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Am I a physicist? (switched from engineering to physics, experiencing doubts)

  1. Nov 11, 2009 #1
    Hi everyone,

    I'm currently in the 2nd year of my undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto. I've had a pretty confusing career path and I hope you hear me out.

    For the first year of my undergraduate life, I was in http://engsci.utoronto.ca/" [Broken]. For those who haven't heard of it, they call it an "enriched program" and UofT's flagship program, blah blah blah. Well, I did pretty well in my first year and achieved a 90+ average. However, I didn't really like the engineering mentality and felt a little suffocated by the program's learning mentality and environment. It didn't really give me any room to grow and to pick my own path. I also realized that I didn't really want to be an engineer, and that even if I'd stayed in the program I would probably have done the engineering physics option (Engsci students pick their "option" after 3rd year), so I switched out.

    So come second year, I originally enrolled myself into the Math/Physics specialist program (I had to ask permission to enroll myself in them because I didn't have the necessary prerequisites, Analysis I and Algebra I/II). I enrolled myself into this program because I REALLY liked Linear Algebra and the proofs given in calculus in my old program. So I sat through a few lectures of Analysis and Advanced Differential Equations. However, for some reason when the first few assignments were due, I started chickening out and ended up switching from Math/Physics specialist to just Physics specialist. I told myself that I found pure math too theoretical and that I needed a physical basis to use math. I changed my courses down to the easier maths. So now I'm taking the lower level MAT237, Multivariable calc, which I think is what all the actuarial science, comp sci, etc. majors take, and MAT244, which is intro to differential equations. So far, I like MAT237 but I really hate differential equations. It just seems like all application and no theory.

    My physics courses also are not going so well. I really liked 1st year Classical Mechanics, but for some reason, this year, I like it a lot less. It might have to do with the prof's style of teaching though; last year, everything was very well-defined and pretty rigorous. This year, we're just learning a lot of stuff repeated from last year, plus things like damped oscillations which are basically just applications of differential equations. I'm also taking Thermal Physics this term, and while it was pretty illuminating at times, I'm not sure if I like it all that much because it just seems like a bunch of approximations so far. I'm now worried that I will feel the same way about Quantum and E&M next semester.

    I still have a healthy appreciation and interest in math. Actually my multivariable course is pretty easy for me right now. Next semester I'm planning to take Linear Algebra II and some proofs course for math majors, and might tack on a math major on top of my physics specialist (and possibly a humanities minor? :S). However, I will never be able to enroll in any of the math specialist (the pure math) courses instead. *sigh*

    What do you think? Did I make a mistake? I feel like I went from a rigorous program to a not-so-rigorous program and am not so happy that I made this decision. Will math/physics students have an edge over just plain physics students? I really want to get into a good grad school. I also feel kind of stupid that I switched out of engineering. For some reason at my school (maybe in other places too) engineering is associated with all the prestige, while physical sciences have next to none, so I feel like I'm not "part of the brightest" anymore, although i've been trying to distance myself from thoughts of prestige and not listen to my ego.

    I've been really confused over my career path for the last year or so. I honestly don't know whether physics (or even science) is "right" for me because a part of me also wants to be a writer. I'm silently debating breadth vs. depth in my head; I really want to take more writing/english courses at school but they would cut into the depth I get from my physics/math courses.

    Is there any advice you can give a thoroughly confused 2nd year undergrad student? :S Thanks so much in advance for taking the time to read my post!
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 11, 2009 #2
    I know how you feel and deciding on a major and being 100% certain it is what you want usually never happens. Do you have any idea of what you want to do when you graduate? What kind of field you want to get into or what you could see yourself enjoy doing. I think if you do some research and then find out what you are passionate about it will make the decision easier.

    I also think you are letting the entry level courses affect you too much. For example, I hated my first few physics courses but after taking some more physics courses and doing some research into the field I learned to love it. The same went for a lot of the calculus classes I was in. It all seemed to be very boring to me. Once I took differential equations and linear algebra that changed and I loved being able to apply everything to more advanced models.

    Ask youself what you really will enjoy doing with the rest of your life and then try to build your education around that not letting the small stuff get in the way.
  4. Nov 11, 2009 #3


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    It seems to me that you haven't yet decided who you are. Hey, I finally finished my Ph.D. and I still haven't decided who am I. Very generally, I had the same experience as you: that is, going from (electrical) engineering to physics. I don't know where you got the idea that engineering has more prestige. But I guess that's because (most of) the engineers that I know have bachelor's degrees, whereas physicists have Ph.D.'s.

    Regarding the specific issue of making approximations, you do not get away from this in physics any more so than in engineering (in my opinion). There is the ideal that you try to cling to for a fleating moment, and then ultimately (by the time that you graduate) you must give in to the fact that real problems do not have exact solutions.

    In circuits for (an engineering) example, the circuit is approximated as much smaller than an electromagnetic wavelength, and the circuit elements are approximated as ideal resistors, capacitors, and such. The actual engineering comes in by deciding when this is reasonable, and what you can do about it if it is not reasonable.

