Taking the comps

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The Stony Brook Department of Physics and Astronomy prides itself in its long-standing tradition of offering and demanding four PhD qualifying (comprehensive or placement) exams. These exams have changed quite a lot in the last few decades, and have changed in major ways twice in the last 5 years, so please make sure that if or when you are studying you study in the correct way. The qualifying exams can be taken for three different purposes:

  • Masters qualifying exam - Passing all four tests required for graduating with a no-thesis option masters degree. You are required to answer two out of three questions on all four of the tests at a level of less than half score for both (the level of passing any level of the comprehensive exams is determined by the faculty every time, so no exact standard is in place).
  • PhD qualifying exam - Passing three of the four tests at this level plus the last one at masters level is required before you are eligible for PhD candidacy (typically this is required after the second year of classes). This is like the master's pass, but with a higher standard for both questions, with an approximately 51+% score as passing (determined by the faculty each time).
  • Course placement exam - If you want to get out of the requirement of taking any of the four core courses then you either need to prove that you took an equivalent course at a prior school or you need to pass the corresponding test at the placement level. To pass at the placement level you have to answer all three questions at an even higher level than the PhD qualifying exam level.

Should I take the comps in the Fall when I start?


  • If you can't convince the placement committee to place you out but you think you know the material well, you might be able to place out of one of the core courses by taking the comps. (Note however that the exams are much harder to pass at the Placement level than the PhD level, as you have to get 75% on all of the three questions rather than 50% on just two of them.)
  • It's nice to have some of the exams out of the way when you want to be focusing on classes or research, so you think you have a chance at passing it may be worthwhile to try


  • Studying for the comps can take a lot of time you might want to use for getting used to Stony Brook, meeting people, etc.
  • The exams are fairly long and kind of awkwardly timed, which might also interfere with getting adjusted to graduate life.

Signing up for the comps

Preparing for the comps

Main article: Comprehensive Exams