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Which grad school spec for fusion research

  1. Nov 5, 2012 #1
    is nuclear physics or plasma physics a better grad concentration for current/future fusion research? thx
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 6, 2012 #2
    If you really mean nuclear physics, not that. If you mean nuclear engineering, you could go either way. There are lots of engineering and materials issues with fusion, while plasma physics is perhaps the more direct path, but more limiting if you're unable to find funding in fusion research. It really depends on what you're interested in. If you don't like EM, don't do plasma physics.
  4. Nov 6, 2012 #3
    Thank you for your answer, but I am having trouble understanding the 'that' in the first sentence: Are you saying don't do plasma physics if I want nuclear physics as a purely academic subject, but if I want nuclear engineering I can do either nuclear physics or plasma physics? This seems to imply that nuclear physics as a purely academic discipline (non-applied) doesn't bear fruit for fusion research, am I right? But this is confusing because I thought engineers need theoreticians behind them. Thank you again for any clarification you can provide.
  5. Nov 6, 2012 #4
    Nuclear physics generally leads to something like high energy physics or accelerator physics. That's not to say it's purely academic, but the application is not *usually* fusion, in the commerical energy sense.

    If I understand your first question properly, you want to do fusion research; that is, you want to do something involving actual-fusion-energy-reactor-research. Nuclear physics, as a discipline, does NOT generally lead to this; nuclear engineering (NE) can. Plasma physics is often a subtopic of nuclear engineering, although different programs could be organized differently. In a nuclear engineering graduate degree, you're often doing theory, more often applied theory. You learn some nuclear physics and QM in a NE program, of course.
  6. Nov 6, 2012 #5
    Ok thanks. Very helpful. Another question - what other grad degrees, if any, could lead to fusion reactor research besides NE? Thanks
  7. Nov 7, 2012 #6
    Physics and Electrical Engineering also do fusion, for instance.

    University of Wisconsin Madison has 3 departments doing Plasma/Fusion research: Physics, EE, and NE.
  8. Nov 8, 2012 #7
    thanks clope. i was also wondering - does focusing on fusion research in grad school shoehorn you into academia only, since it's only in the R&D phase at the moment? Or do grad students in NE that specialize in fusion take enough fission coursework to be marketable in govt/industry with respect to fission positions? thanks
  9. Feb 2, 2013 #8
    There are many opportunities in low temperature plasma physics. Scientists with knowledge of plasma physics are in demand for many applications ranging from plasma rockets to semiconductor etching to materials processing to plasma medicine. Opportunities exist in both Industry and at national labs.
  10. Feb 3, 2013 #9
    Fusion research for a physicist is plasma physics. There may be engineering roles also, mostly to do with materials for walls, divertors, magnets, and so forth.

    'Nuclear engineering' is mostly fission-based and the problems don't have a great deal of overlap.
  11. Feb 3, 2013 #10
    So are there a lot of industry jobs for phds in plasma physics? Are they in highly specialized fields? Are the jobs regional? I think nuclear physics and plasma physics are interesting but I would like to have the option to work in industry. I live in the United States but I would like to work in Europe, Canada, Australia, and maybe other countries someday.
  12. Feb 4, 2013 #11
    Not really. Also the industrial plasmas are very different to high temperature, completely ionised fusion plasmas. On the other hand you can learn incidental skills like programming.

    I wouldn't say getting a PhD in fusion theory is likely to be a top employment move. If you want to spend most of your career working in fission you should get a degree relevant to that.
  13. Feb 4, 2013 #12
    Mostly but not all; MIT, georgia tech, uw-madison, and several other NE programs do fusion plasma research.
  14. Feb 4, 2013 #13
    Hmm are there any good career moves for a physics phd other than solid state/condensed matter and medical physics in industry? Are there careers in optics/nuclear physics (I've always heard nuclear engineering is a good degree, but nuclear physics isn't the most useful phd out side of academic.
  15. Feb 4, 2013 #14
    In theory? I'm willing to be proven wrong, but if they do do fusion theory and practical fission work in the same program I very much doubt it will be the same people doing it.

    There just isn't a great deal of overlap. Fusion theory is almost entirely about how to hold the plasma in a magnetic bottle; the 'nuclear' bit and details of QM surrounding the reaction itself are basically irrelevant.

    There is some overlap in experiment in areas to do with neutron embrittlement and the like.

    pinkfishegg - My advice is that if career/money-maximisation is your goal to be an engineer rather than a physicist.
  16. Feb 4, 2013 #15
    I've seen plenty of NE departments that do fusion theory and fusion experiment.
  17. Feb 4, 2013 #16
    @mxdyx, I'm not really concerned about getting rich, I just want to know that there's some sort of job security in the field I'm going into. Are all of the engineering fields really that secure or just some of them? I don't like EE very much. I was considering nuclear engineering or alternative energy engineering but the latter may be a lot of EE.

    Are you a physicist or an engineer?
  18. Feb 6, 2013 #17
    If you go into physics, you will experience job security, provided that you (1) publish a lot and (2) are capable of winning grant money. Also, you must be capable of giving compelling talks because this will build up your reputation (and hence, job security).

