University of California, Berkeley

About the Program

Graduate work leading to the PhD degree is offered in the Department of Physics. Students may petition for an MA degree on their way to a PhD. Please note that the department will not consider applications from students who intend to work toward the MA degree only. In certain cases, students may petition for a terminal MA degree. Research is a major part of the PhD program, and research opportunities exist across the full spectrum of theoretical and experimental physics, including astrophysics and cosmology; atomic, molecular and optical physics; biophysics; condensed matter; elementary particles and fields; fusion and plasma; low-temperature physics; mathematical physics; nuclear physics; quantum information; space physics; and statistical mechanics.

At the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, extensive opportunities exist for research in astrophysics, elementary particle and nuclear physics, condensed matter physics and materials science, and plasma and nuclear physics. Space physics, interplanetary studies, solar plasma research, physics of the upper atmosphere, and cosmological problems are pursued both in the Physics Department and at the Space Sciences Laboratory.

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Admission to the University

Applying for Graduate Admission

Thank you for considering UC Berkeley for graduate study! UC Berkeley offers more than 120 graduate programs representing the breadth and depth of interdisciplinary scholarship. The Graduate Division hosts a complete list of graduate academic programs, departments, degrees offered, and application deadlines can be found on the Graduate Division website.

Prospective students must submit an online application to be considered for admission, in addition to any supplemental materials specific to the program for which they are applying. The online application and steps to take to apply can be found on the Graduate Division website.

Admission Requirements

The minimum graduate admission requirements are:

  1. A bachelor’s degree or recognized equivalent from an accredited institution;

  2. A satisfactory scholastic average, usually a minimum grade-point average (GPA) of 3.0 (B) on a 4.0 scale; and

  3. Enough undergraduate training to do graduate work in your chosen field.

For a list of requirements to complete your graduate application, please see the Graduate Division’s Admissions Requirements page. It is also important to check with the program or department of interest, as they may have additional requirements specific to their program of study and degree. Department contact information can be found here.

Where to apply?

Visit the Berkeley Graduate Division application page.

Admission to the Program

The Department of Physics ordinarily admits only those applicants who have scholastic records well above a B+ average and who have completed the equivalent of the undergraduate major in physics. This program includes upper division courses in mechanics (4 semester units), electromagnetism and optics (8 semester units), statistical and thermal physics (4 semester units), quantum mechanics (8 semester units), and advanced undergraduate laboratory (5 semester units). Courses in atomic, nuclear and solid state physics, astronomy and applied mathematics are recommended as electives. Not all courses in the major are required for admission. Some courses required for the major program but not previously taken may have to be made up in the first year of graduate work. Applicants are required to submit a list of courses taken in physics and mathematics with course number, and applicable textbook, as well as a list of courses in progress.

In determining the admissibility of a prospective graduate student the department attempts to carefully weigh all relevant factors, including transcripts of academic work, test scores, letters of recommendation, research experience, and a statement of purpose. We recognize the diverse experiences of our applicants and therefore encourage them to submit supporting materials.

The Graduate Program in Physics is designed for those intending to pursue work leading to the PhD. After completing the necessary course work and examination requirements, an MA degree can be awarded. However, the department does not consider applications from those intending to work toward the MA degree only.

Master's Degree Requirements

The master’s degree in Physics is conferred according to Graduate Division degree policies.  Students in the physics doctoral program may apply for the MA degree. The Physics MA candidate must complete:

1) Curriculum

PHYSICS 209Classical Electromagnetism5
PHYSICS 211Equilibrium Statistical Physics4
PHYSICS 221AQuantum Mechanics5
PHYSICS 221BQuantum Mechanics5

Note: Required courses (19.0 units) must be taken for a letter grade or 19 replacement units if subject waivers have been granted for prior coursework.

2) 16 additional units of approved upper division and graduate courses, which may include PHYSICS 251 and PHYSICS 375

Note: Total units required for MA degree is 35 semester units of upper division and graduate work in physics (or related fields) with an average grade of at least B. Eighteen of these units must represent graduate courses in physics. Neither upper division courses required in the Physics Major Program nor PHYSICS 290 seminars, PHYSICS 295PHYSICS 299PHYSICS 301, or PHYSICS 602 may be used to satisfy the 35 unit requirement. No more than one-third of the 16 elective units may be fulfilled by courses graded Satisfactory, and then only if approved by the head graduate adviser.

3) Pass a comprehensive examination (passing the Physics preliminary examination constitutes passing the comprehensive exam).

