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Plasma physics advice

  1. Jan 19, 2014 #1
    Hello everyone! I am about to finish my freshmen year in college and I have decided that I would eventually like to become a physicist. More recently, I have decided that I would like to study plasma physics and devote my time to work in controlled fusion.

    However, I have seen some threads on this forum that were written by engineers, especially electrical engineers, who are apparently working in this field as well. What would some of you recommend that I do? Would it be too hard to double major in physics and E.E.? Or should I just I simply study E.E. applications while getting my degree? Will I inevitably have to take these classes anyway?

    I would also appreciate some general advice. I am excited and nervous, but I honestly do not know what to expect.

    Thanks for your time! :smile:
    Last edited: Jan 19, 2014
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 19, 2014 #2
    Plasma physics is rarely offered as an undergraduate course. Outside of physics, the most common engineering fields in which you will be able to do plasma physics are electrical, nuclear, and aerospace engineering. If you know for a fact that you want to go to graduate school, then it would be best to stick with physics and do very well in your courses, especially E&M and undergrad plasma physics (if they have it), and make sure you join a research lab at your school which does plasma physics (or participate in summer REU's in plasma physics labs). I am a mathematics major who will be graduating this semester, but I have participated in a summer research program where I worked in a plasma physics laboratory(if you want PM me and I'll give you the details), so you see it is a pretty interdisciplinary field . I believe St. Andrews university in Scotland is well known for its peer reviewed plasma physics journal, published by their math department.

    But I digress, like I said if you def. want to do grad school, stick with physics and do well on the PGRE and classes and you will have your choice for grad schools in any field. If you are unsure or skeptical about grad school, definitely pick an engineering field that you like such as electrical or nuclear, make good grades, and your door will still be open for plasma physics grad schoolor just going into industry afterwards. The one thing you DON'T want to do is major in physics and then decide not to go to grad school.
  4. Jan 19, 2014 #3
    Thank you for the advice. As a math major, and especially as one who has worked in a plasma physics laboratory, could you give me some tips or offer some guidance to prepare me for this journey? Possibly on math that I should be paying special attention to?
  5. Jan 19, 2014 #4
    Alot of EE departments such as Wisconsin and Michigan do plasma physics research (not just committed to fusion, they also do electric propulsion and electronics fabrication). The ones who focus on controlled fusion are mostly physicists and nuclear engineers (material scientists show up to).

    I double majored in physics and EE, mostly because while I was doing EE stuff I started doing plasma physics research and took a class in plasma physics in the physics department and added the major. It took me to the MAST tokamak to do research work on so I think it turned out okay. I probably wouldn't recommend double majoring though, I would major in either physics or engineering and take relevant classes from the other department while also getting involved in the research the department is doing. Even if you're say a physics major and the plasma research is in the engineering department you could still ask to join and work in their group. We have chemistry majors doing research for the nuclear physics lab at my university for instance.

    I think the safest thing might be to major in nuclear engineering in a department that's heavy in plasma research and join their research group. This might leave your options more open than if you were a physics major and decided not to do grad school (though some companies hire physics majors by name but I digress). If you want to approach fusion as a physicist than major in that and take relevant engineering and programming courses and also join a plasma research groups and try to establish a good network of people that can vouch for your work when you apply to grad school.

    Even if they're studying fusion, the physicist is more concerned with studying the properties of the plasma (instabilities and such), while the engineer would be more focused on using the physics to make confinement more efficient for instance.

    Plasma physics is very heavy on electromagnetism, fluid mechanics, and statistical thermodynamics (optics shows up when you do waves in plasmas). Math-wise it's heavy in partial differential equations, linear algebra, and multi-variable calculus, but I've only taken an undergrad class on it (graduating this semester) so I'm sure I've only skimmed the surface.
  6. Jan 19, 2014 #5
    Wow, thanks for the help. Would it be pointless to double major in physics and nuclear engineering and then going to grad school to study plasma physics (please understand that I really don't have a clue)? This way, I'd have more resources, classes, peers, and more professors who would be likely to write me a letter of recommendation. Am I wrong?
  7. Jan 19, 2014 #6


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    If one wants to do plasma physics and controlled fusion, then it would probably be best to major in physics and take appropriate course in EE and other engineering discplines. Most nuclear engineering programs emphasize conventional fission systems, including neutron transport/diffusion theory and reactor physics. Other courses emphasize thermodynamics, fluid mechanics/dynamics, heat transport, structural mechanics, and in EE, electronics/circuit theory, electromechanics and power systems. The idea is to cover the various aspects of nuclear reactor design and operation, power conversion systems and control systems. Fusion engineering is focused more on the system and conversion of the fusion thermal energy to mechanical and then to electrical power. Fusion engineering is usually an elective in the upper levels of an undergrad program.

    Some programs may have more emphasis on the plasma physics and nuclear reactions in fusion systems. That depends on the faculty and their experience.

    If one can major in physics and nuclear engineering, then that's a possibility, but it is also very challenging.
  8. Jan 19, 2014 #7
    Double majoring would open the possibility of more research opportunities, the acquisition of more skills, and the creation of a good network. I know practical skills alot of physics majors don't know and I know theory alot of engineering majors don't know, which can make me seem unique and valuable depending on the employer (not all of them however, some might say I lack focus). However, I just sent one of my grad school applications recently and I have a mix of letter writers from both physics and engineering and other disciplines and for the program I'm applying to that is a very good thing.

