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Programs 2nd year student can't decide between engineering and physics

  1. Nov 16, 2016 #1
    I have been struggling to make this decision for the past year. I am a straight A 2nd/3rd year mechanical engineering student and I really can't decide between engineering and physics. My whole life I have always wondered about the universe, and why things work the way they do. I am way more intrigued by things that pertain to theoretical physics than to engineering: I'd rather study the stars, relativity and quantum mechanics than design a more thermally efficient gas turbine (although I do find the study of thermodynamics systems to be very interesting).

    On the other hand, I am really not sure if I want to devote my whole life to study. I can honestly say that 90% of the time I am awake, I am doing something that relates to academia. When I'm not in class, I am studying, and when I'm not studying I am getting paid to teach other college students math, physics and engineering. When I'm not teaching, I am writing educational handouts that are to be published on the schools website (two of which are already published). I am fine with the way I live now, and I really love learning, teaching, and writing, but I have this fear that I'm going to get to the point to where I don't want to study anymore, and I just want to work. I often find that when I am on breaks such as christmas break, I never find myself wanting to study more (even though I often do study over break to get ahead), and that makes me think that maybe I am not cut out for the life of non-stop studying.

    I can really see myself enjoying a job as an engineer, although I do not have any experience with engineering aside from classes. The other day my thermodynamics teacher spent half of the class talking about his job maintaining nuclear reactors on submarines and it was really interesting. It makes me think that even though I love physics, maybe I will also love engineering.

    I think even if I do decide to go the mechanical engineering route, I will always have a strong desire to learn more physics and math. I honestly think that the only thing stopping me from majoring in physics is the money. I would love to live in a world where money doesn't matter, and theoretical physicists live just as comfortably as engineers, but that is not how it is in the real world, which makes this a hard decision. Should I go into physics because it is my passion, or should I go into engineering because I will be able to live a very comfortable life while also doing something I enjoy (just not as much as physics)?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 16, 2016 #2
    The average life expectancy of a first world country is about 80 years. We spend 1/3 of it doing essential stuff such as sleeping, eating, toiling, etc. The other 2/3 is spent doing working, studying, socializing, and other stuff that is in our interest. It would be up to you what you want to do for little time you have living on this blue pale dot as compared to the timeless scale of our expanding universe. To put it into another perspective, not even billionaires are able to prevent death. Time can't be bought. Time is priceless.
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2016
  4. Nov 16, 2016 #3


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    Life-time is short but you want to be productive, healthy, and safe. Choose Engineering, but do as much Physics and Math that will help keep you happy. Maybe after a few years of an engineering career, you might return to school for continued study in something (Physics or Mathematics).
  5. Nov 17, 2016 #4


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  6. Nov 17, 2016 #5
    Zapperz, I am choosing between theoretical physics and mechanical engineering because those are the two things that interest me the most. Sure, there are some things in the middle that interest me, but theoretical physics and engineering interest me more. I'd rather just do one or the other
  7. Nov 17, 2016 #6


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    Based on your post, I don't think you even know what "theoretical physics" is.

    And let me re-emphasize how baffling it is, to me, of someone who seems to have a black-and-white view of doing either one extreme, or the other extreme, and with no interest of doing anything in between as if there is no gradual overlap between the two. I put it to you that you really don't have a clue on what is out there, and that you are making a lot of decisions here based on a lot of things that you don't know.

  8. Nov 17, 2016 #7
    You seem to be the one that doesn't have a clue. You think you can determine my knowledge of a topic by reading a short post I wrote on an internet forum.

    And as I said, I understand that there are things in the middle, but I have considered those things and they do not interest me as much as the two extremes. It's baffling how you can automatically jump to conclusions and throw me into the pile of people that don't know anything about either topics. You assume that I don't know what I'm talking about and haven't considered any other options, but you don't even know me at all.
  9. Nov 17, 2016 #8
    That was very well written. And you are definitely correct, although I'm not sure which side that make me lean towards. With physics I would be able to spend my time studying what I love, whereas with engineering I would be able to spend my time doing a job that I enjoy, while also being able to live a very comfortable life right after I graduate when I'm not working.
  10. Nov 17, 2016 #9


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    Sounds pretty clear to me which way you lean. In your heart of hearts you love physics, but obviously you lean toward getting an engineering job and studying and keeping up with physics on your own time. Not many people would describe stringing together endless Physics postdocs as a very comfortable life.
  11. Nov 17, 2016 #10


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    Would building satellites or telescopes or telescope satellites be close enough to both physics and engineering?

