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Can one move from fission to fusion research after PhD?

  1. Sep 28, 2013 #1
    Hi everyone,

    I am currently applying to graduate schools in nuclear engineering. I am applying to some top 10 schools and also some lower ranked ones as safeties. However, my fear is that if I am not accepted to a top ten school I will have to attend the safety schools. I am not particularly afraid of receiving a bad education from there, but I am concerned that most of the nuclear engineering schools which conduct fusion and plasma physics research are top 10 (michigan, wisconsin, princeton, berkeley, etc.). My question is, if I'm forced to attend a lower ranked school and the only research areas are in reactor physics, radiation transport codes, etc... after my PhD in fission could I eventually do a postdoc in fusion or plasma physics which is my true dream and interest?
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2013
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 28, 2013 #2


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    Yes - certainly! One should look at courses in plasma physics and radiation transport. Fusion relies heavily on radation transport, as well as nuclear reactions and plasma physics.

    Outside of the plasma, there is the superconducting magnetics, and the first wall which is subject to radiation effects, i.e., materials degradation. Beyond that is the thermal energy conversion system, which could be liquid metal, organic liquid or water. Somewhere there has to be a steam (Rankine) cycle, in addition to any direct conversion from the plasma through the magnets or charge separators.

    I recommend that engineers, and particularly nuclear engineers, take as much physics as possible. Also, look at courses in numerical methods and computational physics, particularly with object-oriented Fortran and C++, and python or other scripting language/program. Knowing how to program code and knowing the theory of material properties/behavior and numerical methods are critical areas of knowledge. Where possible, diversify one's knowledge.
  4. Sep 28, 2013 #3
    That's good, I'm currently in numerical methods and plasma physics classes and I did a summer research experience in plasma physics...that is definitely something I could see myself doing for a career. Plus I just think fusion and general plasma physics are very promising for the future with regards to energy and propulsion systems. However, I am not happy with my GRE scores :( .Most of my coding has been in Java and MATLAB, not fortran but I would like to learn fortran. Say, if worst case scenario happens and I have to go to a school that doesn't do plasma physics, what would be the next best option to prepare me for a postdoc in fusion plasma physics? I am not really interested in materials or thermal hydraulics. My guess is my second choice would be reactor physics and thorium research.
  5. Sep 28, 2013 #4


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    With respect to coding/programming, one needs to learn Fortran 77/90/95 and 2003/2008, with object-oriented capability, and C++. There is a lot of legacy code in F77/F90, and gradually, it will be brought into 2008, or replaced with F2008 or C++.




    http://www.tacc.utexas.edu/documents/13601/162125/fortran_class.pdf (link subject to disruption)

    Reactor physics is a good area to be in. See http://rpd.ans.org/

    Regarding thorium-fueled systems - http://www.thorenergy.no/
    Last edited: Sep 28, 2013
  6. Sep 30, 2013 #5
    In order to diversify your search for PhD if you want to be in the fusion field, there are several European schools which might have PhD projects involved in the ITER project. You could look into those as well.
  7. Sep 30, 2013 #6
    Let me start by saying, I am a PhD student doing numerical plasma physics hoping to graduate in a few months.

    And honestly, getting a graduate education in "nuclear fission" isn't going to prepare you to do research in plasma physics. This is especially true for magnetic confinement. If you're interested in doing neutroincs, shielding, or materials research related to fusion, id say it would be okay. But if you really want to do plasma physics then you should study plasma physics.

    There are a number of universities that do plasma physics research. Sometimes those programs are in a department of nuclear engineering, but they are often in other departments like physics, astronomy, electrical engineering, aeronautical/astronautical engineering, applied math/physics, etc. Also just because they're aren't in the department of nuclear engineering does not mean they don't do fusion related research.

    You mentioned doing a summer research project in plasma physics. I'd talk to your advisor, ask him about places you could apply. And ask if you could maybe put you in contact with some professors.

    The University of Wisconsin, Princeton, and MIT are the big three. (MIT is in some turmoil right now do to funding of CMOD). Some other schools with good plasma physics programs that are worth looking into are the University of Washington, Utah State, Aurburn, University of Texas, Columbia, University of Colorado, University of Iowa, University of New Hampshire, etc.

    If you're interested in doing computation, then I'd also suggest looking into The Psi-Center (http://www.psicenter.org/ [Broken]) and CEMM (http://w3.pppl.gov/cemm/). These are two research collaborations that focus of computational plasma physics. The institutions and researchers involved are worth checking out.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  8. Sep 30, 2013 #7


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    A lot of groups doing government funded/sponsored research are suffering these days as budgets are reduced and groups are competing for reduced and limited resources.

