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Advise on mechanical engineering to physics decision

  1. Apr 15, 2013 #1
    Hi everyone,

    I’m a 23 year old female, currently in my final semester of a mechanical engineering degree. I’ll start with some background information...

    I've loved physics and astronomy since first reading about black holes and the life cycle of stars in Dad's ancient Encyclopedia Britannica set when I was a kid. In high school we had some career advice, where we were supposed to write down three careers we would like to pursue and show the year 12 coordinator so that we could choose our subjects accordingly. At the time I wrote Astronomer, Physicist, and then Engineer because I thought it was essentially applied physics. The coordinator had a good laugh and told me to cross out the first two and replace them with something realistic. I couldn't think of anything else, so I was just left with engineer.

    Year 12 didn't go well - I had a lot of personal and family issues going on at the time, and study was a fairly low priority. I ended up with an enterscore of 61, which meant I could just scrape into engineering at a fairly average university. I didn't know much about the different disciplines of engineering, and so I enrolled in civil engineering after being advised that it was the most broad option. First year was mainly physics and math, but when the different disciplines branched out mid-way though second year, I realised there was very little physics in civil. I was fairly depressed at the thought of never having to do math more complicated than rearranging an equation, and so I transferred to mechanical engineering. As the majority of the subjects were common up until then, this only set me back six months.

    After transferring to mechanical I was introduced to the possibility of doing a PhD in engineering and working in research. I thought this would up my alley as it would be more science-y, and so I finally pulled my finger out and started studying regularly. My average grade is now around 90%, and I just completed an undergraduate summer research program. However, I’ve spent a fair bit of time looking into potential engineering research projects and really haven’t found anything that jumps out as interesting. Throughout the course I’ve had people ask me what area I want to work in after graduating, and I’ve never had a good answer. The course has been okay, but there hasn’t been anything I’ve liked enough to specialise in. I’ve never been excited about any of it, the final year in particular I’ve found quite unchallenging and tedious.

    About six months to a year ago I was having lunch with an old friend who was asking me about my future plans. The conversation went something like this:
    “What are you going to do when you graduate?”
    “I’m hoping to get a PhD scholarship.”
    “Oh really? Do you know what your topic will be?”
    “Not really sure yet.”
    “Oh okay. I think you should only do a PhD if its on a topic you’re really passionate about.”

    I thought she made a very good point. I really don’t think I can find a topic in engineering that fits that criteria. I then started looking into options, like doing Master’s in science, or doing a PhD in cross-disciplinary field but these seem like compromises. I feel like the only way I could be happy working in engineering is if it was something very physics/astronomy related - like designing space craft for example. That’s a very ambitious career path though, even more so for someone who isn’t that into engineering in the first place. I’m also very concerned about climate change, and so I guess working in alternative energy would be okay.
    I’ve thought about ditching engineering and doing a science degree for quite a while, but I was always held back by the thought of giving up a career with relatively high pay and job security, as well as the obvious time commitment. I’m looking at another 5 - 6 years of study compared to getting an engineering job at the end of this year. I thought I could keep physics as a hobby, and just read books and watch documentaries in my spare time. The problem is that this just make me want to know more.

    My main interests are the big “why is anything here” questions in physics, I suppose that fits into cosmology. I also really love planetary science, so I’m not sure yet which of those areas I’d prefer. I’m applying for entry into the Bachelor of Science at Monash University, with the aim of majoring in both physics and applied mathematics. I’m 95% sure that I want to go through with it, but I still have some nagging doubts about this potentially being career suicide. I would appreciate any general advice about whether or not this is a stupid decision, and I also have these specific questions:

    -If for some reason I couldn’t get a job in physics, would my engineering degree still be worth anything after doing a science degree and postgrad?
    -Will my engineering knowledge help me in physics at all?

    Thanks in advance for any input, and sorry for the massive post.

  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 15, 2013 #2
  4. Apr 17, 2013 #3
    Wow, I just wrote about 30 minutes worth of text and when I clicked on post a quick reply the site asked me to relog in. Now all of that text is gone!

