Ph.D. New Exam Method

New Qualifying and Comprehensive Exam Method

This examination method applies to all Ph.D. students who have not completed an Optical Sciences Ph.D. comprehensive exam.

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

Written Qualifying Exam


  • The written Qualifying Exam is administered once per year at the beginning of each fall semester, immediately before classes start.   If classes start on a Monday, the Qualifying Exam will be administered on the Monday and Tuesday of the week prior to the start of classes.  Students taking the exam must be present in person on the days that the exam is administered, without exception.  

Timing and Eligibility

  • Every PhD student must take the Qualifying Exam by the start of their second academic year of the PhD program except in unusual circumstances approved by the Associate Dean for Graduate Academic Affairs.  Students who are not enrolled full-time must consult the Graduate Academic Advisor regarding when the exam must be taken.
  • Every student who transfers from the Optical Sciences MS to PhD program must take the Qualifying Exam by the start of their second academic year of the PhD program.  However, if they have completed the necessary PhD core courses, they will be permitted to take the exam at the beginning of their first academic year in the PhD program if they choose to (this is optional, not required).  
  • A student who does not take the Qualifying Exam as required, and who does not have permission from the Associate Dean to postpone the exam prior to the administration of the exam, will be considered to have failed the Qualifying Exam.
  • A student who fails the Qualifying Exam on the first attempt must re-take the Qualifying Exam when it is next offered. 
  • A student who fails the Qualifying Exam twice is dismissed from the PhD program, unless a petition to take the exam a third time is approved.


  • The Qualifying Exam is a uniform, written examination that covers Optics courses 501, 502, 505R and 511R (students who elect to take 570, 544, and 600G instead 511R will also answer the 511R questions; the common topics between these classes that may be on the exam can be found here). To view test question formatting, please review our Qualifying and Comprehensive Exam Archive page.


  • Given in 150-minute sessions on each of 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 plus OPTI 544 plus OPTI 600G). 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 shall take the written Qualifying Exam immediately before their second year in the Ph.D. program begins. The exam is administered and graded as follows.

The exam consists of eight questions, two from each subject area, given over two consecutive days (four questions per day).  

Each question on the exam is graded on a 10-point scale, then all graded questions are turned in to the Academic Programs office.

An average score for all students is then determined, separately for each of the 8 questions on the exam.  If the average score for a given 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.

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, whereas other students who score slightly below 6.5 on a topic might fail that topic

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; if the exam is failed for the first time, the student is permitted a 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 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.

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 Qualifying Exam they shall have the option of taking an oral retest in that area.

A three-member faculty committee for each of the four course areas shall be assembled to retest the 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, they 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.
  • 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.
  • The University requires that a student file a Ph.D. Plan of Study prior to taking the Comprehensive Exam.

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 Advisor, i.e., the faculty member who will serve as the student’s dissertation director.   Advisors are expected to work closely with students to ensure that a student who takes the exam is prepared to pass the exam.

The 2nd member is a faculty member with familiarity with the student’s area of research, and is selected by the student’s Research Advisor. 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 Graduate Academic Affairs. The student is encouraged to suggest specific faculty to serve on the committee, but is not allowed to directly choose those committee members. Typically, these final two committee members will be selected from two research core areas (chosen by the student) other than the Student Research Core Area.  In all cases, the four-member committee must have representation from three of the four core areas.  

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 last semester in which the exam must take place.  For example, if the student has a deadline to complete the Comprehensive exam in Fall 2022, the Comprehensive Exam Committee Request form must be filed by the end of the third week of the Fall 2022 semester, although it may be submitted prior to that semester without affecting the exam deadline for that student.

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.  The student must discuss a proposed outline for their exam topic with the exam committee prior to writing the document; it is not appropriate for the student to write the document before discussing the proposed outline with each committee member.    

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.


See the examples below for previous comprehensive exam reports.

"Atmospheric Waves Experiment" Comprehensive Exam Example

"VECSELSs: A flexible laser platform with a high degree of customization" Comprehensive Exam Example

"Surface Metrology for Thermoformed Radio Antenna Panels" Comprehensive Exam Example

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 15- to 25-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.  Questioning will 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, will last up to two 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.

