Ph.D. New Exam Method

New Qualifying and Comprehensive Exam Method

The new examination method applies to all Ph.D. students admitted beginning in Fall 2015 and all subsequent semesters. Existing students may also opt-in to the new method, but upon doing so may not revert back to the previous method.

Previous exam questions are available on the Comprehensive Exam Archive page.

Written Qualifying Exam


  • Once each year at the beginning of each fall semester, with the first being in Fall 2016, during the week before classes start.


  • Completed at least 20 hours of graded coursework.
  • Completed 501, 502, 505R, and either 511R or 544 and 600G with no more than one “C” in these courses.
  • Have no more than two “Cs” total in all courses.
  • Not be on academic probation.


  • Uniform, written examination that covers 501, 502, 505R and 511R (students who elect to take 544 will also answer the 511R questions). To view test question formatting, please review our Comprehensive Exam Archive page.

    Student who have taken OPTI 511R or OPTI 570 or OPTI 544 can find the common topics between these classes that may be on the exam in the Comprehensive Exam Archive.


Given in two and a half-hour sessions on two consecutive days.

  • Day one will have four questions, one from each of the four areas.
  • Day two will have four questions, one from each of the four areas.

Grading Methodology

The Ph.D. Qualifying Exam tests students in four core subject areas: Electromagnetic Waves (OPTI 501), Optical Design and Instrumentation (OPTI 502), Diffraction and Interferometry (OPTI 505R), and Optical Physics (OPTI 511R, or OPTI 570 and OPTI 544). Each subject area must be passed in order to pass the exam and proceed to the Ph.D. Comprehensive Exam. 

Full-time Ph.D. students are expected to take the written exam in the week before their second year in the Ph.D. program begins. The exam is administered and graded as follows.

  1. The exam consists of eight questions, two from each subject area, given over two consecutive days (four questions per day).   
  2. Each question on the exam is graded on a 10-point scale, then all graded questions are turned in to the Academic Programs office. 
  3. An average score for all students is then determined, separately for each question on the exam.  If the average score for a question is below 7.5, all of the raw scores for that question are scaled up by the same multiplicative factor such that the average of the scaled scores is 7.5. If the average of the raw scores is above 7.5, the raw scores remain unscaled.
  4. For each of the four subject areas, a student’s scaled scores on the two questions are averaged together to determine a subject score. If the subject score is above 6.5, the student passes the topic. If the subject score is below 6.5, the Graduate Exams Committee evaluates the performance of the student, and determines whether or not the student passes or fails the topic. The committee may take into account factors such as overall group performance in a given subject area, question difficulty, and individual performance on the two separate questions. Thus in some cases, students who score slightly below the passing threshold of 6.5 on a topic may be passed on that topic.
  5. If a student passes all four subject areas, the exam is passed. If two or more subject areas are failed, the student fails the exam and is permitted a single re-test of the exam when it is offered the following year. If a single subject is failed and the three other subjects are passed, the student’s performance is evaluated as “marginal” and the student is given the option of a re-test in the failed subject area. The subject re-test exam is an oral exam that takes place near the beginning of the following (spring) semester. For each of the four subject areas, a committee of three faculty members is assigned to re-test all students who failed that subject area and who choose to take the oral exam re-test. If the student passes the oral exam, the qualifying exam is then fully passed. If the student fails the oral exam, the student fails the qualifying exam and is permitted a single re-test of the qualifying exam when it is next offered.
  6. All students are permitted to receive copies of their graded answers after the results of the exam have been announced.  

Oral Retest of Qualifying Exam (If Necessary)

If a student fails a single area on the written eam they may opt to take an oral retest in that area only:

  • Common committee for each of the four course areas, to retest all students who failed that particular area.
  • This oral examination will occur at the beginning of the spring semester.

Qualifying Exam Appeal Policy

If a student who has failed the exam twice would like to appeal for a third attempt, they must follow the Written Qualifying Exam Petition Process.

In the event a student fails the written qualifying exam, he or she may appeal their failing grade decision for one section. Students must follow the Written Qualifying Exam Grading Appeal Process.

Comprehensive Exams

Comprehensive Exam Eligibility checklist for Ph.D. students

  • Passed Qualifying Exam.
  • Not be on academic probation.
  • Have identified and be working with a faculty member who will be the major professor directing Ph.D. research.
  • Completed the core curriculum with a minimum 3.0 GPA in the core courses (using the modified C rule). Core curriculum includes all eight courses listed under Groups I, II, and III.
  • Filed a Ph.D. Plan of Study.
  • 32 credits of coursework of the Ph.D. Plan of Study completed by the end of the semester in which the comprehensive exam committee form is filed. No more than one grade of C in a core course, and two courses total with a grade of C, count towards completion of the Ph.D. Plan of Study.
  • The Comprehensive Exam should be completed after passing the Written Qualifying Exam and by the end of the third year in the Ph.D. program.

