Friday, October 4, 2013

Medical Physics Qualifying Exams

We have a Medical Physics PhD program here at Oakland University, and this was the week we administered the oral qualifying exam to our current crop of graduate students. Happily, they all passed. In August they also took a battery of written exams about theoretical physics, mathematical methods, and biophysical sciences (Physics, Math, and Biology for short). I have mentioned these exams before in this blog. We consider them to be a common core that our graduate students are expected to master.

These exams do not require knowing extremely advance material, but they do cover a broad range of topics. I take them to be a minimum that our students must know, rather than a target they should aim for. A student who has a strong undergraduate background in physics, math and biology should be able to survive. Some of the more advanced homework problems and examples from the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology sometimes make their way onto these exams.

Let me add a few words about our PhD program. It is aimed at producing research students who can apply physics to medical and biological problems, rather than preparing students for traditional medical physics positions in a hospital. We are not CAMPEP accredited, because that accreditation is mainly for programs aimed narrowly at producing clinical medical physicists. Our students get broad training in both mathematics and medicine, and in both physics and physiology. Their depth comes from doing their research dissertation. After graduating, they go on to a variety of positions in academia, industry, and research laboratories.

Readers of IPMB who want to see how well they would do on our qualifying exam can find over ten years of the written exams at I have four reasons for posting these exams on the web. First, I assume the exams, or at least some of the questions from them, would make the rounds among our graduate students, or at least among some subset of the graduate students, and I would rather they all have equal access. Second, I am often asked to provide guidance and suggestions as to what specific topics might be on these exams (I admit, all of physics, math, and biology is a lot to master), and my answer is have them look at the previous exams. Third, it can be a useful recruiting tool; if a potential applicant wants to know what they are expected to master to succeed in our program, I can send them to the old exams and be confident that they realize what they are getting into. Fourth, failing our qualifying exam is a serious issue. The students only get two tries, and then they must leave the program. I prefer to give a student some direction and help rather wondering if the exam was unfair as I tell them that they failed. The downside to posting these exams is that I need to keep coming up with new problems each year. While some identical problems from old exams appear on later exams, I try to minimize this. So, writing the exams (which I do largely myself, although with input from the other faculty in the program) is a little harder than it otherwise would be. One useful side effect of posting the exams is that they are all “out there” available to anyone, including our dear readers of IPMB. So, feel free to use them as you wish. Sorry, but I don’t have solutions I can send you.

In addition to these written exams, each student must stand in front of a group of (intimidating?) faculty and answer questions about “everything”: all the topics from the written exams, plus questions related to their research, and to any other part of physics, mathematics, or biology that might strike the questioner’s fancy. This grilling is what our students went through on Wednesday, successfully. I think the students fear this part of the exam most of all, but I believe they grow from the experience.

Congratulations to this year’s students. I hope readers of IPMB find these exams useful.


  1. The Medical Physics degree offered at Oakland University prepares students for a wide variety of applications by offering such a broad selection of courses, This alone is not enough. What makes this degree different from similar degrees offered at different schools are those teaching the courses. Students are forced to think outside of the box. Applications are key. Problem solving skills arising from the fundamental foundation provided by physics gives the students a perspective much different from say a Biologist or a Chemist. Finding a mathematical solution for sets of equations is not what physics is about. Physics is about deriving those sets of equations based on first principles, understanding how these equations describe the system at hand, then developing strategy for how best to study the system within real world limitations. What will determine how a particular student will apply the degree depends upon the tools they acquire, in graduate school and beyond. This obviously depends on their interests - and the good news for the students enrolled in this program is that there is no limit to how many directions such a degree can take you.

  2. When there is a distance education opportunity to earn the degree (or take your course), I'll be among the first to step up with the tuition.

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