Student Experience

What do graduate students do?

The main focus of the Ph.D. is original research in Physics, conducted under the supervision of a faculty member. The only non-research requirements are three core courses and the Preliminary Exam, which is taken in the first year to demonstrate mastery of a broad “physics toolkit” covering an advanced undergraduate curriculum. After this, students spend the rest of the Ph.D. doing research full-time and (in some cases) teaching. In our department, the average time to completion of the Ph.D. is 5.4 years. For a more detailed breakdown of the program requirements, click here.

What is the department culture?

The Physics department is strongly committed to creating an inclusive, diverse community whose members feel welcome and valued. However, we also recognize that the Physics community has much work to do towards improving diversity. We have long operated a Committee on Climate and Inclusion, and recently we expanded this effort to form the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Initiative. Click here to learn about the ongoing work of the EDI Initiative and read our Statement of Solidarity with movements against systemic racism. Our goal is to build a collaborative environment where everyone can thrive and achieve their potential. Students find the department culture to be friendly and collaborative, not competitive. There is no competition for funding, and there are always plenty of advising spots for admitted students. First-year students bond while studying together for prelims (the department will buy pizza for study sessions!), and students mix across years and subfields at the daily tea-time and weekly Friday Social Hour. If you have an idea to build community, there is a good chance the department will support it financially and logistically. In addition, the Princeton Graduate School fosters a lively social scene across departments.

The work culture varies depending on one’s research group and can fluctuate widely. Some students work evenings and weekends whereas others maintain a more regular schedule; it is always wise to discuss expectations with an advisor and their current grad students before joining a group. Even in the most relaxed group, there will probably be very stressful times (e.g. around Prelims, before a big grant or conference deadline). The hours do tend to be more flexible than jobs outside academia, but this also varies by research group.

How are students supported financially?

All Physics Ph.D. students at Princeton receive a stipend and pay zero tuition. In the first year, the graduate school provides the stipend to all students. After that, students are supported through either teaching assignments (an Assistantship in Instruction or “AI”) or their research advisor (an Assistantship in Research or “AR”). Some students are supported by competitive outside fellowships (e.g. the NSF GRFP, NDSEG, etc.). The stipend comfortably covers living expenses for most students. Rough estimates of stipends across the graduate school can be found here, although the Physics department often manages to pay more. To be more concrete, on-campus housing ranges from \$770/month (4-bedroom townhouse) to \$1,400 (1-bedroom apartment); current housing rates are maintained here. Groceries cost around $300 if you mostly cook. Of course, everyone’s finances are different, and other expenses (cars, children, healthcare, student loans, sushi delivery, those trips to NYC) can add up quickly, so plan accordingly. Experimentalists are typically supported by an AR from their advisor, while theorists are more likely to be supported by teaching, but there are always exceptions.  The university also supports family focused initiatives specifically for graduate students with children, including paid parental leave for both biological and adoptive new parents, and support for childcare costs.

How are students supported as people?

The Physics department and the Graduate School recognize that grad students are human beings with non-academic needs, and they sponsor social events for every flavor of fun, from free Broadway shows to hip-hop dance workshops to wine and cheese nights. They also offer a large network of services addressing more serious concerns relating to health, inclusion, and student safety:

● Physical and Mental Health: All grad students are enrolled in the Student Health Plan (SHP), which also covers counseling and mental health services. Currently, COVID testing is completely covered, and students approved to be on campus are being tested twice per week. In addition, grad students have access to the gym and athletic facilities, as well as discounted exercise classes.

The Access, Diversity, and Inclusion Team offers institutional support for students from Historically Underrepresented Groups and the many campus organizations devoted to equality and justice. Affiliated Campus Centers include the Women’s Center, the Davis International Center, the LGBT Center, and the Carl Fields Center for Equality and Understanding.

● Princeton’s Women in Physics group offers a space for women in the department to share their experiences, build community, and offer mutual support.

● The Physics Department’s EDI Initiative maintains an anonymous feedback box for comments and suggestions about the department culture.

● In the event of sexual harassment or assault, students can obtain confidential help from the SHARE (Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources, and Education) Office.

What can I do with a Physics Ph.D. from Princeton?

Many students go on to do physics research professionally, either in academia (as a post-doc then as a professor) or in industry. However, plenty of alumni have very successful careers outside of physics. All students develop valuable skills in critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication. To see common career paths for Physics Ph.D.s, check out these resources from the American Institute of Physics (https://www.aip.org/statistics/whos-hiring-physics-phds). Princeton also has opportunities to get involved with science policy and communication. The Princeton Center for Career Development offers many events and advising resources to help grad students pursue their professional goals inside and outside of academia