Comprehensive Exam Timing

  • The written and oral portions of the Comprehensive Exam must both be taken before the end of the academic year that follows the academic year in which the Qualifying Exam is passed.  
  • For example, most PhD students will take the Qualifying Exam in the week before the start of their second academic year in the PhD program.  If the Qualifying Exam is passed outright at that time (or in the following Spring semester after completion of a single-topic oral exam), the student must take the Comprehensive Exam by the end of the Spring semester of the following academic year (i.e., the sixth semester of the PhD program).
  • A student shall have a maximum of two attempts at completing and passing the Comprehensive Exam. 
  • If both portions of the Comprehensive Exam are not taken within the required time frame, the student will have failed the Comprehensive Exam.
  • If the oral Comprehensive Exam is failed for the first time, the committee will document the reasons for failure and ensure that the student understands why the exam was failed.  The student must complete the second attempt at the Comprehensive Exam by the end of the next academic year. The same committee shall administer the re-test.  If a student is insufficiently prepared for the oral exam and is performing marginally during the exam, the committee may elect to halt the exam and postpone its continuation until later in that same semester in order for the student to better prepare certain aspects of the exam topic.  The committee is not required to exercise this option.  
  • After two failures of any nature of the Comprehensive Exam the student is dismissed from the PhD program.

The rules governing the timing of the Comprehensive Exam also apply to students who have transferred from the MS to the PhD program and who have taken the Qualifying Exam in the week before the start of their first year in the PhD program.


Students with exceptional circumstances should discuss their situation with the Graduate Academic Advisor.  Exceptions to the rules governing exam timing will be considered by the Associate Dean for Graduate Academic Affairs and/or the Graduate Exams Committee.

List of OSC Tenure/Tenure-Eligible Faculty and Core Areas 


  • * indicates faculty who may serve on a committee as member 1 (advisor) or member 2 (selected by advisor & student), but will not otherwise be appointed to an exam committee (as member 3 or 4) due to emeritus status, primary appointment in another college, upcoming sabbatical or retirement, or other reason. 
  • Associate Research Professors and Research Professors (not listed below) may also serve on a committee as member 1 (advisor) or member 2 (selected by advisor & student), but will not otherwise be appointed to an exam committee.
  • Assistant Research Professors and qualified collaborators at other institutions may also serve on a committee as member 2 (selected by advisor & student) after being appointed to Special Member status by the Graduate College (discuss this step with the OSC Graduate Academic Advisor), but will not otherwise be appointed to an exam committee.  In this case, the other three committee members must be a T/TE faculty member, or an Associate or Full Research Professor with a primary appointment in Optical Sciences.  

Image Science

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

Optical Engineering

  • Brandon Chalifoux
  • Russell A. Chipman
  • Ronald Driggers
  • *John E. Greivenkamp
  • *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


Following the completion of the Comprehensive Exam


Advancing to Graduate Research Associate

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

M.S. in Optical Sciences by completing Comprehensive Exam

  • By passing the comprehensive exam and advancing to graduate research associate status, and completing 35 credit hours of coursework, student has the option of receiving the M.S. degree in Optical Sciences by completing a one-page form.  Note that due to Graduate College requirements, a maximum of 30 coursework units may appear on both the MS and PhD plans of study.  This means that a PhD student who elects to receive the MS by completing the comprehensive exam will have to complete a minimum of 50 coursework units, even if their advisor waives their requirements down to 45 units of coursework, since the Graduate College also requires a minimum of 45 units of coursework on the PhD plan of study.    The 35 units that appear on the MS plan of study in this case have some restrictions.  For example, a maximum of 3 units of OPTI 599 and OPTI 792 (total) can appear on the MS plan of study; and MS thesis, report, or other research credits cannot appear on the plan of study.  Please see the OSC Graduate Academic Advisor if you have questions about these policies. 

Doctoral Candidacy

  • By satisfying the requirements to advance to graduate research associate status, and by completing all coursework on an approved plan of study for the PhD program and the optional MS plan of study, a student advances to doctoral candidacy.

Dissertation Proposal

  • The student and advisor are together encouraged to identify the dissertation committee as soon as possible after completion of the comprehensive exam.
  • 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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