Physical Division Oral Exams

Introduction -- The purpose of the oral exam is two-fold, as reflected in both your preparation for the exam and in the exam itself. The two principle parts of the exam are: (1) The research report and (2) The independent research proposal. In thinking about preparing for your exam, it is helpful to understand the purpose of and expectations surrounding each of these two parts.  In addition there are a few procedural issues that you must address before you take your exam. These are not difficult, but need to be done in a timely manner.   We begin with a list of those issues.


I. Preparing for your Exam

You must do the following things before your exam. Please be careful to get these done on time or you may have to reschedule your exam for a later date.


1) Get approval from your area graduate advisor for your independent research proposal two weeks before your exam date.   Because it is likely that you will have to revise your proposal after speaking to the graduate advisor, be sure to first submit your proposal at least three weeks before your exam date (earlier still is generally better). A more detailed discussion of how to write that independent research proposal can be found online at 

If you have any questions after reading that document, please contact your graduate area advisor. We discuss below a few key points regarding this proposal.


2) Select your graduate committee at least two weeks before your exam date. That committee must contain: your advisor, one faculty member from outside your division of chemistry (outside of physical chemistry), one faculty member not in the chemistry department, and one other faculty member of your choosing.


3) Reserve a room for your exam. It is wise to reserve the room for three hours, although you will probably not need that much time. Most exams take between one and two hours to complete.


4) Turn in a Oral Committee Nomination Form at the graduate office at least two weeks before your exam date. This form will include your exam date and oral committee.


5) Provide your oral committee with a written document containing your research report and independent research proposal at least seven days before your exam date. This document may be delivered physically (i.e. on paper) or emailed to each member of your committee as a PDF document. Regardless of the format, it is your responsibility to ensure that it has been received at least one week before your exam.


To help you better understand how to write these documents, we now look at each of them in turn.  If, after reading this, you still have questions, please discuss them with your advisor or your graduate area advisor.


A. The research report

The purpose of the research report is to allow you to discuss with your entire dissertation committee the current and future research that is being undertaken with your advisor. You may think of it as being both a scientific discussion and a somewhat informal contract. Essentially you are purposing to carry out a particular research program for your dissertation. Your committee, by approving it and passing you, agrees that this program is sufficiently interesting and intellectually significant to stand as your dissertation. Moreover, they agree that the work should be possible to carry out in a reasonable period of time and with the resources at your disposal. 


In order to prepare the research report, you should write an approximately five-page (single spaced) document that does a few things: First, you must introduce your research plans, explaining the scientific background and long-term goals of your work. This introduction and associated references should explain to the reader what are the significant developments in your field and how your research relates to them.  Second, you should explain in greater detail precisely how to expect to perform your research and ideally, you will then discuss your preliminary calculations or data. Finally, you should conclude with a discussion of your future work.  You should feel free to discuss this part of your work with your advisor.


B. The independent research proposal

The purpose of this part of your exam is to give you a chance to discuss your own scientific interests without the help or influence of your advisor. This gives your committee a chance to assess your development as an independent scientist by seeing how you evaluate interesting new areas of research, learn new things independently, and determine how to contribute to the scientific community in that area by proposing a detailed and specific research plan. To that end it is essential that you propose to work on a problem that is unrelated to your current research. A useful rule of thumb (i.e. a good test) for that independence is as follows: If you feel you might need to explain why the two research projects are sufficiently different, even if you feel you have a good argument, then they are probably not sufficiently dissimilar.  More detailed help in writing the independent research proposal can be found online at, but a few general comments are provided here. Be sure that your proposal is sufficiently distinct from your current research (see above). Be sure that you have identified an intellectually satisfying scientific question. And be sure that your proposal explains how you will address that question and what, based on your current understanding of the system, you expect to find. Be quantitative and be specific wherever possible.  You should refrain from discussing this part of your work with your advisor, but you may ask questions of your graduate area advisor if necessary.   You may also discuss this work with your fellow students.


II. The Oral Exam


The exam itself reflects these two main parts of your preparation – the research report and the independent research proposal. On the day of your exam, you will be asked to give a seminar on both your current research and your oral proposal to your committee. Typically, this is done using presentation software such as powerpoint or keynote, but this is certainly not required. If you do use such software, be sure that you have the appropriate projector and that the room has a screen on which to project your slides. No matter how you make your presentation, you should be prepared for about a forty minute presentation on each of your two topics. You will probably not be asked to give both presentations in full, but, since your committee may ask you to go into greater depth in one or the other of them (most often the independent research proposal), it is wise to be prepared to go into depth on both presentations.


A few words of advice:


1) Your committee wants to understand your presentation and wants to learn something new and interesting. Try to speak clearly and slowly. Start at the beginning. In other words, do not assume that everyone in the room understands the basic ideas because you think they are self-evident.  Be sure to address why your work is interesting to you. If you explain that well, your audience will also find it interesting.


2) You should expect to be stopped for questions from your committee. Some of these will be simply points of clarification, but some will be designed to probe how deeply you understand the concepts that you discuss. Be sure that you understand any equation you present. You may be asked to explain e.g. what assumptions were made in its derivation and how that limits it applicability. You may be asked to derive it yourself.  Be sure you understand whatever experimental techniques are important in your proposal, and the precision of the measurements you discuss the principal sources of uncertainty in them. If you mention previous work, be sure you understand if it is generally accepted to be valid and, if so, in what circumstances. Are there alternate theoretical approaches and how do these differ from what you discuss? Are there different types of measurements related to your work? Are these all consistent, and if not, why not? These are merely a sample of various types of questions that you might be asked, which I hope you use as a starting point. Thinking carefully about what questions you or your fellow graduate students might have during your presentation is generally a good way to prepare.



III. The End Result


Soon after you have finished your presentations and have answered the remaining questions, you will be asked to leave the room so that the committee can discuss your performance.  Wait nearby!  Your advisor will soon come out to inform you of how you did. There are four potential outcomes of your exam:


1) Pass – You are now prepared to continue with your current research plans. You next and final exam will be your exit seminar  This is the most common outcome.


2) Qualified Pass – You will continue with your current plans, but your committee has identified some additional work that you must do.  You will be allowed to continue towards you doctorate, but will be required to do some extra work as the committee decides.


3) Fail with an opportunity to retake your exam – You will not necessarily continue with your current work, but you will have the opportunity to make a new independent research proposal presentation, or research report presentation, or both, to your committee at a later date. This is a second chance to pass the exam.


4) Fail.









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