Skip to main content

Ph.D. Program in Applied Physics

in this section

The Ph.D. program in the graduate field of Applied Physics (AP) is a research-oriented doctoral program tailored to individual interests. It combines a core physics curriculum with research and study in one of several areas that deal either with the application of physics to a technical discipline or with the interface between physics and another area of science. Students who have majored in physics, in another physical science (for example, chemistry), or in an engineering field are eligible for the program.


Fifteen faculty members in the School of Applied and Engineering Physics (AEP) as well as nearly thirty other faculty members representing ten different departments outside the school comprise the Applied Physics field faculty. This large faculty, engaged in many research projects with federal, state, or corporate sponsors, makes it possible for AP students to choose thesis research topics from many different areas. While each student becomes an individual investigator responsible for an independent research project, interactive and collaborative research programs and shared research facilities are hallmarks of advanced study at Cornell. The majority of the faculty members in the field participate in one or more of Cornell’s numerous research centers and programs, and most graduate students in AP make extensive use of the research facilities maintained by these centers.

Support Facilities and Special Programs

Cornell University hosts more than twenty government-, corporate-, and university-sponsored research centers and programs, many of which are used not only by Cornell scientists and engineers but by researchers from across the country and around the world. These centers and programs provide equipment and expertise unavailable at most institutions. They enhance the interdisciplinary nature of many of Cornell's graduate programs by facilitating the exchange of information and ideas and promoting cooperative research efforts.

Program Design

The program is designed so that students can evaluate the many different research opportunities available before deciding on an area of specialization. Although most students join the research group of a faculty member in the graduate field of AP, students may also join a group outside AP-a reflection of the tremendous flexibility offered to our graduate students-and begin their thesis research by the end of the first academic year. Most students complete the program under their original faculty supervisor, but if a student should decide to change research groups, the decision is subject only to the agreement of a new thesis supervisor.


Graduates with doctorates in AP pursue careers in academic institutions, corporate and national laboratories, and research institutes. During the past several years, approximately 50% of AP Ph.D. graduates entered industrial positions, 30% assumed postdoctoral or faculty positions in colleges and universities, and most others took positions in one of the national laboratories or research institutes. Among scientists with recent degrees in physics-related fields, applied physics graduates are most likely to obtain permanent positions.

Research Areas

Students in AP may pursue thesis research in any one of several broad areas, including nanoscience, condensed matter physics, and materials science; optical physics, quantum electronics, and photonics; biological physics; astrophysics and plasma physics; atomic, molecular, and chemical physics.


The course of study leading to a doctorate in AP is flexible, individualized, and limited only by a student’s interests. The interdisciplinary nature of AP enables students to enroll in courses offered by departments throughout the University, including Physics, Chemistry, Biological Sciences, Astronomy, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Computer Science, Mathematics, and Materials Science. Students who wish to do so may also take courses in a variety of nonscientific topics such as music, business, and foreign languages.

Core Curriculum Requirements

A student’s core curriculum must include courses that provide a basic understanding of experimental physics and that lead to competence in the following five major areas of study: applied mathematics, classical mechanics, electrodynamics, statistical mechanics, and quantum mechanics. The advanced experimental laboratory course is required of all PhD students. A student normally takes from sixteen to twenty-two credit hours of core coursework to establish the requisite competence, completing the necessary courses usually by the end of the second term of study.

Specialty Courses

During the first four terms, students also take classes in another scientific or engineering discipline that is their chosen minor. In addition students may take advantage of courses from across the campus to broaden their knowledge, to explore areas of interest from other disciplines, and to gain further knowledge to assist in thesis research. Some students continue to enroll in courses for their entire stay graduate students, while most begin to concentrate solely on thesis research during their third year in the program.

For a complete listing of courses offered at Cornell, consult Courses of Study, also available by mail from the Graduate Admissions Office, Caldwell Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853 USA.

Special Committee

Students entering the AP program begin by taking courses that will meet core requirements. During the first year of study, students choose a major area within AP for study and thesis research and a minor area of study that is outside the field of physics or AP. Students then choose a Special Committee of three or four faculty members who will supervise their graduate program and monitor the progress of their thesis research. Ultimately, this faculty committee also approves a student’s thesis. Generally, the chair of the committee is the supervisor of the student’s thesis project, the second member is from the student’s major area of study in AP, and the third member represents the minor area of study (as does the optional fourth member). With guidance from this faculty committee, the student plans an individualized course of study that will fulfill the core curriculum and minor subject requirements and will provide the groundwork for full-time thesis research in a particular area of specialization.

Seminars and Colloquia

During the first four terms, students also take classes in another scientific or engineering discipline that is related to their chosen minor. In addition, students may take advantage of courses from across the campus to broaden their knowledge, to explore areas of interest from other disciplines, and to gain further knowledge to assist in their thesis research. Some students continue to enroll in courses for their entire stay, while most begin to concentrate solely on thesis research during their third year in the program.


