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TimestampHow long did you study for the exam?Did you pass on your first try?What was the exam like?

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11/22/2010 10:46:51Over 2 monthsYesMy biggest fear of the Comprehensive Oral Exam was being asked a question whose answer I did not know. But as it turns out, knowing the answer is only a small part of the test. The committee is more interested in seeing the method used to arrive at the right answer, along with any appropriate assumptions made.

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11/22/2010 10:59:261-4 weeksYesThe exam was a fairly wide-ranging affair that simultaneously checked my knowledge of particular mathematical techniques (How do Maxwell's equations lead to wave motion?) and intuition and understanding (How does a bicycle work? How many popes have there been?).

The few times that I did get into the weeds, the professors on the committee prompted me with smaller questions on the same topic and gently led me to the correct solution.

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11/22/2010 13:20:00Over 2 monthsYesThe exam covered basic questions from the main subjects of Physics: Classical and Quantum Mechanics, Electrodynamics, and Thermodynamics. Depending on who is in your panel, you will get some "specialized" questions based on a committee member's expertise. I got an optics questions and a blackbody radiation question, although all of those questions lay within the realm of the four essential subjects.

Each subject begins with basic questions, demonstrating aptitude in the basic questions follows up with a more complex question which demonstrates proficiency in a particular topic.

The exam panel was very helpful, often guiding me with subtle hints if I started diverging on the wrong path to solving a particular problem.

I highly recommend reading up on all aspects of undergraduate physics because the committee will not ask you graduate questions unless you've demonstrated an ability to solve undergraduate problems in the same topic.

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12/6/2010 19:12:421-2 monthsYesThe questions start out with the basic principles (lower division undergraduate level). Solid understanding of the introductory courses is essential for breaking the ice. Then the examination faculty may ask more in depth questions based on the initial problem (upper level undergraduate to graduate level). Typically, the faculty expect a solid understanding of the subject matter in question, not so much obtaining exact mathematical expressions.

Also, if you work in a physics-related field as I did at time (I work with NMR), then they may ask you some questions related to that, so be prepared.

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3/1/2011 17:27:291-2 monthsYesI was expecting basic concepts from classical mechanics, E & M, thermo, and quantum. So I think I did OK on these topics. But I did not prepare for my elective courses (Like Fourier optics), so I had a little bit of trouble. But at the end, the committee members guide you through. So I come out all right.

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10/27/2011 10:30:101-2 monthsYesThe purpose of the questions asked in this exam is not about getting the correct answer, but rather about the thinking process, assumptions, and conceptual understanding of physics to set-up the problems and working your way through them. Basically, if you spend a sufficient amount of time reviewing ALL of your undergraduate physics topics then you should do fine. Also, be ready for that off-the-wall question, which tests your ability to think rationally. Overall, it was actually a great experience and the professors were very supportive and helpful. If you get stuck or make any false assumptions they ask you deliberate questions to re-think the situation and to ultimately guide back on track.

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12/13/2011 13:17:561-2 monthsYesThe exam was much harder than I thought it would be. It’s not that the questions were particularly difficult; it was more the conditions under which the questions needed to be answered. I found there was not much time to really think about the given problem. At the first sign of being stuck the committee would likely jump in to offer help. This was useful at times when I did not understand the question or my approach was incorrect. However, what I found was the committee was driving the thought process, not me. Recognize there is only a limited amount of time to give your answer and to do well you must have a very good understanding of the basics. Most of the questions asked of me were designed to demonstrate my thought process and ability to apply the fundamentals. I studied mainly proofs and derivations to prepare for the exam. In hindsight these did me little good and I should have spent more time reviewing elementary physics from lower division coursework. If I had done so, perhaps I would not have felt more time was necessary to fully grasp the problem.

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12/10/2012 11:56:42Over 2 monthsYesThe oral exam covered topics from E+M, Classical Mechanics, Quantum Mechanics/Modern Physics, and Thermodynamics. My panel included instructors with expertise in Optics and Astrophysics, so I got some questions from those topics as well, since I had taken elective classes in both of those topics in either undergrad or graduate school. Before the exam, I was advised by previous exam takers and panel members to re-read my lower division undergrad textbook, time permitting.

Also, I work in a physics-related field (searching for extrasolar planets) and received multiple questions about that, so be prepared to discuss your work if that is the case.

Most of the questions contained more than one part. The questions start out with the panel wanting to see if you understand the basic equations and concepts. If you demonstrate understanding of the basics, you will then be given a more complex follow-up question. The exam panel will give you hints if you get stuck when trying to solve a problem. They are more interested in seeing your thought process and approach to solving problems than in you getting the exact answer.

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12/8/2013 10:04:511-2 monthsYesBe prepared to answer any type of question within the subjects of Mechanics (Classical and Quantum), Electrodynamics, and Thermodynamics. Also, be prepared to answers questions specific to the elective classes you've taken.

It is a good idea to practice the mechanics of the situation; standing in front of a white board and, basically, teaching the panel. Looking back, I think a good approach to preparing for the oral exam is to practice teaching physics.