Prof. Shivaji Sondhi
Chair, Senior Committee
324 Jadwin Hall
Physics at Princeton is exciting and broad. Research in the department spans the extremes of distance, mass, and energy. Both theoretically and experimentally we probe the most fundamental elements of Nature. New forms of matter are being discovered, quantified, and modeled. We study gravity in settings ranging from interacting black holes to the birth of the universe. We have large efforts in understanding the principles that guide biology in terms of physics. Research is the primary activity of most of the department and we want you to learn how to do it with us. As undergraduates, many of you have had the opportunity to work in a lab, and to work with faculty members on Junior Papers. The senior thesis is a chance to take on a project of significant depth and bring all the skills you have learned to bear on it. The goal of the thesis is to generate and document a new perspective that furthers knowledge in physics or a related discipline. For example, it is not uncommon for senior theses to be published in scientific journals or to have results from them incorporated into scientific papers.
The senior thesis is a departmental requirement and is the strongest element of independent research in the physics major program.
Getting started. There is a diverse range of possibilities and opportunities to embark on a senior thesis – no single prescription can describe them all. The most important part of getting started is to pick a topic that fully engages you. It can be any topic that builds on the physics you studied in your junior year. It can be experimental, theoretical, or mixture of the two, such as in the analysis of existing experimental data. Examples include biophysics, geophysics, elementary and astro-particle physics, cosmology, string theory, condensed matter theory or experiment, public policy, the physics of dance and music, finance and information theory, etc. The only requirement is that the senior thesis research must make use of concepts and ideas that were learned in physics courses at the 300-level or above.
The other important part of getting started is finding an adviser. This should be done by the end of the second week of the fall semester. He or she does not have to be in the Physics Department. However, if your adviser is not in the department (or not an “associated faculty” member), the reader on your thesis must be in the department as described here. It is good to plan on meeting your adviser about once a week. Often, you’ll become part of a research group and interact with other faculty members, post-docs, graduate students, and other undergraduates.
The approaches to independent research are as varied as the researchers.
Some begin preparing for their thesis work in the summer before their senior year but this is not necessary. The most important thing is for you to engage with the project and continue to focus and think about it throughout your senior year, even on a daily basis. Regardless of the approach, theses have one common output: a written document that synthesizes your thoughts and findings.
Although your thesis should be an intellectual adventure, there are some practical things to keep in mind. Time flies. The end of the first semester will be upon you before you know it and a completed thesis is due just a little over three months after that. When doing an experimental thesis please keep in mind that writing a polished fifty-page thesis takes about a month after completing the analysis. You also need to set some time aside to get your thesis bound. Time management is critical.
The written thesis. There is no one style and there is no set length. That being said, the thesis should be polished, proofread, properly referenced, and the figures should be clear. Recall the JP guidelines. Share drafts with your adviser to get feedback along the way. A typical thesis should be about fifty pages when following the standard format outlined below. Longer does not equate to better and more often than not it means you have not taken the time to be concise. Mark Twain wrote “Anyone can have ideas---the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.” Keep in mind that scientific journals often charge by the page and that long articles, outside of the abstract, conclusions, and figure captions, are often not read.
The thesis oral. In addition to the writing there is a final oral exam that serves as the Departmental Examination (required by the University of all seniors). It lasts about one hour. You should prepare a talk on your thesis work, about 30 minutes in length. It is anticipated that interruptions for questions will expand this to about 45 minutes, with about 15 minutes at the end for further questions. The oral committee will want to reserve time for questioning, so don't plan too long a talk, lest you get cut off. Your adviser and second reader will of course be very familiar with your work, the third member less so. Your talk should thus include introductory material for a non-specialist. The talk should be prepared using standard visual aids -- do not expect people to flip through your thesis to look at figures.
Most such talks are done with transparencies or computer projection. If you want to use a laptop, you are responsible for making sure things work! A hard-copy backup is a good idea. In either case, preparing such a talk takes time -- take the time to do a good job. A rehearsal (in front of friends or an empty room) is recommended.
Some advice on the content of slides: these should be basically for graphical material -- figures, plots, equations. Some speakers use their slides for this exclusively; some like to include some text as well. If you include text, restrict yourself to terse summaries of major points. Never fill a slide with dense text. Your adviser can advise you on presentation techniques.
