Summer research


The physics department strongly encourages students to work with faculty over the summer. This is a great opportunity to explore a new area of science, develop a deeper understanding of what it means to do research, and work in a rich intellectual environment with a mix of faculty, post-docs, graduate students, and other undergraduates. Summer research positions are arranged informally, with students approaching individual faculty members. Jobs and internships usually start after graduation in June and last 8 weeks or longer.

If you decide that summer research is for you, there are three main action items:

  1. Track down an adviser and topic. Don't be discouraged if you get some refusals: Faculty sometimes have extensive travel obligations, or already have all the students they can advise, or simply don't have a suitable research problem ready to hand. The best approach is to keep asking around, as broadly as you can rather than in one specific area, experimentalists and theorists both.
  2. Once you have an advisor and topic lined up, apply for funding through the Student Activities Funding Engine (SAFE) unless you advisor tells you not to.
  3. Fill out this web form to tell the Physics Department what you're planning on doing.

The key to success is to start early: February is not too soon! The earlier you start, the better your chances are to land a summer position that you like and that is fully funded.

Physics Department summer jobs are also announced here through the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR). One of OUR's aims is to help undergraduates write effective applications to various funding sources. Check out their detailed calendar.

Students interested in summer research opportunities abroad with non-Princeton faculty should check out the Princeton International Internship Program (IIP). You can apply to one of the many existing internship opportunities, or you can create your own if you have a specific PI abroad with whom you'd like to work. Please be alert for early deadlines (as early as mid October!) when considering IIP.


There are two main ways that undergraduate summer work with Princeton faculty gets funded:

  • SAFE. Students apply for this funding, usually with the help of their Princeton faculty adviser.
  • Time collection. This means students are working for an hourly wage, usually in the Physics Department.

All students planning on summer work in the Physics Department should use this web form to tell us the specifics. Eligibility for all categories of help that the department can provide is contingent on this form being filled out in a timely fashion. We never shut down the web portal, but it's good to think of May 15 as an effective deadline.

SAFE internships

SAFE internships are a way of funding research opportunities which are primarily for the benefit of the student. The student must initiate applications for SAFE funding. Some deadlines are as early as February, but others are later. All students interested in summer research should apply for SAFE funding unless their advisors tell them not to.

SAFE is administered out of the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR), and key personnel include Pascale Poussart, Beth Zawodniak, and Crystal Arrington.

Per guidance from the University administration, work at international sites, such as CERN, Gran Sasso, and the like, can only be funded as SAFE internships. This makes it especially urgent for students aiming to work abroad to apply for SAFE funding.

SAFE funding sources are myriad, and they may vary from student to student, for instance according to your residential college. Here is a sampling:

  • The Office of the Dean of the College offers SAFE funding both for summer work on senior theses. You can also apply for SAFE funding for a senior thesis or junior paper during the academic year (see under "Undergraduate Independent Projects").
  • The OURSIP program is a good choice for on-campus research not related to a senior thesis.
  • Non-obvious choices in SAFE include funding through the Office of Religious Life, which has very broad criteria and has funded physics research in the past.

Key items in applying for SAFE funding are a research proposal and a budget. Faculty advisers should be able to help, especially with the research proposal, which should be as specific as possible. A challenge in writing the research proposal is that you might not be sure exactly what you are going to do. Be specific anyway. If you're funded, and then you change topics before you start, it should be OK as long as you are still working on physics with the adviser you named in your application, and for the dates that you originally indicated. If a larger change occurs, or you're unsure whether a change is OK, you can update the SAFE administrators on your new plans. If some adjustment needs to be made they will let you know.

SAFE budgets are remarkably variable because students' needs differ. Some rules of thumb from summer 2018 may be helpful. The following levels of expense were typically approved for on-campus internships by students in the Physics Department:

  • Housing at $\$212$ per week.
  • Food at $\$25$ per day.
  • Miscellaneous expenses at $\$50$ per week.

The total is $\$437$ per week. If you calculate a 40-hour workweek, that comes to $\$10.93$ per hour. Weekly totals for students working at international sites are typically higher, partly because international airfare is often included in the budget. With airfare included, a typical figure from 2018 was $\$560$ per week, with housing, food, and miscellaneous as the main categories. Local transportation (like a daily tram to and from work) is an eligible expense too for a SAFE budget.

SAFE budgets are intended to cover your costs, as opposed to providing you with some summer earnings. Make the budget duly comprehensive, and track what you actually spend.

Sometimes, SAFE internships are fully funded through the Office of Undergraduate Research (or some other SAFE funding source outside the Physics Department). In other cases, matching dollars may be required from your adviser and/or the Physics Department. Or it could happen that the amount you need is just more than OUR or other SAFE funding sources can supply, and you get an offer of partial funding. Here's how to proceed in these cases.

