Preliminary Examination (as of Fall 2015)

Students entering the MS or PhD programs in Physics must have an undergraduate degree in Physics or its equivalent. Their undergraduate curriculum must have included courses in the four "core subjects" exemplified by the following UNM upper-division courses in Physics (the authors of some typical textbooks used here at UNM are shown):

  • Thermodynamics/Statistical-Mechanics (Physics 301): Stowe; Kittel
  • Classical Mechanics (Physics 303-304): Marion/Thornton; Symon
  • Electricity and Magnetism (Physics 405-406): Griffiths
  • Quantum Mechanics (Physics 491-492): Liboff; Townsend; Goswami

The format of the Preliminary Examination and the requirements for passing are given here. The requirements for passing at the Master's and PhD levels are repeated below as part of the MS and PhD degree requirements.

  • Applicants who achieve a score of 800 or higher on the Physics GRE Subject Test are excused from Preliminary Exams. Students already enrolled in the PhD program will not be granted a waiver from one or more sections of the Preliminary Examination based on retaking the GRE subject test and achieving a score above 800.    
  • The Preliminary Examination consists of 4 sections, each of which is a written exam in one of the four core subjects listed above. The level of the exams is that of the upper-division undergraduate courses and texts given above. The exam will be primarily based on material from the exams in the test bank formed by previous exams, from 2004 to the present. All of the necessary and useful formula and relations will be provided on the front pages of each exam. No "cheat sheets" are allowed.
  • There are two sittings of the Preliminary Examination each year, one in January and one in August, both during Duty Week (the week immediately preceding the start of classes).
  • At each sitting, a student can take any number of exam sections. A sitting at which a student takes a particular section is called a chance on that section.
  • A student must complete the Preliminary Examination at the appropriate level, Master's or PhD, by the fourth consecutive sitting after entry into the program (i.e., by the beginning of the student's fourth semester). These four sittings include the initial sitting on entry into the program. Within these four sittings, there is no restriction on the number of chances on each section.
  • A PhD student must pass one section by the second sitting (i.e., in the sitting that begins the student's second semester), two sections by the third sitting, and must pass all of four sections by the fourth sitting. The PhD level of passing on each section is a grade of ≥60%.
  • A non-thesis Master's student must pass one section by the second sitting (i.e., in the sitting that begins the student's second semeste), two sections by the third sitting, and must pass three of the four sections by the fourth sitting. The Master's level of passing on each section is a grade of ≥50%. Thesis-option Master's students are not required to take the Preliminary Examination.
  • A PhD student who enters the program with a Master's degree and who has taken a comparable set of exams at another institution can petition the Graduate Committee to waive the entire Preliminary Examination, or sections thereof.
  • A student can request re-grading of any section of the Preliminary Examination by submitting the exam and a written appeal to the Graduate Exam Committee within one week of the return of the graded exams.

Appeals policy for the preliminary exam

If a student does not pass the requisite number of Preliminary Examinations according to the schedule of sittings described in Graduate Handbook, and is then terminated from the PhD or MS program, he/she can formally appeal the decision.  To do so, he/she must submit an application to the Chair of the Graduate Admissions Committee.  The application must include:

  1. A written statement of purpose, justifying the appeal with an explanation of goals for future success
  2. At least two letters of recommendation from P&A faculty
  3. A transcript of grades obtained to date at UNM

If accepted, the Appeals Committee with set the terms for continued progress towards passing the Prelim Exam.  A student can only submit an appeal one time.

Timetable for the Preliminary Examination (any number of sections can be taken at each sitting)


PhD-Physics Non-Thesis MS-Physics
1st sitting No requirement No requirement
2nd sitting
(Duty Week, Semester 2)
Pass 1 section
at PhD (≥60%) level
Pass 1 section
at Master's (≥50%) level
3rd sitting
(Duty Week, Semester 3)
Pass 2 sections
at PhD (≥60%) level
Pass 2 sections
at Master's (≥50%) level
4th sitting
(Duty Week, Semester 4)
Pass 4 sections
at PhD (≥60%) level
Pass 3 sections
at Master's (≥50%) level


Previous Exams