Your committee will ask several kinds of questions. Some will simply be clarification for the benefit of the questioner, others will be to check on your understanding of the details of the topic. The third Committee member will have a special charge. As the non-specialist, he or she will focus on questions probing your understanding of the more basic physics underlying your thesis topic. It is essential that you be able to connect your work, however esoteric, to the physics we expect you to have mastered as a physics major. Do you understand the quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, or E&M behind your project? Do you understand the goal of the experimental or theoretical effort of which your thesis is a part? Advice: brush up on these areas between the thesis deadline and your oral!
The Senior Committee
A three-member faculty committee—the “Senior Committee”, oversees all the senior theses. The committee meets with the seniors at the beginning of the academic year to outline what is expected and to help them get started on choosing advisers and topics. The committee establishes milestones (e.g., due dates for adviser and topic selection, outlines, drafts, and final submissions), hears oral presentations detailing progress, and administers an oral examination on the thesis after submission. The committee provides a grade for the oral exam and has the final say on the grade for the written thesis. The senior committee is also a valuable source for consultation and questions related to the progress of your thesis work.
The adviser and a second reader both read the thesis and provide feedback on the strong and weak points of the thesis for the student. In addition, they discuss the thesis and suggest a grade to the senior committee. As the final step in determining the grade, the committee conducts a meeting of the advisers and second readers. Theses on the borderlines between grades are discussed as well as exceptionally good or poor theses.
The products of this meeting include the determination of the final grades for the theses and identification of potential improvements to the process for implementation in future years. For example, in past years, it was noticed that there were a few students who had trouble getting started and then didn’t have enough time to finish. In response, the senior committee established intermediate milestones such as oral reports. These milestones enable the committee to identify students in difficulty and suggest midcourse corrections.
The grading builds on the grading of the JP. In addition to your synthesis of a body of research, we are looking for something new that represents a unique result, instrument, calculation, interpretation, or analysis.
You will receive two grades related to your thesis and your oral.
The first is the “thesis grade.” This is based on your research and written thesis and determined by adviser and second reader. The general guidelines follow those for the JPs.
A+ Truly outstanding. This grade should be reserved for work of publishable or nearly publishable quality. This does not mean that an A+ paper must contain original results. A brilliantly written review paper--one which you might share with students or professional colleagues--would also qualify for an A+. An adviser with a paper in this category needs to provide a written justification of why it is exceptional. Some years no A+s are given.
A Excellent. This grade should be used for work that goes well beyond simply “doing a good job." An adviser should have learned new things from it. Theses that are very thorough with a particularly insightful and clear presentation should be considered for As.
A- Very good. A thesis that covers the topic well and goes into significant depth, written in a professional style with only minor flaws. The student shows complete mastery of the subject.
B+ Good. The student did what was asked and goes into some depth in the subject, but there are a few deficiencies, either in presentation or science content. The presentation is somewhat sloppy or it is not obvious that the student fully mastered all aspects of the subject and the bigger scientific context.
B Acceptable. The student covers the subject but there are significant deficiencies either in content or presentation. The thesis is not written very well, contains some scientific flaws or lacks substantial depth.
B- Disappointing. The thesis contains an overview of the subject, but is mostly superficial. It is not clear that the student thought in depth about the problem. The thesis contains significant errors or is rather poorly written.
C+ Poor. The student has only superficial understanding of the subject. The thesis lacks depth, contains many errors or the presentation is sloppy.
C Passing. The thesis contains some correct things related to the subject but is in no way complete.
D Large portions of the thesis and not complete. The work is of questionable quality and does not lead to useful conclusions. The thesis is seriously lacking in virtually all aspects.
F The thesis is largely incomplete and incorrect. The student worked rarely or not at all.
The second is the “Departmental exam grade.” This is based on the quality and clarity of your oral presentation, facility in answering technical questions, and facility in answering "underlying physics" questions. The grade is determined by your oral committee.
In both cases final grades will be set only after the grading meeting of advisers and the Senior Committee. The Senior Committee will record the grades after this meeting and report them to you. Both grades are reported to the Registrar and appear on your transcript. (The weight of the departmental exam in "credit hours" is zero, and it thus does not contribute to grade averages calculated from the transcript.)
