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Accelerator Physics: EE vs Physics

  1. Aug 21, 2012 #1
    I know there are about a million of these posts on here comparing EE and physics, but I'm interested in more specific information. I'm currently a biological engineering major who's planning on switching to EE or Physics after this semester. At this point, I'm leaning towards physics because I'm only interested in the physics oriented EE subjects anyway, and if I take some EE classes with a physics curriculum I could always go to grad school for EE if I choose to. But not necessarily the other way around...

    I've heard that accelerator physics is a good field for people who are sort of on the fence between EE and physics. I'm curious about how the jobs & research differ between the two fields. It seems that there is a lot of overlap between them and I'm having trouble distinguishing between the roles that either a physicist or an engineer have, at say, a national lab. What might one do that the other couldn't? Also, what jobs might be in common between the two?

    I appreciate any responses
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 21, 2012 #2


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    In most cases, there is no difference between physicist and EE in the field of accelerator physics. You can major in either one.

  4. Aug 21, 2012 #3
    Can you give me an idea of some classes that I should take as undergrad who is interested in pursuing this field? There is an electromagnetics emphasis in the EE department at my school which I will likely follow as a physics major that includes:

    Intermediate electromagnetics (I will likely take E&M II from physics instead)
    Intro to plasmas
    Antenna theory and design
    Light and modern optics

    I'm not really sure what I should be focusing on but I'm assuming that E&M is very important. Other than that I would think some signal processing and programming would help. Any classes that I DEFINITELY should consider taking?
  5. Aug 23, 2012 #4


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    You need to take as much E&M as your school/department can offer. The antenna class also sounds like it could be relevant, since it involves EM fields.

    Other than that, you need to look at the Accelerator school courses that are offered periodically throughout the year and at various locations. The next one coming up is in January at Duke University. Check with your school's advisor and make sure that you can get credits for the classes that you take. Both undergraduate and graduate level classes are offered at this school.


    I would also recommend you look into the Lee Teng internship if you have completed your Junior year. This internship is meant to give you a broad intro into the field of Accelerator physics, and for you to do a summer research work in this field.


    Last edited: Aug 23, 2012
  6. Aug 23, 2012 #5
    Yea there really isn't much of a difference between EE and physics when it comes to accelerator physics. I would personally recommend taking physics because if you want to go to graduate school in accelerator physics, you will most likely enroll through physics departments in which case you will be required to take graduate level physics courses such as quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, classical mechanics, and EM of course. You would most likely receive a better preparation for this in a physics undergrad.

    That said, you could also go to grad school in EE and focus on say, RF engineering, and then work your way into accelerators through USPAS etc. There are many ways to get into the field, and its a pretty diverse field.

    As for courses, the ones you listed look pretty good. Lots of EM. Optics is good also. Plasma may definitely have its uses, it's probably not something that is necessary in an undergrad though.

    I can tell you what courses I am taking. I am in my Senior year of an Engineering Physics degree (EE and physics :) ). I will be applying for graduate school in accelerator physics this fall. The thing in brackets is what department it was taught through.

    Fall courses:
    Quantum Mechanics 2 (physics)
    Microwave Circuits (EE)
    Computational Electrodynamics or Computational Physics (EE or physics)
    Engineering Design Course/Project (EE)

    Microwave and Wireless Systems (EE)
    Statistical Mechanics (physics)
    Continuum Mechanics (physics)
    Relativistic Electrodynamics (physics)

    I am also doing a full year thesis on Superconducting RF cavity design, which will give me a pretty thorough grounding in the field. I've also taken my basic electromagnetostatics (EE), EM fields and waves (EE), and optics (EE) courses in previous years.

    Hope this helps.
  7. Aug 23, 2012 #6
    Thank you both for your help!

    I had no idea that they had specialized schools for accelerator physics but that is definitely something I'm going to look into. I think at this point, I will probably just go with physics and see what happens. After all, I am in no way positive that I want to work in accelerator physics I just wanted to weigh my options.
  8. Nov 14, 2012 #7

    Can you tell me more about your graduate school application process?

    I have been looking into accelerator physics programs as well, but I am not really sure how to pursue them. I have a BS in physics and I am aware of the USPAS courses but my next step is to apply for graduate school and I am not sure what programs I should look into. The USPAS classes seem to be tailored to current grad students/post-docs but what program should I apply for as far as grad school goes? I can't seem to find many programs that are titled "Accelerator Physics".

    Also, what schools have you been looking at? I know that Stony Brook has a good program, but any others that you recommend?
  9. Nov 14, 2012 #8
    I'm guessing taking all 3 (EM 1&2, plasma, and optics) would leave one very well prepared? I'm taking the E&M sequence from physics as well as plasma physics right now. The first four chapters of bittencourt's plasma book is all advanced and some relativistic e&m.
  10. Nov 15, 2012 #9
    Well, I'm Canadian so I'm trying to stay within Canada. In Canada the only true places that do accelerator physics are UBC and UVictoria. I am applying to both those places, and hope to secure a position working at TRIUMF.

    In the states I am applying to Stanford, Cornell and Stony Brook potentially. But there are many other places you could apply. Other places to look into are UCLA, Berkeley, College of William and Mary, Michigan, MIT (I think), Northwestern (I think?) plus there may be others that I never even considered.

    It's hard to come by programs specifically in accelerator physics. However, they do exist and there are plenty out there. Many of them specialize in different aspects of accelerator physics. For instance, Cornell has a heavy investment in superconducting RF, while places like UCLA and Berkeley are more heavily involved in beam physics and plasma wakefield stuff.
  11. Nov 15, 2012 #10


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    There are also plenty of other schools that have faculty members who specializes in accelerator physics, and thus, can supervise some who wish to go into such a field. Maryland is an outstanding school for accelerator physics and has produced a lot of accelerator prominent physicists. There is also Indiana University, Vanderbilt, etc. Even less well-known schools such as Northern Illinois University and Illinois Institute of Technology graduate accelerator physicists.

    My suggestion is to go look at an accelerator conference proceeding (check JACoW) and look at the affiliations of the authors.

  12. Nov 15, 2012 #11
    Thanks nicholls and ZapperZ!

    I have a good list of schools to start with now...
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