History & Purpose
After James Madison graduated from Princeton in 1771, he remained for a year of "graduate work" to study Hebrew with President John Witherspoon. In the following decades, other promising students were permitted to stay on after receiving the bachelor's degree, but it was not until 1869 that graduate education at Princeton systematically began to take shape. In that year, three fellowships were established as an experiment to encourage outstanding members of the senior class to continue their studies. The terms of the awards (in mathematics, classics and philosophy) were considered rather bold in education circles; they were given after competitive examinations, and each fellow was free to choose where and how he could most profitably spend his year. (The fellow in philosophy, for example, elected to work under President James McCosh at Princeton.) In 1879, Princeton conferred its first earned doctorates on James F. Williamson and William Libby (both B.A. 1877).
In this modest beginning several significant, basic principles were at work: careful selection of candidates, latitude for the students in their programs of study, accessibility of the faculty, and willingness to experiment. These principles have governed the evolution of graduate education at Princeton since the formal establishment of the Graduate School in 1900.
The primary purpose of the Graduate School is to prepare scholars and researchers to master the content and methods of their special subjects, especially those who give promise of continuing development because they want to create knowledge and communicate it widely. After completing an intensive program of study, graduates should be able to claim professional standing in their chosen fields. The larger design of graduate education at Princeton is to establish the individual's permanent relationship to learning.