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Interested in getting a summer job related to physics?
These accounts were written by Princeton students who have
taken physics-related summer jobs, on or off campus. While
these are kind of old, physics changes pretty slowly so
they're still very useful. We're working on getting more
submissions; but while we bug busy Princetonians, you
should submit your research experiences using this form, or email us at
Read them over and see what you think!
The summer after my freshman year, I worked in Professor Romalis' lab. Getting the job was a completely informal process: I emailed Professor Romalis my CV, and asked for a job. We then set up a little appointment to talk about working for him, which basically consisted of him asking me if I could program, and me telling him that I couldn't (at which point I was offered the job!). That's how I would go about looking for a job in the physics department - just send out an email asking for one!
That summer I worked on three projects. The first one involved the manufacture of a low-noise current source. Professor Romalis would come up with a basic design, which I would then proceed to solder. Then typically, the design wouldn't be quite as good as we hoped it would be, at which point we would improvise and change things around. This project didn't exactly work out, so I started spending more and more time on the next one, which was essentially a series of basic design projects. The group was building a new magnetometer system, and I had to do things like design a new rack for the system. This stuff was fun, but after a while, I ran out of things that needed to be designed, so I moved onto a third project, which involved a lot of Mathematica simulations. The idea there was that you have some sort of electric current in the brain, and though we can determine where that source is by placing detectors outside the head, we can't pinpoint the location exactly because inherent in the data would be some noise. The question that I set out to answer was this: given a certain level of noise, what sort of accuracy can we expect from our calculations of the location of the current source? This was a lot of fun, and was definitely the best part of the summer job.
After my sophomore year, I did something completely different: I decided to work as a Teaching Assistant at a set of summer programs run by Johns Hopkins University - their Center for Talented Youth (CTY) summer programs.
The CTY programs are basically a set of intensive summer programs that are geared towards gifted middle school/high school kids. There are two sessions every summer, each 3 weeks long, and the kids can choose to enroll in one or the other, but not both. At the camp the kids 7 hours (!) in class every day, and spend the rest of their time participating in activities organized by their RAs. It's definitely a "geek camp". As the TA for their "Fast-Paced High School Physics" course, I was expected (along with the instructor), to teach a year's worth of high school physics to these kids in 3 weeks! (And what's even more amazing is that they learn everything just fine!)
I went to CTY as a student, and loved it, so I knew I definitely wanted to go back as a TA. The decision to go back was a good one, because the experience was one of the best summer experiences I've ever had. It's true that the hours were long (7 hours of class + prep), but it was so much fun it didn't feel like I was "going to work" when I got up in the mornings. The pay was also good - we got $950 per 3 week session, and room, board, and food was included.
The only downside to working at CTY is that the application is a bit more involved than working at, say the Princeton physics department. I had to fill out an application form, get transcripts sent to JHU, get recommendations, write a cover letter, and have an hour-long telephone interview. This all had to be done by late January. Despite that, I think it's a great experience, and everyone should try it!
CTY Info: http://www.cty.jhu.edu/
I spent the summer following my Freshman year working in the Astrophysics Department with Neta Bahcall on the large scale structure of the universe. My work built upon that of a recently graduated senior who's thesis had been to determine the shape and alignment of clusters from a simulation of the universe that had been run from a set of initial conditions until the present (roughly 13.7 billion years) on a supercomputer for several days, evolving the system under our current model of the universe, lambdaCDM; that is a universe containing cold dark matter (approximately 1/3rd of the energy budget) dark energy or cosmic acceleration (lambda), and flat geometry. Following the senior's work on clusters from this data, I would search for superclusters, the largest structures of the universe. Because of their size, these structures act as fossil remnants of the earliest epochs of the universe. Gravity has largely not had time to shape them into the spheres and disks of the rest of the universe, rather they are thought to lie along filaments and wells formed near the beginning of time. Studying these helps reveal more about those conditions and the interplay of factors that have shaped them, while comparison of these simulation results to observational studies provides a powerful check on our current model of the universe. Already observational data on superclusters seems to suggest the filamentary structure, and more data is rapidly becoming available thanks to new large scale projects such as the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Hence my task was to search for these same structures in the simulation data. I used a friends of friends algorithm to organize the clusters determined in the senior thesis into even larger superclusters and followed several lines of analysis in order to determine their characteristic number and mass distributions and shapes. The results have so far been positive, though there remains a third phase of the investigations to take place looking at the most distant, high redshift superclusters, and my advisor is confident that we'll get a paper out of the research.