  • If you need funding from the Physics Department, then this is the moment when it matters that you filled out our web form in a timely fashion. The Physics Department does not have funds specifically earmarked to fund SAFE internships. However, at the discretion of the chair, general departmental funds can be allocated to top up funding for SAFE internships. Generally speaking, your adviser should also be ready to make some contribution to your summer funding even if the main funding source is through SAFE, with help from the Physics Department. There may be constraints on the types of funding that a faculty advisor can use to help support a SAFE internships; an approximate understanding is that the funding source must be such that an internship that is for the benefit of the student is an eligible expense.
  • You're not allowed to work for a wage on the side during the dates of your SAFE internship, except as approved in advance by OUR. One of their rules in deciding whether to approve side jobs is that you need to have time to devote no less than 35 hours per week to your internship. Another rule is that if you do work for a wage on the side, it can't be in the same department as your adviser. It's been known to happen that a student held a SAFE internship in Physics and also worked during the summer in Fine Library; and that's OK. But what you definitely can't do is have SAFE internship working in your adviser's lab, and also get time collection wages for work in the same lab (or even the same department) during the same weeks. Not even to bring your total hours up from 35 hours per week to 40 hours per week.
  • What is allowed is to do a SAFE internship with a professor, and to work for the same professor (or in the same department) on time collection for non-overlapping date ranges. If it happens that you get a SAFE internship partially funded, this could be one solution: Accept the SAFE funding for a range of dates such that the funding covers your expenses, and then switch to time collection for the remaining dates that you actually work. Note, it is up to you to make sure with the Office of Undergraduate Research (and/or whatever entity partially funded your SAFE internship) to make sure that it's OK to accept the full amount of SAFE funding you've been offered for the limited range of dates (i.e. the complement of your time collection dates). Ideally, that arrangement should be reflected in your final SAFE award; if it isn't, get it in writing from the staff at the Office of Undergraduate Research.
  • If for some reason you are offered a funding package through SAFE that is inadequate (even after contributions from the department and your adviser), you can refuse it and go with time collection instead---assuming you can make the funding work through that channel.

There is a high degree of implied trust with SAFE. You get thousands of dollars handed to you, and it is essentially up to you to do with it what your SAFE proposal indicated, and to be forthcoming and straightforward with any changes that become necessary. If a major budget item winds up not being needed, or if it is paid from another source, you cannot keep the SAFE funding for that item. There is no difficulty in returning unused funding; consult the staff at the Office of Undergraduate Research on the logistics. If you find that you are significantly over budget or incur a large unexpected expense, please keep any relevant receipts and immediately inform your adviser, the Physics Department (Karen Kelly specifically), and the Office of Undergraduate Research. No guarantees, but in a good scenario, one of these entities will be able to produce additional funding to cover the expense.

Speaking of the high degree of trust: A guiding principle of SAFE funding (really any kind of funding) is to avoid double dipping, or even requesting to double dip. (Double dipping means being paid twice for the same expense or activity.) You may be thinking "Duh, aren't we past kindergarten stuff?" but actually it's a very live concern. Here's why. As a SAFE applicant, you are naturally trying to maximize your chances of getting your summer work fully funded, so you ought to be trying every reasonable avenue. That's great, but just be clear in your every request what funding you already have lined up and/or have asked for toward the same activity. Getting SAFE funding for two projects that are substantially the same even if phrased a bit differently is definitely a no-go. Look at it from the perspective of SAFE administrators: They don't know the jargon of our field, so they need to assume good faith on the part of the applicant so as to be receptive to every application they receive without trying to compare it with other applications. Likewise for internships with the Office of International Programs: If you line up funding there to go do something, it's up to you to refrain from getting any part of your expenses covered by SAFE---except with clear understanding from all parties involved. Transparency is key.

You may note that the amounts actually paid to you from SAFE are less than the total awarded. Typically, for international students, this is related to tax withholding. Don't be shy about asking questions, but be prepared for the reality that Princeton typically does not gross up awards to offset taxes. Look at it this way: Time collection people probably have withholding too.

If you are financial aid, it is probably worth having a discussion with a staff member in the Office of Financial Aid. While financial aid is obviously outside the portfolio of anyone in the Physics Department, it seems not unreasonable that contributions to your financial aid anticipated from your summer earnings might be restructured in a helpful way if your SAFE internship isn't going to provide you with summer earnings. Even if you're on time collection, a similar discussion could be worthwhile.

One last tip: Payers of SAFE internship amounts may occasionally need to be reminded that payment is due! The system is complicated enough (witness the length of this document) that it's possible for someone to lose track of when they owe what SAFE payment to whom. Again, don't be shy about speaking up and asking questions on your own behalf.

