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Engineering Academic Career decision: Physics or Engineering

  1. Dec 5, 2006 #1

    This will be my first post on this forum, but I have been reading posts for quite a while. I find it really insightful. Now, I could use some of the people here's help.

    I need to decide whether I should do Electrical Engineering or Physics. I have been offered early admission to the University of Cape Town in South Africa (where I live), to study Electrical Engineering. I have also been offered two bursaries, and am going to an interview for a third later in December. For the international people who are not familiar with bursaries, it works a little different to a scholarship. Basically, a company or organisation takes you under their wing. They pay for your studies, while you sign a contract to work for them for a year for every year they paid for your studies. They also cover accommodation and some other expenses.

    The bursaries I have been offered are for Electrical Engineering, and they wont be transferable to Physics. This is the first thing I will be giving up if I change to Physics. I will need to take out a loan in order to study Physics.

    The reason I have recently begun thinking about Physics instead of Engineering is that I find myself looking forward to the Physics classes the most. The only math I want to learn is that which is necessary to support my physics work. So I started thinking that it might be a good idea to change to physics, so that I can do that for most of the time.

    I need to know what you guys think I should do. I know that I will have a guaranteed job as an Engineer and I wont have to pay for my studies, but is it worth regretting the choice the rest of my life? What kind of jobs do Physicists do? I have done much reading on this, but I would like to read your experiences. If I change to physics I will have to get a job soon after graduation, as I will need to repay a loan. Will this be possible? I am willing to move almost anywhere in the world. I am actually quite keen on moving, especially to Western Europe or the Scandinavian countries.

    As for my academic background, I think it is strong enough for either of them. I should be graduating from high school with straight As, and I skipped the second last year of schooling. You opinion on whether this is a strong enough academic background? I should meet the University's requirements fairly easily.

    Here are some links, if needed:
    http://www.ebe.uct.ac.za/" [Broken]

    Your advice and opinions will be greatly appreciated.

    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 6, 2006 #2
    A little question: If you decide LATER to switch from engineering to physics, will you have to back-pay your tution? If not, then I'd say take classes in both and THEN decide what you like better.

    I'd anticipate that your background is fine for starting too.
  4. Dec 6, 2006 #3
    Yes I will have to, and I will need to redo some classes. Essentially, I would be losing a year. There is also no room to do classes from both engineering and physics. Engineering has only one physics subject, and I checked to see what credits it provides in the physics program, but it is entirely unrelated. So I would lose all that time.
  5. Dec 6, 2006 #4


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    Honestly, the physicist's life is not an easy one, and there is enormous competition. The vast majority of people who attempt to make a livelihood out of physics honestly do not succeed. Don't do it unless you really, really cannot imagine yourself finding happiness any other way.

    I'd be really surprised if it were not possible to take a few physics classes as electives even if you're officially studying EE. In most schools, you're free to take just about any class you want, as long as you meet the prerequisites.

    - Warren
  6. Dec 6, 2006 #5
    Most physics majors turn out to be engineers anyway. Unless you have a burning desire to study physics, I would go with the engineering. It is easier anyway (not easy, easier!)
  7. Dec 6, 2006 #6


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    I agree with chroot that the physics life can be hard. On the other hand, I suggest that you follow your passion; if you love physics and math, why settle for engineering? I'll throw out something else, too; as a physicist you can still do engineering in industry, and benefit from the higher salaries and plentiful job opportunities. You may find yourself a "superengineer" who can solve problems no one else in the engineering dept. can handle because of your physics background and mathematical sophistication. You can end up working on the best R&D projects. Just something to think about.
  8. Dec 6, 2006 #7


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  9. Dec 6, 2006 #8
    Thanks for the advice. I will arrange another meeting with the dean of the science faculty, to speak to him about the extra physics classes. If I do EE, and on top of that some experimental physics, and I go up to MSc Eng, will that give me a big advantage over your average MSc Eng student?
  10. Dec 6, 2006 #9


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    An important point from the thread berkeman linked is that there are actually many different kinds of electrical engineering. Some people -- like me -- design circuits. We spend our time in front of computers, writing models in Python, simulating some designs, creating digital filters, etc. It's all very computational, theoretical, and is, in a sense, almost purely math.

    On the other hand, on the floor right below mine, there are a couple of hundred people who have the same formal training that I have, and their jobs are entirely different. These people spend all day making boards for testing the circuits that I create. They solder, resolder, manufacture circuit boards, take apart and reassemble $10 million machines, use electron microscopes, and deal with hundreds of very practical, very hands-on, very physical problems.

    An engineering degree can take you a lot of places, and you will most likely be able to find a job doing something you like. It won't necessarily be your first (or second) job, however.

    Physicists have the same kind of split, of course -- there are theorists, there are experimentalists, and there are people who just enjoy teaching. It's very hard to boil either EE or physics down into a specific kind of work. Both are actually very large fields with all kinds of subfields.

    - Warren
  11. Dec 7, 2006 #10
    Thanks again for the advice. I clearly have some thinking to do. I still have some time-until mid january. I'll let you guys know what I decide.
  12. Dec 7, 2006 #11


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    Best of luck!
  13. Nov 22, 2007 #12
    diploma or no diploma, same thing

    My cousin has this http://www.biolexis.com/app/news.ctrl?exec=getNewsItem&id=58890" [Broken] diploma and is currently out of job. Why bother learning so much if you can't find a decent place of work?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  14. Nov 23, 2007 #13

    Chris Hillman

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    All desirable professions are overpopulated. But there is little question that physics is more competitive than engineering, and I expect that your cousin will find another position.

    Eric, I vote with those who said that the prudent choice is engineering. You should go for physics only if you decide you are so passionately enamored of physics that you'd rather die than study anything else.
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