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Road to Nuclear Engineering

  1. Jun 4, 2013 #1
    I was just wondering about this field and I have a few questions.

    1) Is it possible (or how typical is it?) to get a PhD in Nuclear Engineering with a B.Sc in Physics?

    2) Is a PhD recommended if I want to work in this industry?

    3) I don't know if I want to do pure research (ex. experimental plasma physics) or have an industrial engineering job. I'm more interested in the physics behind the subject, especially fusion and plasma physics. What kind of questions should I be asking myself to decide?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 4, 2013 #2
    If you want to work in the nuclear industry, I say get a Masters in Nuclear Engineering and go right into industry. I know someone who did that, starting with a B.A. in Physics, and has done quite fine for herself. I would skip the Ph.D. unless you wanted to work more on the development side. Even then, you might be limiting yourself to certain geographic locations and/or government labs.

    If you want to do fusion and/or plasma physics, I'd say get a Ph.D., not necessarily in Nuclear Engineering. The subject depends on the school. Look at Princeton (Astrophysics), U. Wisconsin (Physics, Engineering Physics, or Electrical Engineering - I think), MIT (Nuclear Engineering I think), UCLA (Physics), etc. Essentially, find the schools that are known for fusion research and go to them. What the degree is in is less important. Note that some schools concentrate on magnetic fusion, the ones I listed above (it's what I'm familiar with), and other schools concentrate on inertial/laser fusion (U. Michigan for one). That could determine what you do later in life.

    If you decide the latter, going into industry is going to be tougher. There are good jobs at the national labs though. I'm not saying you can't get into industry, but I'm having a hell of a time...
  4. Jun 4, 2013 #3


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    It might be possible to go from B. Sc. Physics to PhD in NE, but more likely, one would do an MS in NE, then a PhD. On the other hand, if one pursued a topic in Computational Physics related to nuclear engineering, one might be able to do the PhD. However, one would probably need some MS level courses in radation physics and nuclear reactor physics.

    Nuclear Engineering includes not only nuclear and radiation physics, and reactor physics, but also subjects like heat transfer, fluid mechanics, mechanics of materials, structural mechanics from Mech Eng/Struct Eng, and electrical circuits, electromechanics, and power electronics from EE.

    One should have at least an MS in industry, but many undergrads get jobs in industry. PhD is strongly recommended if one wishes to do research.

    Plasma physics is a bit iffy, since commercial fusion has yet to be perfected - assuming it will ever be.
  5. Jun 4, 2013 #4
    I'd like to point out one piece of anecdotal evidence: Every single one of my friends who got a Ph.D. in plasma physics is still employed as a physicist, doing plasma physics, as long as they were willing to work at a national lab (Livermore, Sandia, or LANL). Most of them work on something related to NIF, a few on Z. Commercial fusion might be a bit iffy, but our country's nuclear arsenal is not. I'd say about 50% of each year from my program ends up at one of those labs.

    Additionally, a few are employed elsewhere still doing plasma physics (Princeton, Madison, MIT).

    So, if you want industry, I'd say Ph.D. in plasma physics is not the way to go. If you want a research career at a national lab, as long as you go to a good program, you shouldn't have too much trouble accomplishing that goal.
  6. Jun 9, 2013 #5


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    If one did want to develop an expertise in plasma physics, I recommend a secondary (and preferably more general) area of expertise, e.g., computational physics, or fluid mechanics + heat transfer, or materials science and engineering.

    In general, engineers and physicists should be diversified in technology and skills.

    Back in the 1980s, I was thinking about fast reactor research then fusion engineering. During one seminar by an invited guest who was invovled with the FR program in the US, he announced he had to lay off about 300 people associated with FR R&D. I turned to look at my faculty adviser and other professors. My faculty advisor had tilted his head back with an anguished look, as if he was thinking "Why the heck did he say that?" My MS research was related to fuel behavior and FR safety.
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