    Anyways, I have a similar/almost exact background. Did ME undergrad and Masters in robotics (because it was the "realistic" thing to do), dreamed of being an astrophysicist in highschool, finally decided to go to theoretical physics after some soul searching, took a year of courses to catch up, got into a masters for theoretical astrophysicist and I am now on my second year.

    I don't think I have the time to write that much text again now, so feel free to message me if you have any questions.
  5. Apr 17, 2013 #4
    Damn, I'm disappointed I didn't get to read it! Thanks a lot for your reply, I'll send you a message now with a couple of additional questions :)
  6. Apr 17, 2013 #5
    I'll add some of the relevant parts of my email to this tread incase anyone else has experience/opinions:

    I was originally going to apply for mid-year application to science, so that I wouldn't have a gap after finishing engineering. However I think I'm going delay it for a semester to give me time to think about it properly and research my options.

    Do you think [aerospace] is an area (or are there any other areas) where it would be beneficial to have both the engineering and physics degree, as opposed to just engineering? Programming is definitely not a problem for me, it's been one of my strong points throughout the course compared to other students, and my final year project is mainly programming. Although I've decided I enjoy using it as a tool, but wouldn't want a job entirely programming as its just too much time staring at the computer.

    I suppose my main battle here is that if I'm honest with myself, money is somewhat important. I'm worried about living off less than the minimum wage for at least the next five years, just to have it turn out that I can't get a job in the field anyway and be back to I started. However then I'd be close to 30 with no savings, no house and a huge debt.

    Another thing that concerns me... For my final year project I wanted to use genetic algorithms to optimise a design. I was really excited about it but not sure what design to apply it to, and unfortunately I had to apply it to something I find really boring just to get a supervisor. I found that as I got into it and problem after problem arose (I spend most of the time debugging), I started to forget the exciting big picture and it became very tedious. I'm worried that this is just how research is, and that maybe I'm not cut out for it. So basically, I'm worried I have an unrealistically romantic view of science. My next step will definitely involve reading physics papers to get an idea.
  7. Apr 17, 2013 #6
    Why not just get a M.S. in aerospace engineering sand then work on some of the new propulsion projects? I heard there is a crave for nuclear powered space craft, there's all types of things in aerospace engineering that deal somewhat with the physics you enjoy not only that you'll still have a decent salary. This forum seems to be filled with unemployed physics PhDs, I know some personally as well.
  8. Apr 18, 2013 #7
    I do engineering research for a living. I really enjoy it.

    I don't agree that you should have a research topic in mind necessarily when you go to grad school. You won't be able to research any topic you feel like; it has to be one that resonates with your advisor's research since you will most likely be funded out of his or her grants.

    When I went to graduate school I knew the subfield I was interested in (analog integrated circuits) and applied to schools with strong programs in that subfield. When I finally got accepted into my advisor's research group there really wasn't a lot of choice about what my topic would be... I basically got to pick from three general topics. The core ideas of the thesis were my own, but the research question I was addressing came from my advisor.

    I have a very satisfying career and I do use math and physics quite a bit. I wouldn't turn down engineering research just because you don't have a thesis topic yet.
  9. Apr 22, 2013 #8
    Thanks for the input everyone.

    Caldweab: Working on nuclear powered space craft would be awesome, but would I need a nuclear physics background for that kind of thing anyway? Also I currently live in Australia where there is no space program whatsoever. I would love to be able to apply for something like the ESA graduate trainee programs, but you need to be a European citizen. I'm hoping to move to Europe with my boyfriend when we're ready in a few years (he already has a British and Euro passport due to parents), but even so I'd need to be living there for 5 years to get citizenship and a proper job over there as far as I can tell. I was thinking if I ended up doing science, I could try and do my PhD at a British university and knock three years off that way.

    Carlgrace: Do you know whether the job prospects for engineering research are much better than science research? Do you do research in industry or academia? I haven't written off that option yet, I'm looking into either clean energy research or aerospace.

    Another option I'm thinking about it atmospheric science. I was thinking it might utilise my fluids and thermodynamics knowledge from engineering, but I could possibly go into planetary science or just stick to earth's atmosphere if there are no jobs there. Just a thought at this stage, haven't had time too look into it properly.
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