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What to major in when looking to work with nuclear energy

  1. Aug 13, 2013 #1
    I'm currently a junior in high-school and am looking to narrow down my options for colleges by major. I want to work with nuclear energy as a career and am conflicted as to what majors or academic path I should take. I specifically want to work with fusion on things such as the ITER Project and the subsequent DEMO project or maybe muon-catalyzed fusion.

    I originally thought a bachelor's in ChemE and then get my postgraduate degrees in NukeE as an undergrad program in NukeE is relatively rare. I'm now thinking about a double major in NukeE/ChemE and Physics as an undergraduate degree or just a NukeE degree.

    I'm not sure which is the best option for going into that particular field. I am also concerned for my ability to handle a double major while competing as a NCAA d.1 or d.2 soccer team which is why I am narrowing my choices as soon as my junior year.

  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 16, 2013 #2
    Just an FYI, if you truly wish to work with Nuclear Fusion (see ITER like you mentioned) expect to be in a research career your entire life. Also, USA (I'm assuming you're from America) is partially defunding its fusion research programs (MIT's fusion reactor is getting cut out of the budget I believe) to make its ITER commitments.

    I'd recommend staying out of Chemical Engineering for nuclear fusion research. You're better off doing just a nuclear engineering degree (with extra E&M physics classes or material science classes) or doing the physics degree with a minor in nuclear engineering or independent course work in nuclear reactor physics/radiation physics. I'd recommend looking at this list: http://grad-schools.usnews.rankings...ineering-schools/nuclear-engineering-rankings. The top three programs all have a lot of professors who do research in nuclear fusion.

    Also, do not expect to dual major at all while doing sports in college. Your sports commitment alone will force you to struggle with a single major... especially one as demanding as physics or engineering.
  4. Aug 16, 2013 #3
    When you say nuclear energy, people will think you mean fission, not fusion. Just so you know.

    Fusion research is kind of funny because it occurs in many different departments at different schools. At Princeton, it's in the Astrophysics department. MIT -> Nuclear Eng. Wisconsin -> 3 or 4 different departments. Caltech -> Applied Physics. So on an so forth.

    While I do know people who currently research fusion who come from a variety of different undergrad degrees, physics was by far the most common in my program and I perceived it to be the most common in the field. Those who came from engineering backgrounds had a lot more prep to do to get by the qualifier exams. Also, most of the coursework in my program was more like physics than it was engineering, with a few small exceptions. Fusion work is either magnetic confinement fusion, like ITER, or inertial confinement, like NIF. Working in magnetic confinement fusion entails a LOT of E&M work, which is where a physics background helps.

    So my top recommendation would be physics for an undergrad degree. Possibly nuclear engineering if you are entertaining working in the fission power industry, but you will possibly have a bit of a battle with your department over plans for you future. Obviously, if you choose that route, you are best off picking a school that does fusion research in their nuclear eng. department. Chem. E. sounds like a poor choice to me.

    If going to a large public university and wish to major in engineering, I'd recommend Wisconsin-Madison, UCLA, U of Michigan - Ann Arbor, or U of Washington. I say those four because all of them do some sort of fusion research, though Michigan leans more towards the inertial/wire type of research from my understanding. Two other options for public universities are Auburn and WVU, though fusion/plasma research occurs in the physics department at those institutions. Wisconsin is particularly good because a lot of undergrads participate in research there, and the research occurs in a variety of departments. Other good schools to look at in the long run (not necessarily for undergrad, but grad) are Princeton, MIT, and Caltech, which has a small but excellent program. A few small colleges also do some plasma/fusion research and could be very good ways to get into the right grad school: Swarthmore College and Lawrence University. Both of those schools have a well connected professor who could help funnel you to the right grad school.

    With respect to sports, I played football while doing an honors major in Physics. At my school, an honors major was two classes short of a double major, and possibly more work than doing a non-honors double major, what with the exit exams and thesis requirements. It can be done, but it was tough. Real tough. I was also not at a division 1 school; not sure how you'd manage that and a demanding major at a good school.
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