Doctoral Degree Requirements

Normative Time Requirements

The normative time for completing a PhD in Physics is six years.

Time to Advancement


Courses Required
PHYSICS 209Classical Electromagnetism5
PHYSICS 211Equilibrium Statistical Physics4
PHYSICS 221AQuantum Mechanics5
PHYSICS 221BQuantum Mechanics5
Physics electives:
Graduate/Upper Division8

Graduate students are required to take a minimum of 38 units of approved upper division or graduate elective courses (excluding any upper division courses required for the undergraduate major).  The department requires that students take the following courses which total 19 units: Physics 209 (Classical Electromagnetism), Physics 211 (Equilibrium Statistical Physics) and Physics 221A-221B (Quantum Mechanics). Thus, the normative program includes an additional 19 units (five semester courses) of approved upper division or graduate elective courses.  At least 11 units must be in the 200 series courses. Some of the 19 elective units could include courses in mathematics, biophysics, astrophysics, or from other science and engineering departments.  Physics 290, 295, 299, 301, and 602 are excluded from the 19 elective units. Physics 209, 211 and 221A-221B must be completed for a letter grade (with a minimum average grade of B).  No more than one-third of the 19 elective units may be fulfilled by courses graded Satisfactory, and then only with the approval of the Department.  Entering students are required to enroll in Physics 209 and 221A in the fall semester of their first year and Physics 211 and 221B in the spring semester of their first year. Exceptions to this requirement are made for 1) students who do not have sufficient background to enroll in these courses and have a written recommendation from their faculty mentor and approval from the head graduate adviser to delay enrollment to take preparatory classes, 2) students who have taken the equivalent of these courses elsewhere and receive written approval from the Department to be exempted. 

If a student has taken courses equivalent to Physics 209, 211 or 221A-221B, then subject credit may be granted for each of these course requirements.  A faculty committee will review your course syllabi and transcript.  A waiver form can be obtained from the Physics Student Affairs Officer detailing all required documents.  If the committee agrees that the student has satisfied the course requirement at another institution, the student must secure the Head Graduate Adviser's approval.  The student must also take and pass the associated section of the preliminary exam.  Please note that official course waiver approval will not be granted until after the preliminary exam results have been announced.  If course waivers are approved, units for the waived required courses do not have to be replaced for PhD course requirements.  If a student has satisfied all first-year required graduate courses elsewhere, they are only required to take an additional 19 units to satisfy remaining PhD course requirements.  (Note that units for required courses must be replaced for MA degree course requirements even if the courses themselves are waived; for more information please see MA degree requirements).

In exceptional cases, students transferring from other graduate programs may request a partial waiver of the 19 elective unit requirement. Such requests must be made at the time of application for admission to the Department.

Preliminary Examination

The preliminary examination is designed to ensure that students command a broad spectrum of undergraduate physics prior to their engaging in graduate research. The preliminary exam is a written exam composed of four sections, grouped by general subject areas of undergraduate physics. All four sections of the preliminary examination are offered at the beginning of both Fall and Spring semesters. A student who has passed all four sections of the exam will have passed the preliminary examination. The Department expects students to pass the examination within the first three semesters of graduate study (see further notes on this below).

The preliminary exam is intended as one tool for helping the Department evaluate that students are making adequate progress towards their PhD. The determination of a student’s academic standing in the Department will be based on a student’s entire record, including performance on the prelim exam, undergraduate coursework, graduate coursework, and research performance where appropriate. Consequently, a student would not be asked to leave the Department based solely on performance on the written preliminary exam.

The written exam has four sections, covering (1) classical mechanics, (2) electromagnetism and optics, and special relativity, (3) thermodynamics and statistical physics, and (4) quantum mechanics. Note that these divisions do not preclude the possibility of questions on one section that draw from subject matter emphasized in a different section. (For example, a question that touches on thermodynamics in the quantum mechanics section.) A student who passes any section of the written exam need not take that section again. Each section lasts three hours and covers traditional, textbook style problems, as well as more comprehensive questions that specifically test physical and numerical insight (e.g. order-of-magnitude estimates including physical constants, analyzing physical situations by application of general principles instead of complex calculations, etc.). A student’s individual performance on each section of the exam, and not ranking relative to other students, will determine whether that student has passed or failed the section. In other words, there is no predetermined percentage of students to pass/fail the exam.

