Tale of an Applied Physicist

Freshman Year: The Year of Surprises

Despite my interests lying firmly in physics, with no interest in biology (or so I thought), I was drawn to the ISC sequence for the interdisciplinary study and the engaging and meaningful labs. When taking the class, I felt behind in homework compared to busier peers, felt that I relied on others more often than helped them. However, I managed to solidify my understanding of the material by the time exams rolled around and ended up doing quite well in the course. The course notes were essential for keeping me inspired throughout ISC – when I stopped reading them due to lack of time, my motivation dropped, and when I started reading them again, my love of ISC came back. ISC is not the right choice for everyone, but it can be the right choice for you if you enjoy interdisciplinary study and are realistic about what else you can accomplish while in ISC.

This brings me to my next point – often times, doing well at Princeton will require altering your original ambitions. I had intended to take MAT 203, a more abstract version of multivariable calculus, alongside ISC. I took multivariable calculus in high school, and the course descriptions led me to believe that MAT 203 was for “real” physics majors. I soon realized that I could not handle MAT 203 alongside ISC, what with the spacing of deadlines between ISC lab reports and MAT 203 problem sets as well as my extracurricular commitments. I did not want to give up ISC or my extracurriculars so I dropped down to MAT 201 after turning in my last MAT 203 problem set a few weeks into the semester, which had left me in tears at 6 am. Only after two years of feeling guilty and inadequate about that decision did I realize that MAT 201 was more than enough multivariable calculus for any core physics course. Similarly, MAT 202 was incredibly challenging for me despite the fact that I had taken linear algebra in high school. I was shocked at how much more difficult I seemed to find the class than my peers did, despite many of them not having taken linear algebra before. It wasn’t until we got to the second half of the course, when we did eigenvalues and eigenvectors, that the madness of the first half made sense to me.

I spent the summer after freshman year working at Caltech on an astronomy project. The summer program was excellent, not the least because I got observing time at one of the largest optical telescopes in the world! However, I realized that I really did not like coding all day, every day. It made me feel disconnected from the science I was studying. I didn’t care much for instrumentation, and eventually had to acknowledge that if astronomy research was going to be all coding, then I didn’t want to pursue astrophysics after all.

Sophomore Year: The Year of Insanity

After that earth-shattering realization from my internship, and being just as undecided about my major as many of the peers whom I had once pitied, I did what any sane person in my position would do – I took six classes in the fall, against my advisor’s suggestion, to try to sweep out the full range of general possibilities, decide what I wanted to do with my life, and develop at least some background and skills for the summer internship search. I took classes ranging from introductory analytical math (MAT 215), the infamous freshman weeder class for math majors, to a semiconductor lab class (ELE 208, now ELE 308), with some humanities classes to fulfill those pesky distribution requirements. On top of that, I also got a position in a chemistry professor’s lab and joined ballroom along with choir. I chose ELE 208 on a whim, upset that the chemistry core lab wasn’t open to non-majors and predicting (correctly) that the position in the chemistry lab wasn’t guaranteed to give me structured lab skills.

It was chaotic, to say the least. I was arrogant and overestimated my own abilities, and found as a result that I wasn’t able to dedicate enough time to classes like PHY 205 to fully learn the material and make the most of the class. On top of it all, that semester I felt incredibly lonely in the physics department. I took PHY 205 instead of PHY 207, despite finding the description for 207 genuinely more interesting, because I had heard from a friend that snarky upperclassmen insisted 205 was the version for “real” physics majors. The 205 lectures went way too fast for me to fully process them, but after the first few instances of me raising my hand to ask questions, I felt as if my intrusions were unwelcome and eventually stopped asking, resigning myself to furiously TeXing everything the professor said and wrote. However, in the one instance a TA subbed in and went slowly enough for me to understand and for myself and other students to ask questions, cheerfully welcoming and answering our inquiries, I was dismayed to hear a classmate complain about how slowly the lecture went that day. On top of that, I was the only student who asked specific questions in our class group chat. The typical lack of responses or even acknowledgement of those questions, combined with the fact that I was the only one who seemed to dislike the lectures because of their speed and my inability to ask questions, made me feel like a stupid and inadequate misfit. I was shocked to see the high reviews and glowing praise for 205 because it did not mirror my sentiments at all, and I was convinced that I wasn’t cut out for physics.

I managed to interact and work with my fellow physics classmates on PHY 208 and 304 in the spring more often than I did in the fall for 205, partly because I had refused to take any math classes that semester. PHY 208 was wonderfully taught and I enjoyed the content, although I didn’t enjoy the exams, which felt mostly like timed algebra. However, I struggled with PHY 304. The lectures themselves were paced fine, but the pace of the overall content felt too fast for me (all but one chapter from a “year-long” book in one semester). I finally realized that I didn’t do as well in test environments as I thought in high school – I would often freeze horribly at least once during the exam and realize how to do the problem as soon as time was called. Despite this, I did show some improvement in raw percentages between the first midterms and final exams, but because of the curve my grades stayed where they were. This further contributed to my perception of stagnation, the feeling that no matter how much i tried I would not make any concrete improvements. PHY 211 was the chill pass-fail crash course on theoretical physics that confirmed for me that while I enjoyed theoretical physics concepts, I disliked the math I would need to study theory, while ELE 454, an optical communications elective, further highlighted my interest in applying physics to study electronic and photonic devices.

