permitted only if there is a valid reason which is acceptable to the School of Graduate Studies. If a passing grade is not obtained, a second attempt may be permitted during the following year on the recommendation of the supervisory committee and with the approval of the Department.

4. Ph.D. Thesis and Defence

The requirements are described in the School of Graduate Studies Calendar.

I D. Colloquia and Seminars

All physics and astronomy graduate students are required to attend the Department's weekly physics and astronomy colloquia. In addition, they are expected to attend seminars in their field of specialization. Symposium Days are held each year in early September at which graduate students give talks lasting approximately twenty minutes about their area of research. Each graduate student is required to give one such talk while enrolled in graduate study. It should be at a level that is understandable to students (and faculty!) in other research areas of the Department. All students should attend the entire symposium in order to ensure its success.


II A. Physics and Astronomy M.Sc. with thesis and Transfer option

The four half-courses may be chosen from any offered by the Department, or from relevant courses offered by other departments with the agreement of the supervisor and Associate Chair. However, it is usual for students to fulfil or partially fulfil the core course requirements for the Physics and Astronomy Ph.D with courses taken during the M.Sc.

II B. Physics and Astronomy M.Sc. with project

The six half-courses may be chosen from any offered by the Department, or from relevant courses offered by other departments with the agreement of the supervisor and Associate Chair. There is no supervisory committee, rather students are encouraged to consult with their supervisor and the Associate Chair. The completed project is submitted to the supervisor, who evaluates it as acceptable or unacceptable - there is no formal defence.

II C. Physics and Astronomy Ph.D.

1. Required courses

Physics and Astronomy Ph.D. students must pass a set of core courses at some point during their graduate studies. Normally these will have been taken while enrolled in the M.Sc. program. This core consists of two half courses chosen from:


Physics *739 Advanced Quantum Mechanics I
Physics *740 Advanced Quantum Mechanics II
Physics *746 Advanced Electrodynamics
Physics *750 Statistical Mechanics


A student who enters our Ph.D. program from another university may be given credit for having passed equivalent core courses at the previous university. This would usually be established by the Graduate Admissions Committee at the time of making an offer to the student. If a student is given advanced credit for course work, it will normally advance the student's term count.

2. Comprehensive Examination

See Appendix A.



Appendix A




(first adopted December, 1998)

A. Guiding Principles

1. The purpose of the comprehensive examination is to ensure that Ph. D. candidates have a breadth of knowledge of physics, that they have the specific expertise necessary to complete their thesis, and that they can use this knowledge to discuss, analyse and solve problems.

2. A breadth of knowledge is an essential attribute for a physicist, since progress in many problems is made by reference to findings in seemingly unrelated fields of study. Most graduates will not end up working within the area of expertise developed in their thesis, and will need to draw upon this breadth to address new situations effectively. For the comprehensive exam, the expected level of knowledge outside of the area of specialization is that of undergraduate courses. The expected breadth of knowledge in open questioning is restricted to the central subjects of physics, such as electromagnetic theory, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, mechanics, and quantum mechanics. In addition, simple factual knowledge in all areas of physics, and a familiarity with topical subjects in the physics community is expected.

3. A Ph.D. thesis deals with a specific problem to great depth in understanding, and requires specialized knowledge. The supervisory committee works to ensure that the student obtains and applies this knowledge. In order to encourage students to view the supervisory committee as a helpful resource to which difficulties can be taken for discussion, it is desirable to use the comprehensive examination as a second mechanism to identify cases where completion of the thesis is in jeopardy due to lack of background preparation. For open questioning in the comprehensive exam, the expected level of knowledge inside the area of specialization is that of the core graduate courses, the introductory specialist graduate courses, and topics central to the thesis.

4. Many new ideas, applications and collaborations are developed through oral, rather than written, interactions. A working physicist should be able to analyse and develop solutions to problems in oral discussion with other physicists. They should have good grasp of underlying principles and concepts, know how to apply them to specific cases, and be able to communicate their findings effectively. They should be able to contribute to a discussion using reasonable arguments. They should have a well-developed physical intuition as to how things work, and why. In short, they should "think like a physicist". These skills are evaluated in the comprehensive exam both within and outside of the area of expertise, using questions or assignments that stress qualitative reasoning, estimation, the integration of knowledge from different areas, and the explanation of phenomena. The specific knowledge required is often elementary (at the level of the first or second year undergraduate courses).

5. Students benefit by forming study groups, where they gain experience in preparation and presentation skills, in explaining topics and responding to spontaneous questioning, and where they have access to the group's collective knowledge. Intensive preparation for the comprehensive exam should not normally occupy students more than two months. Mechanisms must be in place that explicitly demonstrate both the level of preparedness required, and the essential fairness of the exam. These include: providing a selection of questions/problems posed during the exam in previous years, which is updated annually; having the examining committee meet before the exam to agree on common questions; inviting the student's thesis supervisor to attend the examination, and to comment on the exam; and having common factors (such as committee members or questions) in all exams of a given year.

B. Procedures

1. The comprehensive examination is an oral examination which lasts approximately two hours, and will normally take place within 24 months after a student first registers in the Ph. D. program. The examinations for all the candidates in a given academic year will occur within a week or two, at the end of February or beginning of March.

2. The examining committee will consist of three faculty members, with one designated as chair. Usually, one member will have expertise in the students specific area of research, one member will have expertise in the students general area of research, and the remaining two members will represent other areas of physics. The chair may replace members of the committee with other members of the department for individual examinations, in order to ensure a proper examination within the area of expertise of the candidate. However the intent is to have as many members of the committee as possible common to all the examinations in a given year, to assure uniformity of grading. The student's supervisor will be invited to attend as a silent observer, and will be asked to comment on the appropriateness of the examination.

3. The examining committee will meet before the week of the examinations, and decide upon a group of core questions which will form the basis of the evaluation of the candidates' breadth of knowledge, and include questions designed to evaluate oral discussion skills.

4. The student will give a fifteen minute presentation about his/her research at the beginning of the examination. Written material and overhead transparencies are allowed. The presentation should explain the context and motivation of his/her intended thesis topic, plus progress he/she has made. It sets a context for the examination, especially for those examiners outside the candidate's research area, and illustrates the ability to organize and deliver a formal talk.

5. After the presentation, the examiners will take turns asking a series of questions. The presentation will not necessarily be the focus of the subsequent questioning. Rather, the examiners in the student's subject area may decide to test specialized or general background knowledge they consider necessary for the intended research. The examination outside the area of specialization will draw upon, but not be restricted to, those prepared by the committee. Roughly one half of the examination will deal with material within the student's sub-discipline, and one half will concern more general topics.

6. It is understood that the student may not communicate in any form with others about the contents of his/her exam, or any other current candidate's exam, until all the exams are complete.

7. Following each examination, the examining committee will discuss and evaluate the performance of the candidate. As soon as possible following the last examination, the committee will present its recommendations to the department at a faculty meeting. The possible recommendations are: Pass with Distinction, Pass, and Fail. At this time the performance of all the candidates will be discussed and a final decision regarding student standings will be taken by the department as a whole. The academic record and research progress of candidates who receive a failing grade will undergo a wider examination, in order to decide whether they will be allowed to repeat the exam the following year, or be asked to withdraw from the program. Students will be notified in writing of their grade immediately following this meeting. This information will be the student's to disseminate as he/she sees fit; no information regarding the grades, or distribution of grades, will be released by the department.