Students are encouraged, but not required, to attempt the examination during their first semester. Students are required to have attempted all of the written sections in their second semester. The status of students who have not yet passed all sections of the preliminary examination will be reviewed by a faculty committee each semester, beginning in the student's third semester, and recommendations of further action will be made. The Department Chair must approve exceptions to this schedule; all exceptions, except those due to illness or emergency, must be approved in advance.

The academic record of a student in their third semester who has not passed all four written sections will be reviewed. Near the beginning of the third semester (as prelim exam results become available) a faculty committee, in consultation with the student’s faculty mentor, will review the student’s academic record and performance on the prelims to determine whether a sufficient breadth of undergraduate physics has been demonstrated. This review may include meeting with the student to ask questions to further assess the student’s understanding of undergraduate physics, focusing primarily although not exclusively on the not-yet-passed sections of the exam, to discuss the student’s background and how best to address remaining deficiencies. If their determination is that the student has a sufficient breadth of undergraduate physics, the student will be determined to have passed the prelim exam, and will be allowed to proceed with research. If the committee’s determination is that this understanding is not yet demonstrated, they will recommend that the student be sent a warning letter by the Department Chair, and will specify requirements (including a timeline) for the student to return to making sufficient academic progress. These requirements could include taking and passing with a B or better grade specific undergraduate courses during the third and/or fourth semester, and/or retaking and passing sections of the prelim exam not yet passed at the start of the fourth semester. This review could also result in additional recommendations to the student, such as serving as GSI for a course deemed appropriate to reinforce previous undergraduate coursework. The intent of this third-semester review by the faculty committee is to determine if deficiencies exist in a student’s knowledge of undergraduate physics, and if so, what actions are required of the student to address these deficiencies.

A faculty committee will then review the student’s efforts towards returning to good academic progress at the beginning of the fourth semester. This 4th semester review may also include meeting with the student to ask questions to assess the student’s understanding of undergraduate physics. This faculty committee will review the student’s entire academic record – including performance on the preliminary exam, coursework, and intended research plans – and recommend to the Department Chair whether the student is making sufficient academic progress and may be allowed to proceed with research. The Head Graduate Adviser or Department Chair will report the results to the Graduate Division. If requirements established in the 3rd semester review include undergraduate courses taken in the fourth semester, this 4th semester review can be deferred until the grades in these courses are determined, but in no case can this review be extended past the end of the student’s 4th semester. This review is not intended to create additional requirements, but to determine if previous requirements have been met, and in particular should not require any further attempts at passing any section of the preliminary exam. The intent of this fourth- semester review by the faculty committee is to determine whether a student has mastered sufficient undergraduate physics to start PhD level research by the end of the 2nd year. If the committee concludes that such mastery is not present, they will recommend to the Department Chair that the student be asked to leave the program due to inadequate progress towards the PhD.

A revision in this schedule can be granted, for one or more sections of the preliminary exam, for any student with an incomplete undergraduate physics education as determined by consultation between the student and the student’s faculty mentor. Both the Head Graduate Advisor and the Department Chair must approve this revised schedule. Any student exercising this option is expected to take one or more undergraduate physics courses at UC Berkeley during the first one or two semesters. This student should follow the regular schedule outlined above for any sections of the exam not affected by the revised schedule, and is allowed to attempt the delayed section(s) at the start of their first one or two semesters for practice, in which case the student would not be required to repeat any sections that have been passed during this period. The student would then be expected to take all sections of the exam not yet passed at the beginning of the 3rd semester, and to repeat any unpassed sections at the start of the 4th semester. A faculty committee will be asked to assess this student following this exam if there are still sections not passed, following guidelines above, and can either determine that the student has demonstrated a sufficient breadth of undergraduate physics, and hence has passed the prelim exam, or to recommend that the student be sent a warning letter with specific requirements and a timeline for being returned to making sufficient academic progress; the most likely requirement and timeline for this is to be asked to study over the following summer and to attempt the still unpassed sections a final time at the start of the 5th semester. The intent of this 4th and potentially 5th semester review by the faculty committee is that a student shall either be determined to have mastered sufficient undergraduate physics to start PhD level research by the start of their 3rd year, or else be asked to leave the program due to inadequate progress towards the PhD. Delays in this decision beyond the start of the 3rd year are highly discouraged and will only be considered under exceptional circumstances.