Selecting a Comprehensive Exam Committee

  • The exam committee consists of four faculty members. The committee must include members from at least three of the four Optical Sciences Core Areas (Imaging, Optical Engineering, Optical Physics, and Photonics).
  • At least three of the four committee members must be tenured/tenure-eligible (T/TE) faculty members with a primary appointment in Optical Sciences.
  • The 1st committee member is the faculty member serving as the student’s official Research Adviser, i.e., the faculty member who will serve as the student’s dissertation director.
  • The 2nd member is a faculty member with familiarity with the student’s area of research, and is selected by the student’s Research Adviser. In most cases, this will be someone from the same research core group as the student and research advisor.
  • The final two committee members are selected by the Associate Dean for Academic Programs. The student may suggest specific faculty to serve on the committee. Typically, these two committee members will be selected from two research core areas (chosen by the student) other than the Student Research Core Area.
  • The Comprehensive Exam Committee Request form is filled out by the student. The form is signed by the student’s Research Advisor to certify that the student is suitably prepared, in the advisor’s opinion, to successfully complete the comprehensive exam. 
  • The Comprehensive Exam Committee Request form is also signed by the second committee member (second member in area of expertise) in order to acknowledge agreement to serve on the committee. 
  • The Comprehensive Exam Committee Request form must be submitted to Academic Programs by the end of the third week of the semester in which the exam is to take place.

Written Comprehensive Exam

Once the student has been notified that the Comprehensive Exam Committee has been selected, the student must first complete the written portion of the comprehensive exam. The written portion of the exam must be approved by the committee before the oral portion of the exam is scheduled. The written portion is a report of not more than 10 double-spaced pages (including figures, if any) that both discusses the student’s individual research project or area of research and demonstrates the synergy and synthesis of this research with the broad areas of optics.  Requirements and guidelines regarding the preparation of this document are discussed below.

Each committee member may choose more specific requirements for the report through discussions with the student or with input from the student’s Research Advisor.  Generally, the report is the student’s opportunity to help the committee members understand the ways in which various areas of optics relate to the specific research topic so that questions during the oral portion of the exam can be suitably directed.   

Once the report has been written, and approved by all four committee members, the student schedules an oral exam with the committee members.


Preparation of the Written Comprehensive Exam document.

The written comprehensive exam serves two equally important purposes.  First it examines the student’s ability to present a research topic in a complete and convincing manner for a general optics audience.  The second purpose is to use this research topic as a framework on which to discuss how aspects of the research involve a broad range of optics topics beyond the area of the student’s specialization.  The discussion of synergy and synthesis of various topics in optics will be fully integrated into the entire report. 

The research topic is selected in close consultation with the student’s Research Advisor.  The comprehensive exam is not a PhD dissertation proposal.  The document may involve a description of the student’s intended PhD research topic, but this is not required, as some students will not have their PhD research topic selected at the time that the exam is taken.  The comprehensive exam might be based on a potential research topic.   Alternatively, the exam could be based on a review and analysis of 2 to 4 technically related published papers from the student’s research group or other groups.  

There are two main components of the written document: the technical research overview, and the demonstration of the relationships between the research topic and the breadth of optics.   The oral comprehensive exam will further address these components through the presentation and questions directed to the student during the oral exam.

The demonstration of synergy and synthesis among various topics in optics is a key component of the written and oral comprehensive exam components.  Exactly how this demonstration is accomplished will be different for every student, but the following guidelines can help direct the process:

  • Synergy is demonstrated by showing how the integration of a broad range of optics technologies, concepts, and methods are essential to the presented research topic. The way in which the student brings various areas of optics into the discussion is an integral part of the examination.  Brief explanations of basic optics principles, methods, or lab components may be needed, but they do not take the place of a discussion of how these concepts are relevant to the research. 
  • Textbook descriptions, such as how a basic laser works, are typically not appropriate or necessary.   Statements such as “lenses are used to focus light” or “lasers are used in the experiment,” or lists of various pieces of equipment used in the research, also do not sufficiently demonstrate synergy.   Rather, the discussion might involve which aspects of the lenses or lasers need to be understood to succeed in the research area, and how these items or principles are incorporated into the research.
  • The synergy and synthesis discussion will be incorporated into the overall flow of the document, as opposed to isolated subsections that review or explain topics without connection to the research.   
  • In order to obtain the committee’s approval, the document must provide appropriate discussions of both the research and the synthesis across the relevant areas of optics.  During the preparation of the document, the committee should provide guidance to the student about its structure and content. 
  • Questions during the oral exam will address both the breadth and depth of optics, with particular focus on the relationships to the specific research topic presented.  The written document is the primary opportunity for the student to provide input to the committee on which topics across the broad range of optics would be especially suitable for questions.   
  • Beyond the guidelines given here, there is not a specific template for the report.  The student must think creatively about how to construct a report with primary guidance from the Research Advisor.

