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Princeton Physics for the Prospective Undergraduate

Physics continues to be one of Princeton's greatest strengths. We have a faculty with diverse interests, ranging from string theory and cosmology to condensed matter and biophysics. Our undergraduate program is distinguished by a commitment to teaching at all levels and by our program of junior and senior independent work.

Why do physics at Princeton?

  • Quality faculty.
    There's nothing like learning a subject from distinguished practitioners. (Actually, that's a great reason to do almost anything at Princeton). This is a place where you could (eventually) take General Relativity from professors who write papers on the subject, and spend part of a summer in our hands-on electronics course, taught by professors who have worked on some of the most sophisticated experiments in the world.
  • Future opportunities.
    An undergraduate education in physics leads naturally into a wide range of professions: physics, engineering, biology, medicine, patent law -- even politics, as exemplified by New Jersey's own Congressman Rush Holt. Almost every technical field draws strongly on physics for its underlying theory and experimental techniques.
  • Individual attention.
    Princeton has an excellent faculty-student ratio in physics: it's only slightly less than one-to-one! This has a particularly positive effect on junior and senior independent work.
  • Research opportunities.
    The department has an excellent record of involving interested students in research, both during the term and through summer jobs. It is not uncommon for senior theses to spring from summer work.
  • Commitment to teaching.
    There is a strong commitment to teaching at all levels in the department. We have multiple tracks for introductory physics and a curriculum of more advanced courses that will serve you well whether you are aiming for graduate school in physics, or have a pre-med orientation, or intend to go into business, industry, or public affairs.

All these are good reasons; but the best reason to get an undergraduate degree in physics is because you want to learn the subject. Here's a small sample of what you might find out in the course of four years in our department:

  • Why does Mercury's orbit precess?
  • Why do most metals superconduct at very low temperatures?
  • What does the "collapse of the wavefunction" have to do with quantum measurement?
  • What does it mean to say that an electron has spin 1/2?
  • How do you describe turbulence?
In short, physics is a great education. An old aphorism says that an undergraduate education should teach you how to think. We'll do more than that: we'll teach you how to think like a physicist!


Finding out more

Two good places to start are the Princeton University home page and the Physics Department web pages. The latter includes a more thorough summary of the Undergraduate Program. Information on the program in engineering physics can be found here. The Admissions Office and Registrar's Office are also helpful resources.

We benefit from close associations to the Departments of Astrophysics, Molecular Biology, and Electrical Engineering, the Princeton Materials Institute, and the Genomics Center.

The Frequently Asked Questions section of this document addresses a number of issues of particular interest to prospective undergraduates.


Visiting the Department

We're located in Jadwin Hall, which is near the southeast corner of campus, just to the west of the stadium (and not to be confused with Jadwin Gym). Here's a campus map.

Interested students are welcome to sit in on classes, which meet roughly from mid-September to mid-December and from the beginning of February to the beginning of May. Please visit the Registrar's home page for detailed Academic Calendars and Course Information. A Lecture or Class of PHY 103, 104, 105, or 106 are our recommended choices; PHY 203, 205, and 208 might also be of interest to exceptionally advanced students. It's best to focus on classes that meet between 9am and 5pm: outside these hours, the building may be locked.

If you need help deciphering the schedules posted on the Registrar's web page, you can contact the administrative assistants in the Undergraduate Office:

   Undergraduate Office, 208 Jadwin Hall
   Princeton Physics Department
   Princeton, NJ 08544
   (609) 258-4418

E-mail is preferred over postal mail or phone.

You should ask the professor's permission to sit in on his or her class, but it's fine to do that 30 seconds before the class begins.

We don't conduct tours of the department as such, but if you have a specific interest in a particular professor's research (start here to find summaries), you can write to him/her directly and request a tour of his/her lab.


Frequently Asked Questions

A lot of the questions that prospective undergraduates are most interested in can be answered by looking through the departmental web pages, particularly the ones on the Undergraduate Program. Here we'll hit some of the highlights.
  • What makes Princeton different from other undergraduate programs?

    In brief: the junior and senior independent work. This is the way that our majors get deeply involved in some aspect of physics. Each of two junior papers aims to understand some interesting aspect of current research. The senior thesis is most often an effort to actually contribute to current research. The thesis invariably represents the student's highest effort to come to grips with science as a living, breathing subject, and published papers sometimes result.

    The independent work engenders closer interaction between faculty and students -- not only in the independent work itself, but in summer research opportunities and research-related discussions. In short, we're conditioned to regard undergrads as potential collaborators.

  • What research goes on in the department?

    The best way to find out is to check out our Research web pages. There is a broad, fast-paced effort in both experimental and theoretical physics. We encourage undergraduates to get involved, both through their independent work and through summer jobs. Most summer jobs pertain to experimental projects that we're involved with, like the WMAP satellite (on cosmic background anisotropy) or the MiniBooNE experiment (on neutrino oscillation).

  • What physics course would I take on arrival at Princeton?

    Most incoming freshman interested in physics take PHY 103 (freshman mechanics) or the "honors" variant, PHY 105. The honors course splits off from the main course after about 3 weeks, giving us the opportunity to determine what is best for you using information beyond test scores. People who have done well on AP Physics C and have taken an additional year of college level physics may opt for PHY 203 (lagrangian mechanics). We try to be flexible enough to accommodate any background.

  • What are the requirements for a physics major?

    This is a question best answered by consulting the web pages describing the Undergraduate Program, in particular the Program of Study. The short answer is that you need eight departmental courses (starting with quantum mechanics, PHY 208), plus your junior and senior independent work. The prerequisites for the departmental courses are, roughly, three physics courses and two math courses at the freshman and sophomore level. While we think it's important for all our physics majors to master the fundamentals of modern physics, we also try to make our undergraduate program broad enough to accommodate students who also have interests in related fields, like math, chemistry, biology, and even philosophy, history, and public policy.


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