Qualifying Examination 

Within 2-3 semesters of beginning research, the Department expects students to take the University’s Oral Qualifying Examination covering his or her research field and related areas. This exam is required for advancement to PhD candidacy, and signifies that the student is prepared and qualified to undertake research, not that the student has already completed a significant body of work towards the PhD. It is therefore expected to occur for most students in the 3rd year, and no later than the 4th year. A student is considered to have begun research when they first register for Physics 299 or fill out the department advising form showing that a research advisor has accepted the student for PhD work, at which time the research advisor becomes responsible for guidance and mentoring of the student. The examination is administered by a four-member committee (consisting of three Physics Department and one outside faculty member, including the research advisor) approved by the Graduate Division on behalf of the Graduate Council, and may be repeated once at the recommendation of the examining committee. The Department expects that all committees include at least one theorist and one experimentalist. For students with advisors from outside the department or who are not members of the Academic Senate (e.g., with appointments at LBNL or SSL), permission for a five-member committee may be requested from Grad Division to allow both the non-faculty and faculty advisor to be on the committee; in this case, approval of the proposed research by the Head Graduate Advisor and the Chair of the Department must also be obtained before the student takes their qualifying exam.

Rules and requirements associated with the Qualifying Exam are set by the Graduate Division on behalf of the Graduate Council. The committee membership and the conduct of the exam are therefore subject to Graduate Division approval. The exam is oral and lasts 2-3 hours. The Graduate Division specifies that the purpose of the Qualifying Exam is “to ascertain the breadth of the student's comprehension of fundamental facts and principles that apply to at least three subjects areas related to the major field of study and whether the student has the ability to think incisively and critically about the theoretical and the practical aspects of these areas.” Grad Division also states that this oral qualifying exam serves a significant additional function. “Not only teaching, but the formal interaction with one’s students and colleagues at colloquia, annual meetings of professional societies and the like, often require the ability to synthesize rapidly, organize clearly, and argue cogently in an oral setting.... It is consequently necessary for the University to ensure that a proper examination is given incorporating [these skills].”

The Qualifying Exam requires that the student, in consultation with his or her advisor, identify three topics which in the Physics Department are expected to be a proposed Thesis Topic, an Area of Research, and a General Area of Research. The General Area of Research is taken to be the sub-field within physics (e.g. astrophysics, biophysics, particle physics, condensed matter physics); the Area of Research to be a still broad but more narrowly defined field within the sub-field (e.g. magnetism, or QCD). For fields where these choices are not obvious, the student should suggest appropriately broad topics contiguous to their Thesis Topic. The choice of topics is subject to the approval of the Physics Department Head Graduate Adviser, per Graduate Council Requirements. Qualifying Exams in the Physics Department begin with a presentation from the student that is expected to last approximately, but no more than, 45 minutes, during and after which questions related to the presentation are typically asked. The presentation should focus on the student's research goals and necessary background material, including the proposed Thesis Topic and the Area of Research that encompasses the thesis topic, as well as a proposed schedule for finishing the PhD and goals/milestones in that schedule. After this presentation, following a short break if desired, members of the committee will further question the student both about the presentation itself and about the broader subject areas included in the General Area of Research, testing the student’s “ability to think incisively and critically about the theoretical and the practical aspects of these areas”. The Department expects these questions to be related to the student's research field, but to be broad in nature rather than narrowly related to the thesis itself. Ability to give a coherent and organized presentation and to answer questions on the three topics in an oral setting is also required for passing this exam. Note that adjustments may be made on the basis of campus policies for cases in which an otherwise able individual is prevented from meeting an oral requirement by a physical disability.



Contact Information

Department of Physics

366 Physics North

Phone: 510-642-3316

Fax: 510-643-8497

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Department Chair

Professor Irfan Siddiqi

366 Physics North

Phone: 510-624-3316

Vice Chair of Instruction

Professor Yury Kolomensky

366 Physics North

Faculty Advisor for GSI Affairs

Professor Holger Mueller

366 Physics North

Equity and Inclusion Faculty Advisor

Professor Ori Ganor

366 Physics North

Faculty Head Graduate Advisor

Professor Daniel Kasen

366 Physics North

Director of Student Services

Claudia Trujillo

376 Physics North

Phone: 510-643-5261

Lead Graduate Advisor

Ariana Castro

378 Physics North

Phone: 510-642-7524


Graduate Advisor

Marjani Jones

370 Physics North

Phone: (510) 642-0596

Undergraduate Advisor

Kathleen Cooney

374 Physics North

Phone: 510-664-7557

Undergraduate Advisor

Nitin Srivastava

368 Physics North

Phone: 510-642-0481

Scheduler and BPIE Advisor

Isabella Mariano

372 Physics North

Phone: 510-664-5506

Visiting Student Program Coordinator

Alex Perry

372 Physics North

Phone: 510-664-5506

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