Princeton Degrees Explained
The first thing that you will notice about the two undergraduate degrees offered by Princeton is that one, the A.B., is titled in Latin, standing for Artium Baccalaureus, or Bachelor of Arts. When founded in 1746, Princeton adopted the degrees used in British universities. The term “bachelor” comes from medieval Latin meaning a rustic person who was pretty low in the feudal hierarchy. Since applicants were required to demonstrate proficiency in Latin until 1930, it seemed reasonable to keep the name of their degree in its medieval form. Nonetheless, Latin had ceased to be used in everyday conversation at Princeton, so the Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree was titled in English when it was introduced in 1921.
About 3/4 of the undergraduates at Princeton are A.B. candidates, while about 25% pursue the B.S.E. The A.B. degree is offered in disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, mathematics, and natural sciences. Even physics majors at Princeton receive the Bachelor of Arts degree, just like an English major. In engineering, five departments offer just the B.S.E. degree. One department, Computer Science, offers a choice of either a B.S.E. or an A.B. Except for the organization of independent work, the departmental program is the same, but the difference lies in what students take outside the CS department to fulfill general education requirements.
The A.B. and the B.S.E. degrees are more similar than they are different. Both are undergraduate degrees in the tradition of a liberal education, which means acquiring breadth across many fields and depth in one. Both degrees require students to complete eight semesters of study, to take a freshman writing seminar, and to fulfill general education requirements across several areas. The A.B. and the B.S.E. degree also have significant independent work components. All A.B. students write a senior thesis, and most B.S.E. students do a thesis or equivalent design project. B.S.E. students have to take at least seven humanities and social science courses (most take more), while over 60% of the students in the A.B. program take at least one course offered by a department or program in the School of Engineering and Applied Science. For example, the convergence of the humanities and social sciences with engineering and science can be seen in this video about Civil and Environmental Engineering 463, A Social and Multi-Dimensional Exploration of Structures.
Beyond the fact that the B.S.E. program requires you to be comfortable with science and math, the differences are less than they appear at first glance. The most obvious is that the A.B. degree requires 31 courses and the B.S.E. requires 36. How can it be, you might ask, that the B.S.E. requires the equivalent of another semester of courses within the same eight-semester residency? Read the fine print. The A.B. degree requires 31 taught courses, plus one or two junior papers, plus a full-year senior thesis. In the B.S.E. program, all independent work counts among the 36 courses. If A.B. independent work is translated to an equivalent amount of coursework, the workload difference shrinks considerably. The reason for the difference in counting independent work is lost in the mists of history. Another difference is that B.S.E. students declare their major at the end of the first year, while A.B. students do this in the spring of sophomore year. That’s not really as big a deal as it seems, since in many A.B. majors you need to take foundational courses in sophomore year as well.
You were admitted either as a candidate for the A.B. or the B.S.E. or as Undecided. In June, you will be asked to confirm your degree candidacy as part of the on-line matriculation process. If you were admitted as A.B. or B.S.E. and want to remain in that program, just check a box. If you were admitted Undecided, you will be asked whether you want to be A.B. or B.S.E. Students who want to switch from A.B. or Undecided into engineering will be asked to complete a short application that will be reviewed to determine whether you have adequate preparation in math and physics. On June 30, we’ll take a break from accepting requests to change degree programs so we can get everyone straightened out and make sure they’re in an appropriate program to start the fall term. When the fall term starts, we can begin to receive requests for changes again, so if you’re at all uncertain now, please wait until September and see me.
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Peter Bogucki (pronounced bo-good’-ski) is associate dean for undergraduate affairs of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University. In this capacity, Bogucki oversees the academic advising, progress, and professional development of about 1400 candidates for the Bachelor of Science in Engineering degree. He is also closely involved with the advising of BSE students planning to study abroad and the development of opportunities for international study. Bogucki is an archaeologist who received his Ph.D. from Harvard University. He studies prehistoric settlements in Poland and has a particular interest in the spread of farming in Europe. Bogucki is the author of The Origins of Human Society (Blackwell, 1999) and The Barbarians (Reaktion, 2017), as well as the editor (with Pam J. Crabtree) of Ancient Europe 8000 B.C. – A.D. 1000: an Encyclopedia of the Barbarian World (Scribners, 2004), along with numerous articles in archaeological journals.