The document is to be written as a comprehensive overview for a broad audience of optical scientists and engineers, not for experts in the field of research of the student.  Topics, terms, and equations that are central to the specific research area can be included, but should be explained in terms that would be familiar to any student who has completed the Optical Sciences core courses.  This document should not be written as if it were going to be submitted to a specialized journal; rather, it could be written at the level of a graduate research fellowship or scholarship application. There must be a clear motivation for the research topic discussed, which leads into a presentation of specific research activities and research questions relevant to the student’s intended PhD research area.


Oral Comprehensive Exam

  • To schedule the Oral Comprehensive Exam the student will complete and submit the Oral Comprehensive Exam Scheduling form to the Academic Programs office.
  • Once the exam is scheduled, the student and each committee member should individually meet to discuss the oral examination and the expectations that the committee members have for the student.
  • The student shall prepare a 10- to 15-minute presentation that discusses their research project and/or a topic closely related to their research project or research area. This presentation will reflect the student’s understanding of the core academic principles of the disciplines of optics (as applicable to the student’s research). The format of the presentation (whiteboard, PowerPoint, etc.) will be determined by the student and Research Advisor in consultation with the student’s exam committee.
  • Questions from the committee will be primarily oriented towards determining whether or not the student grasps the basic principles of optics that are needed for successful and efficient engagement in research in the student’s research area.
  • Significant effort will be made in the questioning to relate the research to other aspects of the core curriculum to show synthesis across the field of optics. Questions are not limited to the syllabi of the core courses.
  • The duration of the oral portion of the exam, including the student’s presentation and committee questions, is expected to be between one and two hours, with a maximum of three hours.
  • After completion of the oral examination, the committee will adjudicate the student’s performance in each of the areas of optics discussed, with special attention paid to the depth of understanding in the student’s specialty area. Determination of pass/fail will be made on the totality of the student’s performance on the oral examination and the written report.

Failing the Comprehensive Exam

  • Advisors are expected to work closely with students to ensure that a student who takes the exam is prepared to pass the exam. In the event that a student does not pass the comprehensive exam, the committee will document the reasons for failure and ensure that the student understands why the exam was failed.
  • The committee will work with the student and advisor to determine the appropriate time and/or requirements for re-testing of the oral portion of the exam. Only one re-test is allowed, and that re-test must be completed within six months.
  • The same committee shall administer the re-test.
  • A student who fails to pass the comprehensive examination twice is dismissed from the Ph.D. program.

List of Tenure/Tenure-Eligible Faculty and Core Areas

Image Science

  • Amit Ashok
  • Harrison H. Barrett
  • Russell A. Chipman
  • Lars R. Furenlid
  • Arthur Gmitro
  • Michael Hart
  • DongKyun 'DK' Kang
  • Matthew A. Kupinski
  • Leilei Peng

Optical Engineering

  • Russell A. Chipman
  • Jonathan Ellis
  • John E. Greivenkamp
  • Felipe Guzman
  • Michael Hart
  • Hong Hua
  • Dae Wook Kim
  • Rongguang Liang
  • Tom D. Milster
  • José Sasián
  • Jim Schwiegerling
  • Yuzuru Takashima

Optical Physics

  • Brian P. Anderson
  • Rolf Binder
  • Poul Jessen
  • R. Jason Jones
  • Miroslav Kolesik
  • Ewan M. Wright
  • Masud Mansuripur
  • Jerome V. Moloney
  • Dalziel Wilson


  • Mahmoud Fallahi
  • Linran Fan
  • Saikat Guha
  • Khanh Kieu
  • Masud Mansuripur
  • Euan McLeod
  • Robert A. Norwood
  • Stanley Pau
  • Nasser Peyghambarian
  • Tsu-Te Judith Su

Advancing to Ph.D. Candidacy


  • 32 credit hours of coursework completed.
  • Good academic standing with The University of Arizona.
  • Successful completion of the two parts of the Comprehensive Examination.
  • Completion of a minimum of two years in the College graduate program.


  • Upon advancing to candidacy for a Ph.D. in Optical Sciences, a student is eligible for the rank of Graduate Research Associate
  • Student has the option of receiving the M.S. degree in Optical Sciences by completing a one-page form

Dissertation Proposal

  • The student and advisor are together encouraged to identify the dissertation committee as soon as possible after advancing to candidacy.
  • Approval of research direction will be left to the discretion of individual dissertation committees.
  • After the student has identified a dissertation topic of appropriate nature and scope which has been approved by their Research Advisor, the student must complete the Dissertation Proposal form  and submit to Academic Programs.

Oral Doctoral Defense Exam

The committee appointment form must be submitted to the Graduate Degree Certification Office before scheduling the final oral doctoral defense examination. It should be submitted as soon as the student completes the written and oral comprehensive exam.

The oral doctoral defense examination is commonly referred to as a defense of the dissertation, although general questioning related to the field of optical sciences may naturally develop during the course of the exam. It is administered by the student’s dissertation committee. The dissertation committee is comprised of at least three tenured or tenure-track faculty. If appropriate to the student’s dissertation research, one non-tenured or -tenure-track faculty may be approved by the Degree Certification Office. The exam time and place must be scheduled about two weeks in advance. It is open to the public.

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