    From a purely physical standpoint, low temperature plasma physics is different from fusion plasma. However, if you went to Wisconsin and did PhD thesis research on a Tokamak, and you decided to try something different, then I don't think it would be a huge stretch to convince another lab that you're qualified to research, say the chemistry of plasma polymerization. There would be some technical knowledge you'd have to catch up on, but trying to understand something you've never studied before is a skill you should have already learned in graduate school.
  19. Feb 6, 2013 #18
    There is very little job security in science, hundreds of people are competing for every job. Many of the people who leave the field are well-published, and give decent talks. Also, every physicists has to spend a fairly long period of time in contract-labor type positions (postdocs), where they reapply for jobs every few years. This is the opposite of security- even if things go very well, you are moving across the world chasing jobs every few years.

    It depends on how many people studied the chemistry of plasma polymerization while you were studying a Tokamak. You are a PI, and you have to hire a postdoc for a project that requires knowledge of plasma polymerization- such postdoc has two years to produce publishable results. You have two candidates- one of them did their dissertation on a closely related topic and really knows the material and can dive right in with interesting ideas. One did a very different thesis project, but could PROBABLY get up to speed in a few months, and maybe then they'll have their own ideas to add to the project. Who gets the job?

    Its important to understand that in almost all areas of physics, the model of the job market you need is abundant job seekers searching for scarce jobs. There aren't many opportunities to retrain or switch fields because labs can usually get someone already up to speed (abundant job seekers, few jobs).
  20. Feb 7, 2013 #19
    I have personally met with a professor of fusion at GATech and talked about the research that is done in the grad program. There is certainly a lot of fusion research going on in NE depts.

    Also, UM-Ann Arbor has several professors working on plasma physics for fusion applications.
  21. Feb 11, 2013 #20
    While it is true that there are nuclear engineering programs that do plasma physics, I'd say the above advice that people doing that research in those departments aren't also doing fission research. There might be a little bit of crossover if they are doing something materials based, etc., but...

    Generally speaking, if you want to do fusion research, I'd say first pick which type you want to do. Inertial confinement fusion (lasers, bombs) or magnetic confinement (tokamaks, etc.). Then pick your program. Off of the top of my head:

    - Princeton - heavy magnetic focus, program is Plasma Physics, but degree is in Astrophysics (where I went)
    - MIT - fusion research is all over the place, mostly magnetic confinement, some laser stuff. A good deal of it is in the NE department I think. Know that C-MOD got cut the other year and it's in some weird state of limbo; I'm not sure if I'd go there on that basis.
    - Madison Wisconsin - as mentioned above, plasma research is in physics, EE, and NE. Different projects are in different departments. The physics dept is mostly basic plasma science, dynamos and stuff. EE I think does the stellarator while MST (the reversed field pinch) is in Physics. I think. I don't know what the lateral movement options are between departments, but if you did a Ph.D. in Physics there, you'd certainly be able to get a postdoc on some fusion device in the US. They have a small tokamak which I think is in Engineering Physics dept too.

    Those are the top three in my mind for magnetic confinement stuff. Other good plasma programs include UCLA, U Washington, WVU, Auburn, Maryland (though it's rapidly shrinking), Caltech (tiny but good department doing basic plasma physics) and several more that I can't name off the top of my head. Some of these do fusion related stuff, some don't, so it might be a little bit harder to get into fusion research from, say, WVU, though you might have better prospects going into plasma processing or space plasmas. Columbia used to do some stuff but I'm not sure of the current status of that program. They had a non-neutral torus, but I think the PI left and went back to Germany, and their levitating dipole experiment that was run jointly with MIT was also shut down a couple years ago.

    If you want to do laser/wire pinch/inertial fusion, I don't know all the schools, but Cornell, Michigan, Rochester, and probably a couple of California schools too. However, I didn't do inertial stuff, so I'm not as familiar with it. I do have a couple friends who did though; one did his Ph.D. at Michigan doing wire pinch stuff before doing a postdoc on a tokamak, while another did undergrad research at Cornell doing wire pinch stuff before doing a Ph.D. on magnetic confinement. I also have a TON of friends who did tokamak stuff in grad school who are either working on NIF or just straight up weapons at the weapons labs. So it is possible to move back and forth between them, but usually at the postdoc stage.

    During my 10 years in the field of magnetic confinement fusion research, almost everyone that I met at the bigger facilities (Princeton, MIT, General Atomics) had spent some time at one or more of those three places + Madison. A few people I knew did their graduate research at Maryland, but as I said earlier, that program seems to be really winding down.

    Long story short: if you want to fusion research, go to a program that does fusion research. If you happen to get a degree in NE, physics, or something else, it's not as important. What is important is that you were part of an active group in the field. If you want to do tokamak research, I think the most direct path to take is to go to Princeton, Wisconsin, or MIT. If you want a job in industry, considering my current experience, I might avoid plasma physics. If you don't take that advice, make sure you do a project that works with RF, lots of heavy numerical simulation, or some other thing that companies are actually interested in. Or go to a program where there are some connections with plasma processing (like Auburn or WVU); but know that they don't do as much fusion related stuff to begin with.

    One last thing. If you have the right mindset, there are lots of interesting problems, at least for magnetic confinement fusion, in materials science. It would probably open up industry doors for you, but you wouldn't necessarily be doing plasma research; more like research on the wall that the plasma strikes, etc. This research NEEDS to be done and isn't necessarily being done in the above programs.
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