    Main reason I wouldn't suggest double majoring is the money and the time it keeps you in undergrad, it has its advantages but you'd have to weigh them against finishing undergrad in a normal time frame (I know math and physics majors who've finished in 4 years but I don't think engineering and physics can be done in 4 unless you're either in a special program designed for that or you've done alot of college credit in high school). Doing well in your classes is the easiest thing to control with respect to graduate school as well as building relationships with your professors and research supervisors.
    Last edited: Jan 19, 2014
  9. Jan 19, 2014 #8
    I personally don't see the added benefit of a second major in fields as closely related as nuclear engineering and physics. I think the most optimal route might be to major in nuclear engineering and use the physics courses of E&M, Stat Mech, and Fluid mechanics to get a solid minor in physics, that way you have the physics you need for grad school and the diploma you need for industry work, without adding probably 2 extra years on to college to get the second major in physics..
  10. Jan 21, 2014 #9
    Thanks for all of the help, guys. It means so much to me.

    I think you guys are right about not double majoring, but the question for me now is if it would be better to major in physics with a minor in nuclear engineering, or vice versa.

    I guess I just need to know what the current state in fusion research is. How far away is successful controlled fusion? What exactly is ITER and are they looking to be successful? And ultimately, would a plasma physicist contribute more to fusion research than a nuclear engineer?
  11. Jan 21, 2014 #10
    Also, if I am coming across as naive and/or ignorant, please forgive me. These interests are relatively new, I've only read a few introductory books in physics and plasma physics, and my highest completed math class so far is trigonometry. I wholeheartedly appreciate all of the help so far.
  12. Jan 21, 2014 #11
    To be honest there isn't a wrong choice here. Both courses of action will prepare you for graduate school in fusion. However its important to do well in you undergraduate course. Good grades are important if you want to get into grad school, but you're also going to need strong foundation in math and science to build upon.

    I strongly suggest talking to faculty and students in both programs. See if there is one program that fits you better.

    Fusion is decades away from commercially producing electricity. There are other applications, such as the production of medical isotopes, that might be commercially available sooner.

    ITER is an tokamak being built by an international collaboration with the intent of demonstrating scientific break even (producing more thermal energy via fusion that required to heat the plasma). It is also need to study the dynamics of a fusioning plasma.

    Both are equally needed. Materials are another huge issue. There is a growing demand for people interested in doing fusion materials research. So I wouldn't rule out Material Science Engineering either.
  13. Jan 21, 2014 #12
    As wolfman said, both of these routes would adequately prepare you for graduate school, it's just that the focus of an engineering degree would be different than that of a physics degree. As an undergrad applying to grad schools in plasma physics, I have visited several nuclear engineering departments across the USA as a prospective candidate, and I can tell you that the students in these departments are very diverse. I met people who had done physics, nuclear engineering, aerospace engineering, and even mechanical and electrical engineering who all ended up doing plasma physics in graduate school in the NE department.

    The approach that I would take if I were you is the pragmatic one. What would happen in the worst case scenario (i.e. you don't get in to graduate school or for some unforeseen reason you decide not to go)? In that case you would be better off financially with a diploma that says engineering instead of one which says physics. That's why I'd recommend doing an engineering bachelors with a minor in physics. If you do that, you have all the job opportunities of an engineer, in addition to the graduate school preparation that you need in the form of formal physics courses, so you keep your doors open. Just my two cents.
  14. Jan 28, 2014 #13
    You should try to find out if you are more interested in the plasma physics side, the nuclear physics side (not much open questions left in fusion as far as I know), the material science side, or the electrical engineering side (to develop new diagnostics). These are quite separate worlds.

    If you like the plasma physics side, you should pay special attention to fluid mechanics, electromagnetism and maybe analytical mechanics. And in maths, Fourier & Laplace transforms, differential and integro-differential equations, complex analysis (contour integration, residues...), bifurcation and chaos theory. These are not exhaustive lists.
  15. Jan 29, 2014 #14
    The worlds are not necessarily mutually exclusive though, I work with a grad student whose research is a plasma diagnostic and she's a physics grad student, not an EE student.
  16. Jan 29, 2014 #15
    Well you can develop diagnostics from the plasma physics POV or from the EE POV, some people do both but they are the exception I think.
  17. Feb 5, 2014 #16
    Hey everyone. Based on your responses and some research that I've been doing, the question of how I should achieve my goals now rest upon the school I want to go to. I'm an AA transfer student, I have a 4.0 gpa, and I'm going to graduate with highest honors (if that even means anything at the community college level...) I planned on trying to get into UCLA because I know that their plasma department is outstanding. I could probably do some really good undergrad research there, but I'm concerned about grad school. Isn't it kind of looked down upon to go to grad school at the same place where you obtained your bachelors? I've heard this act called, "academic inbreeding". Would UCLA's graduate division even want me? The only other schools that likewise have great facilities/labs/faculty for plasma research (that I've read about) are primarily on the east coast. What should I do? Would it better my chances of getting into their graduate program if I were to get my undergrad degree at UC San Diego? My ultimate goal really is to get a PhD, but I just don't know enough about the process yet to make a good decision on this matter. I know you guys have already helped me enough, but if you could simply help me out with this one last problem I will forever be in your debt(s).
  18. Feb 5, 2014 #17
    Some of the top schools for plasma according to the rankings include Princeton, MIT, U Michigan Ann Arbor, U Wisconsin-Madison, UCLA, U Maryland, UT Austin, UC San Diego, and others. It is better to get a phd from a different institution than your undergrad but if you don't, it's not the end of the world. If you're not even in research yet, it's a little too early to tell whether grad schools are going to want you yet. You seem to be making good grades so just keep that up where ever you go next. I might say that UCLA's program is much bigger and more encompassing than San Diego's (to my knowledge San Diego does mostly plasma theory whereas UCLA does alot of laser fusion, some magnetic fusion, both experimental and theoretical among other things. People with more experience should probably chime in.
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