Getting Started Early
Your thesis will be graded on the work you complete during the academic year. However, some students start in the summer before their senior year. The extra couple of months might, for example, give you time to start setting up an experiment. You may even find that you want to switch topics or advisers.
The Physics Department has a number of fellowships available for summer research but none are specifically for senior theses. These fellowships are awarded based on academic progress and other aspects of the students work that show strong future potential and interest in research. Students are asked to fill out the summer research interests on a department webpage and to contact the corresponding research groups to express their interest in working with these groups during the summer. Once the research groups identify the students to which they are offering summer positions, these students are then considered for the fellowship awards. Fellowship awards are not a pre-condition for summer research, nor are they to be considered by research groups as a requirement choosing students to join their groups. Some advisers have available summer opportunities and funds from grants to support summer students while others do not. The University, however, does have the Student Activity Funding Engine (SAFE) for rising seniors. Applications must be submitted with the consent of your summer research adviser. For questions contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Completing the Written Thesis
Senior theses should be turned in to Karen Kelly, Jadwin Hall 208 at 4pm on the announced due date.
Extensions cannot be granted by advisers. Extension requests will be considered by the Senior Committee only if they are made well in advance of the due date, barring exceptional circumstances like being too sick to contact the department. Illness, family tragedy, or unexpected absence of your advisor would be good reasons to request an extension. Extensions beyond the University deadline can only be granted by an appropriate Dean.
Please be aware that although all of us on the faculty want to see our students succeed, turning in your thesis late without an extension will have an adverse affect on your academic record.
In total you are required to turn in one hard copies of your thesis by the due date as well as four electronic copies It is advisable to keep an additional copy for yourself. The first hard copy must be bound and will be deposited in Fine Library. (The library reports: "permanently bound, glued or stitched, it doesn't matter if it is leather or not." "Gold stamping" on the bound copy is optional although most students have it done.) An electronic copy in pdf format must be submitted to Mudd Library. You are also required to send an electronic copy to the Undergraduate Office as an email to Karen Kelly and to your thesis adviser and second reader. If your adviser or second reader would like hard copies, it is your responsibility to supply them.
Thesis formatting rules.
• The thesis should be printed on one side of standard-size paper (8 1/2 x 11 inches). Special thesis paper is not required.
• It should be "double-spaced." However, in practice, 1.5 spacing looks much better and is recommended. It should have an approximately-2-inch margin on the left to facilitate binding.
• Pages must be numbered.
• Indicate in a statement on the thesis: This paper represents my own work in accordance with University regulations and add your signature. This pledge can go anywhere. On the title page or on a separate page are both OK.
• There must be an abstract, less than one page in length, on a separate page. This page must include the thesis title and your name.
There are basically no formatting rules other than these, rumor to the contrary notwithstanding. For example, no statement of "right to copy" is required.
Schedule for Oral.
The thesis oral committee will consist of three faculty members: your adviser, your second reader, and a member of the Undergraduate Committee. (The Undergraduate Committee is a broader group that includes the Senior Committee.) The schedule of available oral exam dates and times are available in the Department office. Please coordinate with your adviser and your second reader and reserve a time slot with Ms. Kelly in the Department office. The Undergraduate Committee member will be assigned automatically.
Please begin the process of choosing a second reader and reserving a time slot for your oral well before the end of the semester. Your choice of second reader may be affected by travel plans. Please let the Senior Committee know if you are having any trouble scheduling your oral.
The Time Line
For specific dates please visit the junior and senior calendar. The following is an overview.
--First two weeks of class in September: pick a topic and adviser. Inform the senior committee.
--Early February: Preliminary 10 min oral presentation
--By April you should be thoroughly engaged in writing.
--Mid April: set a time for the oral exam
--Early May—hand in the thesis.
 There are many resources to help with writing. The Writing Center, located in Whitman College, offers free one-on-one conferences with experienced fellow writers trained to consult on assignments in any discipline. Special 80-minute conferences are available for JP and Senior Thesis writers, who may sign up to work with a graduate student fellow from the department of their choice. The Writing Center also holds 50-minute regular conferences seven days a week, and drop-in hours Sunday through Thursday evenings. Enter through Baker Hall.
 The intermediate oral report is given to the senior committee and lasts 10 minutes. Power point is often used. Guidance based on the report is given to the students and adviser.