The Princeton system of independent study lends itself very well to the Physics Department, where there are about as many faculty as undergraduate students and where exciting opportunities are always available in world-renowned research groups. Princeton physics majors do research in their independent work and, if they want, over the summer.
Formal Research Requirements for the Physics Major
In each semester of the junior year, physics majors write a "junior paper" on a topic of current interest. These papers are often the first exposure to journal articles in physics and academic research. Each junior paper is prepared under the close supervision of a faculty member and provides an opportunity for stimulating discussions on the topic chosen by the student. For more details, see Junior Matters.
In the senior year, each physics major does a senior thesis: an original research project on a topic chosen by the student in consultation with a faculty adviser. Senior thesis projects span the range of activities in physics research from constructing experimental apparatus, to running an experiment, to analyzing data, to developing computer simulations, to theoretical analyses. Thesis topics on science teaching, history of science, and philosophy of science are also encouraged, as well as interdisciplinary projects with the other science departments. Projects are often done in the research areas of the Department - from particle physics to astrophysics. A student wishing to do an interdisciplinary thesis may need an adviser in another department to provide the expertise in the related field, as well as a physics department adviser to oversee the physics aspects of the thesis. Each thesis culminates with a written document (sometimes submitted for publication) and an oral examination covering the main points of the thesis. For more details, see Senior Matters.
Other Physics Department Research Opportunities
You may become involved with research as early as you want. The summer between the first and second years finds several students in Princeton working with research groups in the department. More students become involved in later summers, and some students continue during the academic year. Undergraduate researchers contribute in just about all the labs in the department. Students design optical pumping systems, analyze the data from high energy physics experiments conducted at CERN, SLAC, and Fermilab, explore the physical mechanisms of high temperature superconductivity, build probes of the cosmic microwave background, help design dark matter experiments, and conduct theoretical research.
Summer research positions are arranged informally, with students meeting with individual faculty members. If you are interested, don't hesitate to ask! Start with any faculty member to get leads. You should prepare a brief summary of your background to bring with you. It should contain information useful to a potential employer: how to reach you, relevant courses you have taken, and any skills or experience (programming, etc.) you may have. Consider also research opportunities elsewhere -- many national laboratories run summer internship programs.