Junior Year: The Year it All Came Together

By far the experiences that most defined my junior year were my junior papers (JPs) – off the top of my head, I can barely remember the rest of my coursework. Based on my interests, I decided to do my JPs with professors in the ELE department rather than the PHY department, and it was by far the best decision I made. The process of performing the literature search, synthesizing and explaining concepts of a particular subfield using undergraduate physics as a base, and playing around with original contributions was an utterly exhilarating process for me. Quantum-cascade lasers, the topic of my first JP, was almost perfectly designed to be explained with concepts drawn from the textbooks of PHY 208 and 304, and in writing my JPs I finally felt like a physicist, like I had learned the concepts adequately. It did not matter, for writing JPs, whether I could solve a given problem under stressful timed conditions – what mattered was that I could use and expand upon concepts from those courses to explain chemical bonding and exotic quantum and electromagnetic phenomenon.

The experience of writing my JPs illustrated what the point of those undergraduate courses really was, and for the first time I could wholeheartedly say that I felt like a physicist despite my interests being much more applied than the majority of the department’s. Even though I still felt out-of-place relative to my peers and the professors in the PHY department with regards to my experimental and applied interests, I had found my own niche and my own community with graduate students and professors within the more applied side of physics (many of whom studied physics in their undergraduate years themselves!).


Here are some points that I want undergraduates to take away from my experiences. Some are specific and technical, but many more are about mindset and approach:

  • Try to figure out what’s right for you, and pursue that wholeheartedly. As long as you are completing your degree requirements, it’s okay if you want to take the “easier”, less time-consuming version of a class so that you can have more time for other courses, extracurriculars, or just relaxation! Don’t feel any less of an academic for it. It’s Princeton, so I promise you if it’s advisor approved, and it’s what you truly want, then it’s fine.

  • Don’t be afraid to use your P/D/Fs! Most students (myself included) don’t even come anywhere close to using all of the P/D/F allotments, so if you are interested in, say, a policy class that has an intimidating amount of reading, take it, even if it’s with the intention of P/D/F-ing it! It’ll be better for your own happiness if you enjoy your classes and get something out of them, especially those classes least related to your academic / career goals. My six-class semester would also have been infinitely less stressful if I had just P/D/F-ed MAT 215 and not worried about it nearly as much.

  • Princeton’s physics department is very theoretical, and based on the interests of current and potential PSPS members so far, this is reflected in the student composition as well as the faculty’s research focus. Do not let this intimidate you if you are of a more experimental bent! There are several experiment-oriented courses available ranging from PHY 210, the experimental physics seminar, to PHY 557/558, the P/D/F-only graduate courses taught by an excellent instructor, in addition to the required PHY 312 (core lab). Summers, JPs, and senior thesis are also a great time to pursue experimental work, and if you can make time for a position in a lab before then, that’s also excellent! You WILL find a like-minded cohort somewhere, even if not in the department itself.

  • The physics department has recently become more flexible with its required coursework, and you should take advantage of that to pursue electives that interest you! ELE 208 illuminated my interest in research on electronic + photonic materials in the ELE department and gave me valuable lab experience for future research + JPs. Classes in other departments are also often structured differently than PHY classes, and you might prefer those structures. For instance, my upper-level classes outside of PHY tended to involve a final paper and presentation on a technical topic – not only did I do better on those, and consider those a better reflection of my knowledge and effort in the class, but they strike me as more representative of the essential skills in the research world, and much more valuable than timed exams.

  • Math classes in the MAE department are very highly-rated, so if you enjoy applied math then they’re definitely worth checking out. MAE 305 as taught by Prof. Stone was excellent, and having some of that content before PHY 304 would have been very useful.

  • Take the time to explore classes and opportunities outside of your freshman year interests, because chances are you either don’t really know what day-to-day work in your field of interest is like or that you haven’t explored enough to draw valid comparisons (or both!). Even now, I am conflicted about whether scientific research is for me at all. I took ELE 208 on a whim and it redirected all of my scientific endeavors. If you’re interested in trying out work for a nonprofit organization, or a trading / consulting firm, then definitely go for it! The informational sessions and interview processes alone can highlight whether you would be interested in one of those careers. I personally found the trading interviews boring and the consulting ones fascinating, and am still keeping consulting open as an option after graduation.

  • Don’t feel scared of putting yourself out there and asking questions! In hindsight, I realized that I probably would have heard other students asking questions about PHY 205 homework if I had attended as many informal group homework sessions as I did for ISC. And take advantage of either the Prof.’s or the TAs’ office hours. Chances are at least one of them will be a helpful person who you can comfortably ask questions!