    I would tend to agree with @ZapperZ that your description of what you might do in "theoretical physics" seems a bit vague and speaking as a mechanical engineer who has an interest in physics/astronomy, I'd ask: Would a serious hobby in physics/astronomy be enough to satisfy you? See the website link in my sig for a (not very up to date...) view of what that might look like.

    It does seem to me (and my bias should be clear...) that you are leaning toward engineering, but to help with the decision (if it needs it), you may want to put more focus into exactly what you would do in physics, exactly what it takes to achieve it and exactly what the "end game" looks like in terms of job and career prospects. I can speak with authority that one of the "easy" things about engineering - unlike physics/academia - is that it requires precisely zero planning to get into it. You can stumble blindly through a BS in ME (because robots are cool!) with no thought to how you are going to use it and then trip and fall into a lucrative and succesful career. If you try that with physics, you'll risk ending-up an exceedingly well qualified barrista.
  12. Nov 17, 2016 #11
    People who say they want to do 'theoretical physics' more often than not don't know what that term means, and I think ZapperZ is on point here, you don't know what that entails. Generally people think 'theoretical physics' means particles, super strings, astrophysics/cosmology, time travel, quantum woo, and the theory of everything; the issue is that there's much more to physics than that, and most physicists don't work in those fields anyway. All branches of physics have theoretical, computational, and experimental aspects to them with overlap in between, so saying you want to do 'theoretical physics' vs XYZ doesn't narrow down the subject at all.
  13. Nov 18, 2016 #12

    You will not necessarily make more money in engineering than in physics. On the contrary, if you settle for your second choice, you may find you do not do nearly as well as an engineer as you would have done as a physicist, because your motivation is not strong enough. Engineering is a highly competitive field, as is physics. If you are not 100% motivated in engineering, if it's not your first choice, you probably will not do well.

    You will run into obstacles and difficulties in any career, because that's the way life works. It's hard enough to make a good living even if you are doing what you love. Given the uncertainty of life, I think it makes sense to do what we love, work hard at it, dedicate ourselves to it, and hope for the best.

    This is just my two cents worth. As they say, your mileage may vary. Ultimately the decision is yours. Best of luck to you!
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2016
  14. Nov 19, 2016 #13


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    Sure, but the odds are better.

    I think that this overly idealized. Many people who have careers they don't particularity care for do quite well monetarily. This includes people in science, who after living in poverty for ~10 years get off the train to do quant/other science unrelated work.

    It's no harder doing something you don't love. In fact, even things you love you don't always love in the moment. I'm surely not the first person to burn a physics book in effigy after a sleepless week.

    It actually doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Anyone of us that went the physics route could have went the medical school route and been better off. Do what you love, but there's no need to sugar coat it. You're losing out on money by doing physics/other sciences over engineering.
  15. Nov 20, 2016 #14
    I admit you make some good points. Perhaps for most people it makes good sense to select the more lucrative and comfortable path.

    I would just add that if the selection of one's career is based on money-making potential, which is a very sensible attitude, then look at how the wealthy got that way and learn from their example. I think being an entrepreneur, whether it's in engineering or fast food, is an obvious choice. In that case I would say don't think in terms of being an employee. Also, don't restrict your thinking about a career to science or engineering.

    For example, be a hedge fund owner rather than merely a programmer working for a hedge fund. My information is that the programmers who develop algorithmic trading systems make peanuts compared to the owners. If money is how one keeps score, then why settle for the minor leagues?

    Think ahead to the lifestyle you could achieve if you were wealthy: a mansion, a Ferrari, a Lambo (for when you are bored with the Ferrari) and so on. You could afford to send your kids to the finest schools beginning with kindergarten. Also you could start a charitable foundation and invest in worthwhile causes. Also there is the time element. You can spend your time the way you want, not the way someone else dictates.

    On the other hand, some people are forced into their career choice because it's what they are made for and they know it. It's all they want to do, and they look on any other work as a step down. In fact they hate doing anything else. It makes them ill in various ways.

    In other words, some people do not decide on a career. They are driven to it by individual attributes beyond their control. I suppose whether one says that is lucky or unlucky depends on one's point of view. Perhaps "vocation" is a better word for it than "career."

    If you are looking at things from the financial point of view, then consider the return on your investment in higher education. Is it really worth it? You do not need a PhD or even a bachelor's degree to become wealthy. If you are rich you can hire the specialists you need.

    Maybe there is no point even giving advice on this topic. Those who are driven to the point of obsession to physics, or finance, or music, etc., will do it no matter what anyone says. It goes beyond love, it's more like the urge to breathe. I think I will stay away from this subject from now on. It now seems pointless to me. Thanks for the conversation.
    Last edited: Nov 20, 2016
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