Taking the comps

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For old Comprehensive Exams and solutions, check out the PGSA Github past comps page.

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 when you are studying you study for the current. In their current form, there are four exams, each one corresponding to a core subject: Classical Mechanics, Classical Electrodynamics, Quantum Mechanics, and Statistical Mechanics. Each exam is administered on a different day, all within the same week and each exam lasts for four hours, from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM on the given date. The qualifying exams can be taken for three different purposes.

Purposes of the comprehensive exam

Master's qualifying exam

Passing all four tests is 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 the points 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 the master's 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 level, 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 to take 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.)
  • 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.

Which exams to take

Note that if you take the comps you don't have to take all of the exams; it may be better to pick one or two that you're more comfortable with to and focus studying on them

Signing up for the comps

You can sign up for one or more of the comprehensive exams here.

Preparing for the comps

Materials compiled by students to prepare for the exams are available on two websites. The SBU comps blog contains several study guides. The PGSA GitHub includes questions and solutions from past comps.

In addition you will be able to take to each exam one sheet (front and back) of handwritten notes. You are also allowed, with proctor's approval, to bring a foreign language dictionary.

Official Department Information

The department hosts a website with information regarding the comps, including a compendium of very useful, solved, old comprehensive exams (the relevant ones start in January of 2014 and run until now) as well as a list of relevant topics that should be studied. There are also rules for test taking as well as steps that can be taken to accommodate learning or test-taking peculiarities that you may have - do not allow for any special need that you may have when taking the test to get in the way of your success, the department is required to facilitate and accommodate any needs that you may have.

Time (Spring 2020)

The Spring 2020 comprehensive examination will be held the week before the start of the Spring 2020 semester, at locations specified below. The exam will be in four separate parts, with the following schedule:

Classical Mechanics Tuesday, 1/21 9:00am - 1:00pm Math Building S-240
Electrodynamics Wednesday, 1/22 9:00am - 1:00pm Math Building S-240
Quantum Mechanics Thursday, 1/23 9:00am - 1:00pm Math Building S-240
Statistical Mechanics Friday, 1/24 9:00am - 1:00pm Math Building S-240

Official Department Statement (As of Winter 2019)

Completing the comprehensive exam requirements for the PhD:

Students must pass at least three subject exams at the PhD level, and one subject exam at the Masters level in order to completely finish the comprehensive exam requirements for the PhD. If you are uncertain about which exam you still need to take, please contact Derek Teaney to find out before the exam. We had a number of students take the wrong exam!

Formula sheet:

For each subject (i.e. each day), you may bring a one page (A4 or US Letter) hand written sheet of formulas, front and back. Any additional sheets of will be confiscated. Also, formula sheets which are not hand written will be confiscated.


If you are ill on the day of the examination, do not take the examination, but get medical certification of your illness and present it as soon as possible to the exam committee. NO MEDICAL EXCUSE WILL BE ACCEPTED AFTER AN EXAM HAS BEEN TAKEN!!!

Format of the exam:

There will be three problems in each of the four core subject areas listed above. An effort will be made to test each area separately; however, a strict separation between areas need not be maintained, and material from the other core courses may be mixed in as appropriate.

The problems reflect the material taught in, and the level of, the graduate core courses. A list of exam topics is given on the graduate web page (see below).

Samples of similar problems from the prior exams are available on the department web page; follow link to Grad, then Exams. Typical Stony Brook core course material can be found, for example, in Prof. K. Likharev’s Essential Graduate Physics series, available here

Passing the exam at the PhD and placement levels:

Students taking this exam as the qualifying exam will have to pass two of the three problems in each subject at a level set by the faculty. All students have to pass the qualifying exam. Students taking this exam as a placement exam will have to do all three problems in a given area with a passing grade that is substantially higher than required for the qualifying exam. Students who pass the placement exam have fulfilled the core course requirement for the corresponding subject. Both for the qualifying exam and the placement exam, student do not have to take and pass all areas at the same time but may pass each area separately.

Academic Dishonesty

Academic dishonesty will not be tolerated. In the context of written examinations “academic dishonesty” includes (i) the use of notes, books or other material (except when explicit permission has been given by the responsible faculty member) and (ii) the exchange of information between students during an examination. Giving information is as serious an offense as receiving information.

The penalties for academic dishonesty in written examinations are severe. Any such action will result in automatic failure on the examination in question. More serious penalties will be sought as appropriate. These can include suspension or dismissal from the University.

Given the importance of the Comprehensive Examination, incidents of academic dishonesty connected with this examination will be viewed with the utmost severity. In such cases, the Department will consider the most serious penalties (i.e. suspension or dismissal).