Time collection

For the most part, time collection is simpler than SAFE, but it costs more for the faculty adviser. A key point in time collection is that the student is primarily doing the work of the grant that funds his or her salary, in contrast with a SAFE internship which is primarily for the benefit of the student. Ideally, it should be hard for the student to tell the difference between work done as a SAFE intern versus time collection work. For faculty advisers, the trade-off often comes down to whether they would rather shoulder a larger total financial burden (because SAFE funders like OUR aren't helping) or spend the time keeping track of the intricacies of a SAFE internship.

The intent of a time collection arrangement is that you put in your hours (maximum 40 hours per week), use your wages to cover your living expenses, and hopefully pocket some remainder as summer earnings. For that to work, your wage needs to be high enough.

The University prescribes a detailed structure of wages based on your level of experience for the job you are doing. Common rates used in 2018 were C rate, $\$11.20$ per hour; and D rate, $\$11.50$ per hour. Occasionally we see E rate, $\$12.00$ per hour. And there's J rate, where the dollar amount is flexible. While the Physics Department may occasionally cover an unusual expense incurred by a student on time collection, professors are advised that the expected standard is to set the wage where you want a student's total compensation to fall. J rate positions must be justified with an account of why a special level of skill and/or experience is required, and this justification must be approved in advance by Office of Undergraduate Financial Aid and Student Employment. The J rate position must be posted so that Princeton students at large can apply. J rate positions are kosher, and they have been used, when appropriate, even for rising sophomores. The main point is, this is not something we can address once the summer has started! J rate requires proper prior planning.

The Physics Department provides substantial subsidies to help its faculty pay students in time collection. To be eligible for these subsidies, the student must fill out the department's summer work web form no later than May 15! This form includes the expected dates of work. The faculty adviser should additionally tell Karen Kelly what pay grade should be used (e.g. C, D, E, J), what chartstring to use, and the hours per week if different from 40.

Named departmental fellowships

Undergraduate research jobs in the Physics Department are supported by generous gifts from University alums and friends of the department. Research awards primarily go toward defraying the cost of summer salaries as set by your faculty adviser. You do not need to apply for these research awards; they will be made based on availability of funds, typically around the end of June, and funds are usually transferred within the department in order to help cover your summer salary.

Treiman fellowships

The Treiman fellowships for summer research are made possible through a generous donation to the department in honor of Prof. Sam Treiman, a theoretical particle physicist who was the chair of the Princeton Physics Department from 1981 to 1987 and remains one of the more notable influences on the department. Recent recipients include Zachary Atkins, Dongwoo Chung, Bharath Alamanda, Jonah Herzog-Arbeitman, Arnold Mong, Yinan Zheng, Reilly Bova, Victor Zhang, Debopriyo Biswas, Cara Giovanetti, Richard Huang. 

Leach fellowships

The Leach fellowships for summer research are made possible through a generous donation by the Charles H. Leach II Foundation. The goal is to inspire future physics majors, especially women. Recent recipients include Ana Diaz, Maria Okounkova, Mrinalini Basu, Aizhan Akhmetzhanova, Michelle Baird.

Frederick Osborn fellowships

The Frederick Osborn fellowships for summer research are made possible through a generous donation from Mrs. Frederick Osborn and family in memory of her husband, Frederick Osborn, an Art & Archeology major in class of 1937. Frederick Osborn was an active member of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS). He was inspired and fascinated by what could be done and learned from space. His particular focus was on solar energy. The award goes to support students engaged in research "looking up." Recent recipients include Abanti Basak, Fikret Ceyhan, Cissy Chen, Rocco Amorosso.

Bell Burnell fellowships

The Bell Burnell fellowships for summer research are made possible through a generous gift from Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, the discoverer of the first pulsar. Bell Burnell fellowships are aimed at encouraging women to pursue physics.  Recent recipients include Aizhan Akhmetzhanov, Sara Anjum, Carlota Corbella-Alcantara, Nina Filippova, Cara Giovanetti, Emily Ho, Paige Kunkle, Rebecca Rousseau, Gemma Zhang.

Joseph Henry Summer Fellowships

The Joseph Henry Summer Fellowships for summer research are made possible by the Physics Department in appreciation of the value of summer research opportunities. Recent recipients include Nathan Agmon, Cristian Andronic, Dongwoo Chung, Zack Stier, Aizhan Akhmetzhanova, Anvay Grover, Thomas Morris, Jaewon Kim, Georgy Noarov, Michelle Baird, Jan Offermann, Nicole Ozdowski, Iris Rukshin, Paige Kunkle, Reilly Bova, Victor Zhang, Jack Wolfgramm, Gemma Zhang.