    MIT's Alcator C-Mod project
    http://www.psfc.mit.edu/research/alcator/ [Broken]

    UCSD has a plasma physics research program.
    http://www-physics.ucsd.edu/research/plasma/ [Broken]
    http://physics.ucsd.edu/plasmatheorygroup/ [Broken] (Diamond Group - Fusion/Plasma Theory)

    Full scale plasma physics experiments are difficult - and few and far between.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  9. Sep 30, 2013 #8
    The summer research experience I did this summer was an experimental low temperature plasma physics project. It wasn't publishable, but I did enjoy it very much and I would actually like to work for the very same advisor in graduate school. Problem is, I understand experimental PhD's usually take longer because of scheduling, lab problems, etc. However, the bad thing about computational one is that if your code doesn't work or you approach the problem from the wrong perspective you could be screwed. I would be happy doing either experimental or computational work, computational is nice because I could graduate earlier, but working in the lab also provides a great sense of accomplishment when you complete the work, though. I am a mathematics major, by the way, but I am taking plasma physics and have taken many numerical methods, PDE, electricity and magnetism courses.
  10. Sep 30, 2013 #9
    what did you score on your gre's and what is your gpa?
  11. Sep 30, 2013 #10
    Unfortunately 158 on the quantitative GRE...I ran out of time. I think I got all the questions correct that I answered but did not have time to finish, so I christmas treed it. I'm not applying to physics programs so I'm not taking the pgre. GPA 3.84 / 4.0
  12. Oct 8, 2013 #11
    A PhD is useless if you don't find your research interesting. Don't get hung up on the department label. Pay more attention to research groups and what they are doing, keeping coursework and phd requirements in mind when choosing a program.

    Are you interested in low temperature plasma or fusion? If you want to do laser plasma research, look at Michigan, UCLA, UC San Diego, University of Texas, Maryland, Ohio state, Purdue, and others. If you like inertial confinement fusion, then the University of Rochester has the OMEGA laser which is the "go to" laser for high energy density physics experiments.

    For magnetic confinement, Wisconsin, Princeton, and MIT are good choices with well rounded plasma programs. They all also have groups interested in ICF.

    Low temperature plasma research is extremely common. Look at mechanical engineering and electrical engineering departments. Space propulsion, plasma etching, and materials processing are some of the common applications. This kind of work will qualify you for several jobs in industry.
  13. Oct 9, 2013 #12
    If I could do propulsion work on ion/hall thrusters I would definitely be interested. That's what I did at my summer research experience. However, my main interest has always been in magnetic confinement fusion. The schools I think are viable based on my credentials are Wisconsin and Washington for that. I have talked to Weston Stacey at GATech about a PhD there and he said I could do that too. I sincerely doubt I could get into princeton because I'm not a physics major so my physics gre would be bad. I will apply to MIT, too but I doubt that one as well and I'm not as interested in them since they lost their ALCATOR funding.

    Basically, I'd be equally happy doing low temperature propulsion stuff or magnetic confinement fusion...

    BUT...my main point in this thread was: if the worst case scenario happen, would it be possible to move from a PhD in a fission-related area to a postdoc in plasma physics? As long as I took some plasma courses in my PhD?
  14. Oct 9, 2013 #13
    Possible? Yes. Is it a good plan? I wouldn't bet on it.

    If you want to prepare yourself for a career in magnetic confinement fusion, then you should spend your phd trying to acquire the necessary skills which would make you a competitive applicant for postdoctoral positions.

    Suppose Wisconsin doesn't work out. There are many programs which participate in electric propulsion research. Having a good understanding of plasma physics and electromagnetics will pay off. Remember that when you graduate, you will want to benefit from your advisor's connections in the field. If your supervisor does not do anything in plasma physics, then their recommendation letters will carry less weight when you are later searching for jobs. When applying to PhD programs, concentrate on choosing one where you can acquire the research skills you will need for your dream job. Don't settle for something you aren't passionate about. There are enough grad schools out there that you will find something.
  15. Oct 9, 2013 #14
    Thanks for the advice, I will continue to look for more plasma physics programs. I think the reason my mind was stuck on nuclear engineering is because it is a good fallback option in case there are no plasma jobs, I would be qualified to work at a reactor. However, my main interest is in fusion so like you said I should focus on plasma programs. Thanks.
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