Ph.D. Previous Exam Method

Qualifying and Comprehensive Exam Method (Previous)

The previous examination method applies to all Ph.D. students admitted prior to the Fall 2015 semester. 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.

Qualifying Exam


  • A new PhD student is asked to schedule a meeting with a faculty member of their choice during their first semester. This is not an exam but rather an informal interview to discuss student goals; evaluate academic background, preparation, coursework and research plans; and flag any potential problems.
  • Interview lasts 15-30 minutes.
  • Faculty member will write a short report for the Academic Programs office, which is reviewed by the Associate Dean of Academic Programs. The report is then placed in the student’s file.

Comprehensive Exams

Written Comprehensive Exam


  • Once during each of the fall and spring semesters; usually for most students at the beginning of their third year of full-time study.
  • A written-exam committee consisting of members of the faculty appointed by the associate dean will administer the examination. 


  • Ph.D. student who have completed 32 or more units of graduate course work (excluding dissertation units but including transfer credits).
  • Completion of the Ph.D. core courses and receiving appropriate grades of "A" or "B". A Single "C" grade is permitted with a signed C Grade Wavier Form.


  • Comprehensive, closed-book examination consisting of questions drawn from the material given in the required College of Optical Sciences core courses taken by the student in the areas of: Electromagnetic Waves, Geometrical Optics, Quantum Optics, Physical Optics and Solid-State Optics (A sixth area that included a Photonics/Image Science/Applied Optics/Optical Physics specialty question was previously eliminated.)
  • Given in two sessions held on consecutive days, with each session being 3.5 hours in duration.
  • Each session will include one question from each of the five core courses, for a total of 10 questions. Students are required to answer all questions given.
  • Exam questions may be solicited from the entire faculty. However, all questions included in the exam must be approved by the respective core-course instructors as being appropriate to the material taught in their classes. Questions will be designed to be answered in about 30 minutes. 

Retaking the Written Compressive Exam

  • Unless the exam committee recommends otherwise, a student will be allowed to repeat the written examination only once.

Additional Information

The major-subject written portion of the comprehensive exam is a comprehensive, closed-book examination. Students may bring only pens, pencils and food or drinks with them into the exam room. All other materials, including paper, cell phones and palmtop/laptop computers are prohibited. The College of Optical Sciences will provide pencils, paper, calculators and refreshments.
The written-exam committee will also coordinate the grading of the exam. In order to help standardize grading, the committee will establish a numerical scale that defines the various levels of student performance. The committee will be responsible for determining whether or not a student passes or fails the written examination based on the performance of each student in answering either all questions on the exam. If the committee is unable to make a decision, it may request that the matter be considered by the full faculty at a special meeting. Unless the committee recommends otherwise, a student will be allowed to repeat the written examination only once. The committee may also recommend that a five-person oral exam committee be used for students whose performance on the written exam is deemed marginal. During the examination and grading process, the student's identity will not explicitly appear on her or his exam. The Academic Programs office will assign an identification number to each student and only this number will be placed on the exam papers.
At the decision of the comprehensive exam committee a student may be permitted to take the written examination a third time. Students must follow the petition process (PDF) to qualify for the third attempt.
Upon successful completion, each student's written examination answers will be passed on to the student's oral comprehensive exam committee with instructions to particularly examine the student's knowledge in those areas where the student's knowledge and understanding appear to be weak. 
For students whose major and minor subjects are both in optical sciences, a passing grade on the major-subject written exam will automatically satisfy the minor-subject written exam requirement.
Optics minors are no longer asked to complete an optics written comprehensive exam. Please refer to the Optics Minor page for requirements.
Each student shall be notified by email of the outcome of the written comprehensive exam and shall be provided with copies of his or her graded exam papers. In addition, copies of his or her exam papers shall be provided to the College of Optical Sciences members of the oral-exam committee prior to the oral examination. A written comprehensive exam grade appeal process (PDF) is in place for students to appeal a failing grade providing their final score is within six percentage points of the original lowest passing score as determined by the comprehensive exam committee. Note: If the student's faculty adviser is a committee member for any comprehensive exam appeal, he or she will be asked to excuse him- or herself from the process.


Oral Comprehensive Exam

  • Exam given individually at scheduled times during the remainder of the same semester that includes major-subject written exam. 
  • Exam is expected to last two hours, but is not to exceed three hours.
  • Questioning will focus on the six general categories of optics: Electromagnetic Waves, Geometrical Optics, Quantum Optics, Physical Optics, Solid-State Optics and Photonics/Image Science/Applied Optics.
  • Exam requires student to respond verbally to questioning by committee members.
  • Oral exam committee will consist of four or five examiners representing the following areas: Physical OpticsGeometrical Optics, Quantum or Solid-State Optics, and the student's track or area of specialization.
  • If the student has chosen to minor in another department, there will be five examiners: four from the College of Optical Sciences and one from the student's minor department. 

