COSAM News Articles 2021 April ConnectingCOSAM: Tips from a graduate student in the Department of Physics for the GDE

ConnectingCOSAM: Tips from a graduate student in the Department of Physics for the GDE

Published: 04/13/2021

By: Thomas Deskins

Thomas Deskins, a graduate student in the Department of Physics, offers advice for other students preparing to take the Graduate Doctoral Exam (GDE). Each year, new graduate students prepare to take the GDE and below are helpful tips for COSAM students starting their journey. 


  • Give yourself several months of time to study for the GDE.
  • Review your class notes and mark down parts you do not understand. 
  • Consult the “Problems and Solutions on….” books by Lim for example GDE problems, most of which you should find helpful.
  • Meet with several other members of your cohort several times per week and hold mock exams, for which you should set a proper time limit. Work through past Auburn physics GDEs. Lim’s problems are helpful, but they do not compare to completing past exams.
  • Discuss each problem in its entirety after the mock exams to ensure there are no misunderstandings or confusion.
  • If you find yourself struggling with something, ask other members of your cohort for help, as teaching will help them improve their own understanding.
  • If you find that all members of your group are unsure about something, reach out to your professor for guidance.
  • Be organized while solving a problem. Work methodically and be conscious about the time.
  • Keep a log of each problem you complete. It should include which concepts were tested, what you learned, and how well you understand it. Review this log occasionally to ensure you study all the concepts of the courses.
  • If you find that you cannot explicitly solve a GDE problem quantitatively, write down your understanding of the problem and how you believe it could be solved. Show what you know through equations and words.
  • Set a daily routine and adhere to it. 
  • Take short breaks while studying.
  • Do not allow your health to suffer. You will perform best when you are exercising, eating, and sleeping well. An hour of studying at 9 a.m. after a restful night is much more beneficial than 5 hours of studying at 1 a.m.

General advice on the mindset which students should have:

  • You are expected to demonstrate knowledge of the core subjects, but you are not expected to be an expert. Therefore, do not be discouraged when you struggle; instead, see your struggles as indicators of topics you need to study further.


  • Past Auburn physics GDEs
  • Yung-Kuo Lim’s books  
  • Course textbooks. Ask your professors for additional recommendations. Some that you may find helpful: Kubo for Statistical Mechanics, Jackson for Electricity and Magnetism, and Sakurai for Quantum Mechanics.  

Personal advice from Thomas:

I believe wholeheartedly that I would not have passed all four exams on the first attempt if it were not for studying with a large group of my classmates in the manner I described above. I found that meeting with at least four members of the cohort was best. Anything greater than eight and the effectiveness seems to drop off a bit, in my opinion.

In terms of resources, I didn’t find anything to be really useful besides the ones listed above. I tried several things that didn’t work well for me, such as keeping a binder full of questions that I complete (I personally wasted too much time trying to organize it) or studying on my own (I spent too much time searching for an explanation of the problem solution. I could waste a very frustrating hour on my own or learn it in 5 minutes from a classmate who understood that particular concept).

Personally, I think the GDE exists for two reasons. First, it tests the knowledge of graduate physics concepts. Secondly, it simulates the research process. One may spend several months stressing out over something and they’ll inevitably find obstacles along the way. I think it takes training to stay motivated in the face of failure and GDE preparation certainly addresses that very well!

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