After James Madison graduated from Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey) in 1771, he remained for a year of “graduate work” to study Hebrew with President John Witherspoon. In the following decades, other promising students were permitted to stay on after receiving their bachelor's degree, but it was not until 1869 that graduate education at Princeton systematically began to take shape. In that year, three fellowships were established as an experiment to encourage outstanding members of the senior class to continue their studies. The terms of the awards (in classics, mathematics, and philosophy) were considered rather bold in education circles; the awards were given after competitive examinations and each fellow was free to choose where and how he could most profitably spend his year. (The fellows in philosophy, for example, elected to work under President James McCosh at Princeton.) In 1879, Princeton conferred its first earned doctorates on James F. Williamson and William Libby (both B.A. 1877).

In this modest beginning, several significant, basic principles were at work: careful selection of candidates, latitude for the students in their programs of study, accessibility of the faculty, and a willingness to experiment. These principles have governed the evolution of the Graduate School at Princeton since its formal establishment in 1900.


The goals of the Graduate School today are to:

  • attract the best and the brightest from all demographic groups and all corners of the world;
  • support graduate students well both financially and physically to allow them to focus on their academic programs and professional development;
  • maintain rigorous disciplinary degree programs that incorporate appropriate interdisciplinary opportunities;
  • provide opportunities to gain understanding of other societies and cultures;
  • augment academic programs with professional development that prepares graduates to become thoughtful and successful leaders in a highly competitive and fast-paced world;
  • bring a major fraction of the students admitted to completion of their degree in a timely fashion;
  • graduate individuals who will become stewards of their professions and contributors to the improvement of their societies, cultures, and the world at large; and
  • maintain continuous connection with alumni in order to assess our success and enlist their support both professionally and financially.