Additional Information

This information is primarily applicable to students majoring in optical sciences, although portions of it also apply to students who are majoring in other departments and minoring in optical sciences.
The associate dean for academic programs approves all faculty examiners. In making selections, the associate dean will consider any recommendations made by the student and/or the student's major professor as well as the student's minor department. The associate dean for academic programs will also designate one member of the oral-examination committee to be the committee chair. This individual is normally not the student's faculty adviser. The chair is responsible for ensuring that the examination is conducted according to current College of Optical Sciences policy. If any significant deviations from the approved procedures occur, or if any aspect of the examination seems inappropriate, the chair should ask to recess the examination and excuse the student so that corrective measures might be discussed.
One of the faculty examiners will be designated to be the recorder for the exam. This individual is not normally the student's faculty adviser. It is the responsibility of the recorder to certify that the conduct of the exam is consistent with the policies of the Graduate College, to conduct the balloting at the completion of the exam and to report results.
Each member of the committee is expected to be present at the exam and to remain throughout the exam. Each examiner shall come prepared to ask questions from at least one of the general categories of optics and shall attempt to avoid excessive overlap between his or her line of questioning and that of the other examiners. The questions should be stated clearly and concisely and should be designed to determine the depth and breadth of the student's knowledge rather than to demonstrate the examiner's expertise. The examiner should make certain that the student understands the question, realizing that what is clear and obvious to the examiner may not be clear and obvious to the student (possibly only because the student has not had time to think about it). A particular line of questioning should be restricted to no more than 15 or 20 minutes in order to give the student an opportunity to respond to questions pertaining to other categories. If the time spent on one line of questioning becomes excessive, the committee chairman should intervene and suggest that the questioning be shifted to a different category. This also applies for students minoring in optical sciences and majoring in other departments, except that they will not be expected to demonstrate knowledge in all of the categories of optics specified for the optical sciences majors.
Voting is conducted by secret ballot, and the votes of all the examiners will have equal weight. The major- and minor-subject written exams together shall have approximately the same weight as the oral exam. Each examiner shall vote his or her conviction with respect to the student's performance on the entire comprehensive examination, not merely the performance on the oral exam. Also, the examiner should base his or her evaluation of the oral exam on the student's overall performance — not simply on the student's responses to the examiner's own questions. However, if the oral-exam committee determines that the student is indeed deficient in one or more of the established categories, he or she should not be passed regardless of overall performance. Other factors that should be considered in making the decision are the student's course work, research capabilities and publications. There is only one official ballot, usually following a discussion of the student's performance (and sometimes following one or more straw ballots), and all examiners are required to mark their ballots either pass or fail. One negative vote will not cause the student to fail the exam, but two negative votes will. An abstention is counted as a vote for failure.
If the balloting results in failure, the committee must make a recommendation regarding reexamination. If their recommendation is to allow the student to repeat the exam, the committee should also make a recommendation regarding the written portion of the re-examination; they may recommend that all or part of the written examination be waived, or that the entire written examination be required. The oral-exam committee shall also recommend an approximate date for re-examination, generally three to six months after the initial exam. If a re-examination is recommended, the committee members must be the same as those present at the first examination. A re-examination may then be given with the approval of the Graduate College according to policy
The final decision shall be either to pass the student or to fail the student. Conditional passes or fails are not allowed. In either event, the student should be given any counseling deemed appropriate by the committee, e.g., weak areas, study recommendations, etc.
Students should not plan to serve refreshments during their oral comprehensive exam. A light refreshment and coffee will be provided by the Academic Programs office.

Advancing to Ph.D. Candidacy


  • 32 credit hours of coursework completed.
  • Good academic standing with The University of Arizona.
  • 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 dissertation proposal examination is an oral examination administered by the student’s dissertation committee.
  • This committee consists of the student's dissertation advisor plus two additional members nominated by the student in consultation with his or her advisor and approved by the Associate Dean for Academic Programs.
  • Its purpose is to determine if the coursework and other studies undertaken by the student in their area of specialization has adequately prepared them for their proposed dissertation research.
  • This examination is taken after the student has passed the written and oral comprehensive examinations and substantially completed their coursework.
  • It typically lasts one to two hours.
  • For most students, this will be near the end of their third year of full-time study, but it should not be later than one year prior to the completion of the dissertation and/or the student’s final oral dissertation defense.
  • It is preferable that this examination be taken as near to the beginning of a student’s dissertation research as possible.

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 or the dissertation proposal 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 non-tenure-track faculty may be approved by the Degree Certification Office. The exam time and place must be scheduled at least two weeks in advance. It is open to the public.

<< Back to Ph.D. Requirements