Frequently Asked Questions

I am interested in plasma physics. To which department should I apply?

The Plasma Physics Program at Princeton is in the Department of Astrophysical Sciences. It is this Department with which the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, located at the nearby Forrestal Campus, is associated. A student whose primary academic interest is in plasma physics should apply to this Department listed as PPL. However, students in other departments may take courses in Astrophysical Sciences just as plasma physics students augment their curriculum with courses outside their own department. Close ties are maintained with the Department of Physics. The Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering offers plasma physics with specific orientation toward lasers and electric propulsion.

Should I specialize in this one field so early in my career?

As indicated, the academic work is, in fact, not specialized but rather it is broadly based in modern physics. The study of plasma physics requires the folding together of knowledge from electricity and magnetism, atomic physics, hydrodynamics, statistical mechanics and kinetic theory, and applied mathematics. Techniques from many disciplines within theoretical and experimental physics find immediate application in plasma research and, by the same token, experience with plasmas can be transferred back to other areas in physics. But equally important — plasma physics is itself a large field, a young field, and a challenging field where success in our research will have enormous impact on, among other things, reaching a satisfactory long-term solution of the world's energy problems.

Does Princeton offer regular admission to graduate students for studies starting in the spring term?

No. The admissions application process only takes once per year through the Graduate School at Princeton University.  The admissions application process opens in early September and ends in December.  

The deadline for admission has passed. Can I still apply?

Late applications are not accepted.

How many applications do you receive?

We consider approximately 70-80 applications each year.

My undergraduate degree will be in engineering; should I apply to your program?

If your undergraduate curriculum included a reasonable number of courses in physics and mathematics, and if our program supplies the graduate training you want, yes.

What does your policy regarding the GRE exam mean? 

For the 2023/2024 admission cycle, both the General GRE and Physics Subject exams will be optional.

In most years we have required both the GRE general test and the physics subject GRE test (only offered three times a year in September, October & April). Scores are due at the time of application. We emphasize that standardized test results are only one of the many components we take into consideration when evaluating applications; top scores are not a requirement.

We recognize that there is an ongoing debate about the usefulness of the GRE exam in graduate admissions decisions; we evaluate applications with an understanding of the exam’s limitations in mind. One advantage of the GRE is that it provides students from a variety of backgrounds an additional opportunity to stand out in the admissions process.

If you do choose to take the GRE, we recommend studying for the Physics GRE exam well in advance. ETS publishes a few old tests, which can be used to gauge what you need to work on, and there are published books which contain relevant study material.


Is financial support available?

We have been able to offer Assistantships in Research (AR) stipend to every one of our students for research carried out at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Tuition and health insurance are covered. Many students are also supported by external fellowships, to which prospective students are encouraged to apply. In addition to financial support from research assistantships, some students also teach as Assistants in Instruction (AIs) for undergraduate and graduate classes for a stipend.

What type of work will I do for my Assistantship in Research?

Participation in current research is considered an integral part of the academic program. The ARs are sponsored by the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL), and the work is carried out there. Traditionally, students in their first year join one of PPPL's experimental physics groups and participate in research which is at the forefront of knowledge in plasma physics. In the second year, students do similar research, but with an emphasis on theoretical or computational plasma physics.

Will I be assigned to a research advisor for this work?

No. Students are free to pursue a research project with any scientist at PPPL or on the main Princeton campus, as long as both parties agree to the arrangement. When you arrive, we will also give you a list of possible research opportunities, and you will be able to speak to each prospective advisor before committing to a first year project.

You have offered me admission in September. Can I come to start my assistantship research this summer?

Yes. We encourage incoming students to come early, so that they may learn something about PPPL and about plasma research before classes start. In the past, incoming students have been able to start as early as July.

How long will it take to receive my Ph.D.?

Typically, the first two years consist mainly of academic coursework plus a first- and second-year-research project. After passing Generals (usually at the end of the second year), thesis research begins, with most thesis projects taking about four years. The median time-to-degree for the Program is approximately 6.2 years.

I am a graduate student at another institution. Can I transfer to your program?

Transfer of schools could introduce a delay in receiving your Ph.D. You will still be required to take, after at least one year of residence at Princeton, the General Examinations in our Department. After that, your thesis will probably take at least another two years.

Do you offer a Master's Degree program?

No. A Master of Arts degree can be awarded as an incidental degree upon passing the General Examination.

My primary interest is in fusion technology. Should I apply to your department?

The academic program in the Department is very much physics oriented. A student strongly interested in both the physics and the technology of plasmas could supplement his plasma curriculum with engineering courses from other departments at Princeton. In addition, the construction of the new large machines at PPPL involves much state-of-the-art engineering, and could be a fertile field for doctoral research. However, a student whose primary interest is in fusion-reactor research technology might well consider the program, dedicated to this topic, currently at Princeton in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

How does the pursuit of large projects at PPPL affect the education program at Princeton?

While students are available to pursue unique research opportunities on the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX), the Lab has refocused in the past decade to pursue a wider spectrum of research in plasma physics using several smaller devices. There are many research opportunities available to students both on the NSTX and on these smaller devices.

What housing options are available to graduate students?

All students admitted to the Program are guaranteed housing through the housing department, provided that they submit a completed housing application by the admission reply deadline date of April 15. University housing is allocated by a housing draw and a room-retention system after your first year. Most students choose to live at the Graduate College in their first year at Princeton, and then move to an off-campus apartment or campus graduate housing in later years.