Princeton Physics: A Trivial Exercise in Being Proven Wrong Left to the Student

First Year Classes:

When I came into Princeton I had already spent two summers working in a physics lab and knew I wanted to be a physics major. I’d done AP physics C in high school and had taken vector calculus and matrix algebra at a local university (GMU) my senior year and thought I would be extremely well prepared for physics at Princeton. I was disappointed when I didn’t place into PHY 205 and figured 105 would be fairly easy. 

I was quickly proven wrong as I received one of the worst grades in the class on the first midterms for both PHY 105 and MAT 203. At this point it was too late in the semester to drop these classes and switch into something else so I decided I would have to change my study strategy. What had worked for me in high school (not studying a whole lot and just knowing the basic formulas) does not work at Princeton, and before future exams I made sure I really understood the material and did all of the practice tests to make sure I could apply it at a Princeton level. Fortunately with these changes I did much better on future exams and both of these classes have enough total exams that doing poorly on one won’t destroy your grade for the whole year.

I think it’s also worth noting that nearly every semester at Princeton I’ve gotten a low B or a C on one of my math or physics midterms but have proceeded to study a lot for the final and do well in the class in the end. Unless you’re a true genius (and you’ll know whether or not this is the case about four weeks into Princeton physics) you probably won’t get an A on every test and this is fine. It’s not because you aren’t smart or can’t do physics at Princeton it probably just means you had a bad day or need to change your study habits.


As a Princeton student who somehow managed to pull off a decent first semester GPA, I thought it would be easy to get a great internship after freshman year. I was also proven wrong about this as various rejection emails started coming back around mid March. Realistically, most physics students have two options for things to do the summer after freshman year 1) return to the lab you worked in during high school or 2) do research at Princeton. Personally, I chose to work in the same lab as the previous summer because at the end of the day you don’t really make any money working at Princeton by the time you pay for housing, food and basic entertainment. That said working at Princeton is a good option and more prestigious than most of the labs people worked in in high school. I was fortunate enough to live close to a large NASA center and didn’t think the prestige would be a particularly big issue in this case.

Sophomore year I was once again confident I would get some great internship and was once again proven wrong. I returned once again to the lab I’d worked in in high school.

Junior year I decided that I would try to sell out and applied to all of the big quantitative hedge funds. I was fortunate enough to get an offer to pay me far more than any intern should ever reasonably be paid to work at a hedge fund up in Connecticut. After getting this offer and seeing how much money they were offering I immediately gave up any any and all plans to do physics research that summer. (It is worth noting that this all happened in October). Luckily even with this internship offer signed and a signing bonus in my bank account I kept studying fairly hard and did well in my classes because in mid April I was told that I would no longer be working at this hedge fund. At this point most of the applications for internships had long since closed and even the internship application to return back to the same lab I’d worked in the last few summers had closed. However, back when I was still considering doing physics the summer after junior year I had talked with some scientists at MITRE and decided to send them an email asking if they might still have an open internship position. Fortunately they did and I ended up working there for ten weeks on interesting research. The moral of this story is to make sure you network with potential employers and keep these relationships going even if you don’t think you’re going to work there, it’s always good to have a backup plan.

Upper Level Math and Physics Courses:

After taking PHY 105 and PHY 205 I thought “there’s no way physics can really get any harder than this” and in this lone case I believe I was more or less correct. The proles may be somewhat longer and the concepts deeper but it won’t really be any harder. If you can survive 205, you’ll be fine in the 300 level physics classes.

Math is somewhat different in that there are many different math tracks you can take. Personally I took MAT 330 (complex with applications) and APC 350 (diffeq) both in the spring of sophomore year. This worked well for me because I then didn’t have to take any math junior year on top of the two physics courses a semester. I think it’s also worth mentioning that if you’re going to do what I did and take PHY 208 and two math classes in one semester your fourth class should probably be easy to balance this out. I took PHY 210 which is a pass fail only lab class with minimal out of class work and my workload was fine. Had I decided to take some English class with 250 pages of reading a week instead my workload probably would not have been as fine.

Junior Papers:

My best advice on your junior paper is to talk to as many people as you can about your potential adviser and also to ask your advisor about their expectations. I spent fall semester working on an atomic gyroscope experimental setup and spent far more time on my JP than on PHY 305, which was a lot more work than I expected or wanted to do. In the spring I worked on quantum dots and mostly just did a literature review and spent about the same amount of time on this as I would on a fun humanities class for which I did the readings.

When thinking about your JP topics you should also consider what areas of research interest you, especially if you’re planning on going to grad school. In my case I’m mostly interested in gravitational wave detection which Princeton doesn’t do a whole lot of so this wasn’t a huge concern for me and I spent my summers doing research in this area. But if you think you want to study something like biophysics in grad school, then one of your JPs should probably be in biophysics.

Other Miscellaneous Advice

Here’s a bulleted list of advice I wish someone had told me or that I wish I’d taken more seriously in addition to some advice for things I think I managed to do well

  • If you plan on going to grad school and applying to fellowships (which you should do if you’re at Princeton and going to go to grad school) spend some time doing tutoring, science communication to the public, mentoring or something like that. All of the fellowships want to see how you will benefit society and it’ll make your life a lot easier if you can show a history of tutoring or mentoring people in physics
  • Don’t try to get a 4.0 – you probably won’t, and if that’s all you care about you’re going to have a horrible time as a Princeton physics student. This isn’t to say that you can’t get good grades, just don’t expect to be perfect there are a lot of other smart people in the department and at the end of the day the grades are on a curve
  • Make sure you have a balanced schedule. Many people go into Princeton thinking they’re going to do something crazy like take ISC and HUM at the same time because they really love school and learning. That’s great but at some point you’ll probably want to have a social life and there are only so many hours in the day. If you’re taking hard math and physics classes, consider also taking an easy humanities class or two
  • Don’t be afraid of high level classes. Just because a class number starts with a 3 or a 4 doesn’t necessarily mean its all that hard (although you should read the course reviews).
  • Relatedly, if you’re interested in experimental physics consider taking PHY 557 and/or 558 early on. They’re PDF only, not all that much work and will give you some really great electronics skills. Don’t be turned off by the 5 in front of their number
  • Make all of your social media private. There are some things that your friends will find funny but your boss might not. If your account is private your boss can’t see it easily and this becomes much less of an issue