    In Quantum Mechanics for (a physics) example, you can solve the harmoic oscillator "exactly", but there are no perfectly harmonic oscillators in nature that I am aware of, since everything seems to interact with everything else. Anyway, if there were no interactions, the physics would be quite boring (or at least quite different). The actual physics comes in by deciding what modes of the oscillator are excited, and how the frequencies are adjusted by interactions.

    So, to be a bit glib, the exactly solvable situations that do not require approximations are not very interesting, neither for engineering nor physics. You get paid as an engineer to deal with the fact that the system is non-ideal. You get "paid" as a physicist to improve the approximation. Like I said, this is a glib assessment, but it seems to me to be true more often than not. I suppose that, at least in math, you get paid precisely to be exact (regarding the math).
  5. Nov 11, 2009 #4
    Physics is all about approximations. One thing that you'll quickly find out is that in dealing with real systems, you are in amazing shape if you can approximate and get something useful out.

    The good news is that you don't seem to be having any difficulties passing the classes. Just try a few different things, figure out what you like doing, and go with it.

    Prestige is all about politics and sociology. There are some places were physics has more prestige than engineering. Other places where it is the reversed. Just figure out what you like doing. Just remember that if you don't feel stupid, then you aren't trying hard enough.

    It's not either/or. There's no reason why you can't take more writing courses, and they'll be useful in the long run.

    Confusion is normal. The good/bad news is that as you go along you are likely to be even more confused, but you'll just get used to it.
  6. Nov 11, 2009 #5


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    I must be trying exceptionally hard.
  7. Nov 11, 2009 #6
    just the other way around here. But i guess that is b/c there are VERY few Physics students here....and plenty of Engineering.

    There was a joke about abundance of engineers these days. A very rough translation goes like this:

    If you throw a stone from a high building it either falls on a teacher or an engineer.

    no offense.
  8. Nov 12, 2009 #7
    Hi everyone :). Thanks for your replies.

    tymer2107 - I think you're right. I'm letting all the little things get to me and getting too hung up on the individual courses when what I need to see is the big picture. I honestly have no clue what field I want to do upon graduation. In all honesty I'm not even sure I want to do physics. I've always liked natural sciences, but I'm not sure I like it enough to do it in grad school. My interests are too friggin diverse... I've thought about everything from music to writing/scientific journalism; I really want to keep my options open but I guess at the end I have to make a choice. Though I think you're right in that I could really benefit from research experience. Do you have any advice for undergrads looking for research experience? I actually applied to an astronomy research and a science education posting at my school, and the prof said I was well-qualified, but applied too late... =(

    turin - that's comforting (though a little scary) to hear... =P that you finished your PhD but haven't quite decided who you are. I'm also glad to hear from someone else who has gone from engineering to physics.

    twofish/rubrix - I guess the reason why engineering seems more prestigious at my school is that their faculty have the highest entrance averages (around an 89 or something like that) and are way more competitive than the general BA or BSc degrees offered by the Faculty of Arts and Science. Also, the engineers like to make fun of us and brag about how hard their classes are and how they have ~30 classes per week while artscis only have around 18ish, depending on what classes they take. And I admit that engineering is hard and that they have many hours (because they need to be accredited), but school isn't about how many hours you have. Anyway, I guess you're right about prestige being based on politics and sociology.

    everyone - about the approximations thing, yes, you guys are right of course. Thanks for waking me up! I was actually having the same problem in my astronomy class which I'm taking right now (which I took as an elective); I was having a hard time dealing with the fact that so many things were approximations. I went to talk to my prof today and he said the same thing - that astronomy is all about approximations, and I guess in physics many things are just imperfect models anyway.

    Thanks for all your advice and wisdom, everyone! =D I've found it very valuable =).
  9. Nov 12, 2009 #8
    I know this is unrelated to your topic, but I am applying there this year. What were your grades when you were in high school?
  10. Nov 12, 2009 #9
    Funny, engineers are still in very high demand in engineering and other fields. Engineering undergrads are the highest paid of any major.

    In school, engineers do often have heavy course loads. I know at my school the course requirement count was twice the cap placed on other majors, and the engineering labs were often as intensive as full credit courses elsewhere. There was no sense of prestige attached to it though, and students in other majors could work as hard if they wanted to.
  11. Nov 12, 2009 #10
    Now that I read the original post... if you're interested in grad school go with what you're most interested in researching :smile:. Extra math will definitely be helpful for physics or engineering grad school. I'm also surprised your differential equations class is all application and no theory. Mine was not like that at all. I agree with everything else that's been said too.
    Last edited: Nov 12, 2009
  12. Nov 13, 2009 #11
    I go to Drexel university which is a co-op school so I have had the benefit from working full time in my field before graduating and was able to realize what it is that I do and do not want to do. Obviously, you do not have that same opportunity but I would recommend trying to get a summer internship in any of the fields you might be interested in. I found it extremely beneficial. And definately speak with people from different companies in different professions. I was able to narrow down what I wanted to do by sitting down with various types of engineers. I thought I knew what one type of job or major included but after getting more of the details I realized that I didn't know very much at all. I still don't know exactly what it is I want to do but I was able to take a lot of things off the list.
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