Three exams are required of students in the AP program. The first of these is the Qualifying Exam, which measures the student’s grasp of fundamentals in the five core subject areas as well as in experimental physics. This written exam is normally taken after two terms of study have been completed. Upon passing this exam, the student moves on to more advanced courses of study.

The Admission to Candidacy Exam is an oral exam that further tests the student’s competence in core physics and mathematics as well as the minor area of study. It also examines the student’s preparation for beginning full-time research in a particular area of AP. This exam is administered by the student’s Special Committee. It is typically taken in the second or third year of studies. Upon successful completion of both exams, the student is awarded a master’s degree and formally admitted into the Ph.D. program.

The student then undertakes a project of original research and writes a thesis. In the Final Examination, the student makes an oral defense of this thesis at a hearing administered by the Special Committee. A successful defense and approval of the written thesis are the final steps in fulfilling the degree requirements for a Ph.D. in AP.

The total time required to earn a doctorate in AP generally ranges from five to six years, depending on a student’s preparation and research topic.


Applications for admission to graduate study in AP are invited from students with undergraduate degrees in physics, applied physics, or engineering physics and from students with degrees in related areas such as electrical engineering, mathematics, materials science, or chemistry who have a strong analytical orientation. Well-qualified individuals with master’s degrees in these areas are also invited to apply. Competition for admission to AP is strong, and class size is limited by the number of students for which research support is expected to be available in subsequent years. Students are admitted on the basis of academic merit and ability to pursue an advanced degree program as demonstrated by scholastic record, letters of recommendation, GRE scores, and a statement of purpose. Students admitted to the program normally begin in the fall term.

Admission to the Ph.D. program is generally granted only on a full-time basis for pursuit of a doctoral degree. Students seeking a Master's level degree may wish to consider the one-year Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) Degree Program in Engineering Physics, or the two-year Master of Science (M.S.) Degree Program, both of which are offered by the School of Applied and Engineering Physics.

Preadmission Examinations

Applicants are required to submit Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) general test scores and are strongly encouraged to take the GRE subject test in physics. The GRE should be taken no later than October for scores to be available for admissions review.

Applicants whose native language is not English must also take the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and receive a score of at least 550. An exception to the TOEFL requirement is made for students who have studied for two years at a university in an English-speaking country or received an undergraduate degree from such a university. The TOEFL should be taken no later than November for scores to be available for admissions review.


Applications for graduate studies in the School of Applied & Engineering Physics should be completed online via the Cornell Graduate School website. Recommenders are also encouraged to submit their letters online. Applications must be submitted no later than December 15th, if applicants wish to be considered for Cornell fellowships. Applications received after this date may still be considered, but options for financial support are more limited.

Financial Support

Students in good standing in the Ph.D. program in AP generally receive full support during their graduate studies. This includes tuition plus a stipend for both the academic year and the summer. Support may be in the form of fellowships, teaching assistantships, or research assistantships that are available through the Graduate School, the field of AP, corporations, and government agencies.

Fellowships usually provide a generous stipend and full tuition. Cornell fellowships awarded to AP students during their first one or two years of study are based on scholastic ability and promise of achievement. Other fellowships are awarded by the field of AP, Cornell research centers, corporations, and government agencies. Corporate and government fellowships provide a generous and prestigious source of support for AP students, and applicants are encouraged to apply for these outside fellowships.

Teaching assistantships are normally awarded to first-year AP students on the basis of their scholastic records and interests. Teaching assistants are responsible for teaching and related activities, and are compensated with a stipend for the academic year and full tuition.

Graduate research assistantships (GRAs), which are provided by government- or corporate-sponsored research programs, are, along with fellowships, the standard form of support for students after their first academic year of study (although GRAs may be offered earlier). Students selected for GRAs receive full tuition and a stipend for the academic year and the summer. They are required to work with a research group on specific projects; their thesis research topic eventually develops as a result of these activities.

Application for financial aid is made at the same time as application for admission. Every effort is made to notify students of admission decisions by the end of February. Cornell fellowship awardees are also typically notified by this time.


A variety of housing options are available. Some students live on campus, others rent apartments or join cooperative houses in the city of Ithaca, and yet others choose to live in the surrounding countryside.

On-campus housing for single students includes university apartments, small residences, and residence halls. These accommodations offer comfortable multinational atmospheres for study, recreation, and socializing. Family housing in culturally diverse university apartment complexes is available on the outskirts of campus. There are a variety of off-campus housing options.

For further information, contact:

Housing Office
206 Robert Purcell Community Center
North Campus

(Please use the subject line to indicate whether your message relates to undergraduate, graduate, off-campus, etc...)

Hours of Operation:
Monday-Friday 8:00AM - 5:00PM
Phone: 607 255-5368