Studying abroad is compatible with majoring in physics, but students need to plan carefully in order to be able to spend a semester or year abroad. One warning is that the study of physics is “sequential;” there is an order in which various courses must be completed. Hence, physics students need to satisfy various prerequisites before they can declare a physics major. It is also important to keep in mind that the most intense year for a physics major is the junior year, when physics students usually take two physics courses and a math course per semester, along with a junior paper each semester. The senior year is almost exclusively dedicated to independent research work, and it does not make sense to do that abroad, as a major part of the Princeton experience is to work with Princeton professors. Moreover, the senior year is when students apply to graduate schools or for jobs, so it is important for them to be in the country at this stage. The Program of Study describes the physics prerequisites, requirements, and schedule in detail.
Here is a brief summary, with implications for study abroad:
- Prerequisites: As freshmen, prospective physics majors need to take the PHY 103/4 or 105/6 or sequence or the Integrated Science Sequence. Students usually start on the 200 level multivariable calculus and linear algebra sequence in the freshman year and certainly complete it by the end of sophomore year. As sophomores, students take analytic mechanics (PHY 207 or PHY 205) and Introduction to Quantum Mechanics (PHY208). PHY 208 also counts as a requirement toward a physics major, and is followed by a more advanced QM course (PHY 305) in the fall of the junior year, which builds upon the material covered in PHY 208.
The department will allow students to fulfill the sophomore year prerequisites abroad, provided the departmental representative pre-approves the courses. We will also accept fulfillment of the mathematics prerequisites, as long as the physics (or math) departmental representative grants pre-approval. Indeed, if a prospective physics student is really interested in spending a year or a semester abroad, we recommend he/she does it during his/her sophomore year, as this is the simplest option of all. The main issue is to find a match for PHY 208 that is an adequate preparation for PHY 305.
- Core courses: The physics core courses during junior year are: PHY 301 and PHY 305 in the fall, and PHY 304 and PHY 312 in the spring. One might be able to find the equivalent of one or two of these courses abroad, but it is hard to find them in the right sequence and in the right semester. It is probably easier to find the equivalent of the 300-level math courses (including complex analysis), which are also part of the physics requirements.
Therefore, students who want to go abroad during their junior year are advised to take, during their sophomore year, at least one core course of the junior semester in which they plan to study abroad. The other core course may be postponed to the senior year if an equivalent is not available at the study abroad institution.
- Electives: One elective can be pre-approved as a departmental for study abroad.
- Junior independent work (JIW): Physics students have two independent projects, one in each term. It is possible to do one of them during a semester abroad, but the department does not allow students to do both of them abroad. Consequently, at most a student could take one semester off during the junior year. Early concentrators, though, have the option to do their first JP in the spring of their sophomore year. It would be advisable to arrange the JP abroad while the student is still in Princeton, hopefully through some physics faculty member who knows scientists at the other institution, and can act as a second reader for the JP. In any case, the student who does a JP abroad needs to secure a faculty member in the physics department as second reader.
- Senior year: The department does not encourage students to spend their senior year or a senior semester abroad.
ADVICE: If you are interested in majoring in physics and spending a year/semester abroad, talk to the physics departmental representative as soon as you get to Princeton as a freshman.
Possible institutions abroad:
In past years, physics majors have looked at the following institutions and found programs somewhat compatible with ours:
Oxford University. Princeton has a special exchange program with Oxford, but this university only accepts exchange students for a full year.
Bristol University. It offers a Quantum Mechanics course in the spring semester that could substitute for PHY 208 (possibly up to extra homework assignments).
University of Cape Town.
Students with a mathematical bent might consider a semester at Math in Moscow.
The Physics department can only advice students on the course of study. The logistics of the year abroad should be dealt with through the Study Abroad Program of Princeton University.
Physics students who are interested in a research experience abroad should also look into the possibility of summer internships abroad. Some of them are listed on the departmental summer opportunities webpage.
Students can also look into the International Internship program of Princeton University. The physics department can only offer physics advice on internships at foreign institutions, but the funding and the logistics need to be dealt with through IIP.