A large number of graduate courses are offered every year. We recommend that students take the introductory courses they need to fill gaps in their basic physics background. They also should attend the advanced courses appropriate to their chosen specialty. In between, they should satisfy the core curriculum requirement for the advanced part of the general examination. It is the goal of the graduate program to have all students engaged in real research as soon as possible upon arrival and all students settled on a thesis topic and a thesis advisor by the end of the second year.
The pre-thesis requirements fall under the heading of the General Examination. This consists of several parts to be discussed individually below. University regulations require that each student take all parts of the General Examination by the end of his or her second year. The Physics Department offers the preliminary examination in January and May, and the experimental oral defense in October and May. While it is understood that students will spend a lot of time and effort preparing for the exams, it is very important that the first two years be productive on the research side as well. Students are encouraged to maintain or form contacts with the research groups, work in the labs, and attend research seminars and colloquia.
- Preliminary examination. Prelims here are much like those at most schools. There are written exams on mechanics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, and thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. These exams are all taken at the same time and must be taken in January or May of the first year. Students should take courses in the areas they need the most work in and are encouraged to join the study groups that form during the term.
- Experimental requirement. All students are required to perform an experimental project at Princeton and take an oral examination on the project by November of the second year. Students are strongly encouraged to complete the project by May of the first year or certainly not later than November. There are several ways to meet this requirement, listed below. In each case, a written report will be submitted, at least several weeks prior to the oral exam.
- Almost any work done in an AR position with an experimental group can be written up as a project. (The "almost" is included because one can imagine doing purely theoretical work for an experimental group.
- Whatever the scope of the work, the student is expected to be well versed in its general experimental background. For example, if the student has done work analyzing data already available, the student is expected to be familiar with the apparatus used to take the data.
- The advanced undergraduate laboratories are another source of projects. Ask the lab instructor if there are labs that need development or improvement.
- An independent project (not an AR) with one of the experimental faculty. The general level of effort expected is somewhat in excess of 100 hours.
- Students with first-year fellowships are encouraged to assist one of the experimental groups. Again, the general level of effort expected is somewhat in excess of 100 hours.
- There are no formal rules about the write-up. The length and format are flexible, but typically comparable to a Letter-type journal, although there are no restrictions, and it is advisable that the level be aimed at physicists who are not expert in the field.
- Blackboard, overhead transparencies or laptops can be used for the oral presentations. Prepared remarks should be brief, though, no more than 10 minutes, since the main purpose is for the Committee to ask questions. (The Committee has received the written report prior to the oral presentation.)
- Advanced part. The advanced part of the general examination covers general relativity, condensed matter, atomic, high-energy and nuclear physics, and biophysics. By the end of their second year the students will need to pass three courses out of a set of core requirement courses on these topics. It is expected that the content and identity of these courses will evolve in parallel with the interests of the Department. At the beginning of each academic year, the Core Curriculum Committee, responsible for the advanced part of the General Examination, will announce which courses will be offered as core requirement courses. These list can be modified each year, if desired, with the advice of the various research groups. The committee will meet at intervals to evaluate student performance in the courses and to identify students who are having trouble with the coursework.
The current list of core courses is available here.
The preliminary exam, the experimental project and the core requirement courses constitute the General Examination, and they all need to be completed by the end of the second year. If a student fails to pass all parts of the General Examinations by the end of his/her second year, the degree candidacy automatically terminates.
The pre-thesis project.
This is a research project in the student's area of interest, to be done under the supervision of a faculty advisor. The final product is a written report and an oral defense in the presence of a pre-thesis committee. The report's length and format are typically comparable to a journal article. It is advisable to include an introduction aimed at physicists who are not expert in the field.
The goals of the pre-thesis projects are:
- to give the student a serious introduction to his or her final area of specialization
- to get the student involved with the faculty in the research group of interest
- to get the student known by the faculty in the research group of interest
The physics department is very eager to get the students up to a rapid start on their thesis research. Hence, during their second year, students are expected to start actively working on their pre-thesis project. The evaluation by the pre-thesis advisor will be an essential part of the reenrollment process at the end of the second year. The pre-thesis defense should take place no later than the fall of the third year.
It is the student's responsibility to schedule the oral defense and to choose (in consultation with the advisor) the pre-thesis committee which will sit through the oral defense of the pre-thesis project. The pre-thesis committee should consist of at least three faculty members: the advisor, at least one other faculty member expert in the field of the project, and at least one member drawn from the faculty at large. For students whose primary advisor is from outside the department, the other two committee members must be from inside the department. It is the committee's responsibility to ensure that the pre-thesis project and the thesis have a strong physics component.
The pre-thesis committee will, under normal circumstances, serve as a standing committee to review progress toward the Ph.D. and to provide advice as appropriate up to and including the student's FPO. In cases where a student changes advisors or research directions, the committee may be reconstituted. Although the pre-thesis committee need not meet again until the FPO, it can be called into session at the request of the candidate, the advisor, or the Director of Graduate Studies. This can be done to review a student's progress towards the Ph.D. or to provide advice on other issues that may arise in the course of a student's research.
Finding a thesis advisor is, of course, a matter of individual negotiation. All students are expected to have advisors and to be embarked on thesis research by the beginning of their third year.
Procedures concerning primary dissertation advisors
The physics departments is open to interdisciplinary thesis work, as long as this work has a strong physics component. If the student decides to work on his/her pre-thesis or thesis project with a faculty member outside of the department, he/she must receive approval from the DGS. The DGS then requires that the student contact a faculty member in the physics department who will act as second advisor and will guarantee that the pre-thesis project has a strong physics component.