Setting up a job in the astrophysics department could not have been easier. After a guest lecture by professor Turner in my Freshman Seminar I asked him about summer opportunities in the Astrophysics department. He instructed me to email professor Knapp, who coordinates the undergraduate summer research. I hadn't taken an astro course yet nor had any experience with computer programming, nonetheless with that one email I was set. Later professor Knapp sent all interested students a list of professors looking for students for certain projects. As I had little idea what I wanted, I decided to let the upperclassmen respond and I'd take what was available. I showed up the first day I set up to work not knowing what I would be doing, but professor Knapp took me to the office of Neta Bahcall, the department representative, who immediately offered me the supercluster project. Moments later I had an account set up for the computer system, keys to the library and the building itself, a stack of journal papers and a seat in front of a Unix machine which I didn't even know how to log into. I think the only things I accomplished the first day were how to adjust the keyboard, my chair, and start the X server, which kindly informed me that tea was in 6h43m2s. With the help of some intro to C books and the advice of Professor Knapp and other undergraduate students I was programming away on the project by the second week. I would meet weekly with Professor Bahcall to discuss my progress on the project and review the theory, while an incredible research technician assisted me when I ran into more technical problems programming. The hours were 100% flexible -- I could be paid for up to 40 hours a week, and could put in those hours at any time of the day or night. Working mostly on computer and with keys to the building as well as the ability to work remotely through secure shell I could determine my own schedule completely.
Meanwhile the Astrophysics department does a wonderful job reaching out to their undergraduate students. Everyone uses first names, undergraduates are warmly welcomed to the ten o'clock morning coffee where professors and researchers discuss the day's most exciting papers from astroph and other breaking news in the department or the field, while the graduate afternoon tea offered a very informal way to relax and learn about others in the department. A weekly lunch was also provided for the undergraduates where a professor or graduate student would give a talk on subjects ranging from the interstellar medium to understanding the power spectrum of the cosmic microwave background. Not only was learning about computing and my particular aspect of astrophysics, but was being actively introduced to many of its most exciting frontiers. I couldn't have asked for a better summer experience.
The way I got my job was not the way I would recommend you get yours. I didn't start looking for work until rather late in the year, figuring that I would just look for summer work a month or two before summer started. Unbeknownst to me at the time, standard practice around here is to line up your work several months in advance, i.e., in December and January, not April or May.
In my ignorance, I began to look for work in early April with the expectation that it would be easy to come by. It just so happened, luckily for me, that someone who had signed up to work for Professor Meyers had quit their job a day or so before I started looking for work. Being, I believe, the first to have come to him after the vacancy had been created, I was chosen to fill it.
Professor Peter Meyers is a High Energy Experimentalist, and currently part of the Princeton Division of the MiniBooNE Neutrino Oscillation Experiment at Fermilab. My job was to make measurements of the time and charge response of photomultiplier tubes to light. I worked for one month on the Princeton campus, and one month on site at Fermilab. The stuff I did was very hands-on experimental work, and I learned my way around a lab. I feel that I now have a better sense for what it would be like to be a High Energy Experimentalist.
Although I almost screwed the pooch by not applying for a job earlier than I did, I did do one thing right. I wrote up a little resume which contained my name, email address, and all the information about me that might pertain to a job in physics. I then went door to door asking professors for jobs and handing out copies of my resume so that they had my contact information in case they wanted to get back to me. I would recommend doing what I did, only a few months ahead of time. The professors seem to have an open-door policy, and it would be a good idea to take advantage of that. Don't be shy.
During the summer of 2004, I worked at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Along with one other Princeton undergraduate, I tested materials that will eventually be used in detectors for the Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT). Professor Lyman Page is Principal Investigator for the ACT project, and you can find out more about it from his website. At Goddard, my work was not directly related to cosmology; instead, it mainly involved determination of the electrical properties of various materials at cryogenic temperatures. I worked extensively with liquid helium and hydrogen, and the internship was a good introduction to working with cryogens. Moreover, my work allowed me to experimentally observe interesting phenomena such as superconductivity, and I consequently became interested in learning more about phenomena that arise in materials science and condensed matter physics. I plan to pursue this interest in the upcoming years at Princeton and through future summer work.
My supervisor at Goddard was Dr. James Chervenak. Dr. Chervenak?s official title is ?Systems Engineer? but he has a Ph.D. in condensed matter physics. Along with the other members of the Detector Systems Group, he was very helpful in showing my coworker and me how to use the lab equipment and how to use the data that we retrieved to plan our next series of tests. He also notified us of lectures and activities that were going on around Goddard?s campus and made arrangements for us to have borrowing privileges at Goddard?s library. At the end of the internship, Dr. Chervenak had us present a portion of our results to the members of the Detector Systems Group.
In addition to Dr. Chervenak, I had a supervisor at the company through which I was contracted, Raytheon. This supervisor was also quite nice and occasionally dropped by at Goddard to talk. However, I must say that I would have preferred to have been employed directly by NASA. Since I was not part of a program for undergraduates but rather employed through a contracting company, I also had to find my own residence. I chose to live across the street in an apartment complex, and while this did turn out to be a fairly instructive experience, students who receive an offer to be employed in a similar manner should note that this inconvenience exists. Other programs at Goddard do provide housing (and perhaps mealplans) at local schools like the University of Maryland- College Park. If you do choose to rent an apartment, I suggest that you visit it first, since Greenbelt is not in the greatest county in Maryland. Of course, Greenbelt does have some redeeming qualities; it is close to Washington, DC and this ensures that there is usually something to do when you have free time.