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Am I missing out by being and electrical engineer?

  1. May 8, 2014 #1
    My goal and dream since I was 16 was to study engineering physics at a certain university. I just loved the idea of combining physics (both theoretical and experimental) with the practicality and applications that come with being an engineer. However, due to various factors which I won't get into, I don't have the option study engineering physics...

    So now I'm 19 and I've opted for electrical engineering. Now I know there's a lot of physics in EE and the job prospects are quite good, but I can't help but feel like I've screwed my life over. I mean... all I wanted to do for the past 3 years has been EP and now I think that I'll be kicking myself for the rest of my life for not trying harder to get into the program I wanted.

    I really like physics...... No. I LOVE physics. I feel that with EE I'll just be doing tedious applications but no cool theory. By 'cool theory' I mean quantum, special/general relativity, particle physics and just engineering applications of highly theoretical physical phenomena.

    I'm kind of stuck in a rut so here are some questions:

    How will engineering physics and electrical engineering majors differ in terms of:

    -Skill sets
    -Career opportunities
    -Mathematical knowledge
    -Physics Knowledge

    I think what it comes down to two things:

    1. I feel like I won't get the physics/math background EP will get

    2. EP seem like they have more opportunities open to them

    I don't want to be an building circuits my whole life and EP seems like more of a base to open doors to other opportunities whereas EE seems very specialized and focused. From what I read, people with EP degrees go on to do a wide variety of things (particle accelerators, nuclear power, economics, computer simulations, aerospace, stock trading, quantum engineering, medicine, meta-materials, etc. you name it) while people with EE degrees tend to just do stuff relating to electrical engineering.

    Someone please tell me I'm wrong, otherwise I feel like so many doors just closed on me and I'm not even 20...

    Sorry for the long post

    Thanks so much

  2. jcsd
  3. May 8, 2014 #2
    Many people like a lot of different sciences, types of engineering etc, but obviously we can't indulge in all of them. Now, answering your questions:

    The skillset will differ somewhat. Obviously, the biggest part is the knowledge gained as a physics major would learn more physics and an electrical engineer would learn more electrical engineering. Apart from that, a physics major also learns how to:

    -Solve problems competently by identifying the essential parts of a problem and formulating a strategy for solving the problem. Estimate the numerical solution to a problem. Apply appropriate techniques to arrive at a solution, test the correctness of the solution, and interpret the results.
    Explain the physics problem and its solution in both words and appropriately specific equations to both experts and non-experts.

    -Understand the objective of a physics laboratory experiment, properly carry out the experiments, and appropriately record and analyze the results.

    -Use standard laboratory equipment, modern instrumentation, and classical techniques to carry out experiments.

    -Know how to design, construct, and complete a science-based independent project (specifically in the area of electronics).

    -Know and follow the proper procedures and regulations for safely working in a lab.

    -Communicate the concepts and results of their laboratory experiments through effective writing and oral communication skills.

    This skillset is actually fairly similar to that of an electrical engineer, so there likely won't be major differences. Both majors would also likely know programming.

    As for mathematical knowledge, it generally is very similar as both have to learn Calculus I, Multivariable Calculus, Differential Equations and Linear Algebra. Of course there may be some differences.

    As for career opportunities, I am sure the difference is apparent to you. A physicist works as a physicist or similar field and the same for an electrical engineer.
  4. May 8, 2014 #3


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    What's to stop you from:
    - transferring into engineering physics after a successful first year in an electrical engineering program?
    - taking the physics courses that you're really interested in as electives?
    - going into physics graduate school with an electrical engineering background?
    - going into electrical engineering graduate school and taking an a collaborative project with a physics department?
    - transferring from engineering to physics?
  5. May 8, 2014 #4
    I'm guessing your at UofT? Just do EE(or ECE) and go to grad school in physics if you like to. Or you can just switch after 1st year...
  6. May 8, 2014 #5


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    This is a question only you can answer. Choppy has great questions you should ask yourself and reflect on. We cannot answer these for you.

    As an EE (who did an applied physics minor in grad school) I do have a few comments mostly based on my experience:

    * (not based on my experience) very few people with any major get jobs doing special/general relativity and/or particle physics compared to engineering jobs. There are not a lot of engineering applications of this material - even the applied/engineering physics PhDs I know didn't take such classes. But if you really want to try for one of these jobs, you should probably do physics, and will likely need graduate school in physics as well. Undergrad in EP (or possibly EE) might lead to such Physics graduate work ...

    * EEs can end up working in most/all the fields you cite(although aerospace seems a stretch to me)

    * There are certainly grad specializations in EE that are physics-heavy. I did plasma physics. The graduate EM course I took from the EE department included relativistic electrodynamics (this is not so common,I admit). I know other EEs that did quantum optics and took a couple semesters of graduate level quantum mechanics from the physics department. I know EEs that took and use a lot of solid state physics.

    * some EE departments even have significant amounts of "applied physics" for undergrads. Where I was, in the EE dept. there were two semesters of upper division EM, a two semester sequence in quantum and solid state physics, and intro to controlled fusion. Some EE departments seem to have a "cast in stone" curriculum that wouldn't allow much of this. You of course know what your department allows...

    * EP majors usually can take EE courses. So if you transfer to EP somewhere you could take the most useful EE courses if you want.

    * EE majors can usually take extra physics and math courses (I did). But I would expect an EE to have less opportunity for coursework in physics than an EP major as an undergrad - at least it worked this way where I went to school. If for no other reason EEs do indeed need to know things like signals and systems, digital and analog electronics, computer architecture, etc.

    * if you have a lot of AP credit that allows you more freedom in course selection, then the previous two points are amplified.

    * Once I landed a job in industry, the core EE-type material is what pay the bills, not the plasma physics or relativistic electrodynamics or quantum mechanics. Of course my EE background strongly influenced what jobs I was able to get! Your mileage may vary.

    I wish you the best. Go back and read Choppy's post again and think through it for awhile. this is not a one-day decision; it will probably take some time for you to sort out.

  7. May 9, 2014 #6
    My feeling is that an EE degree is an easier path to a job. Every HR department in the universe knows what to do with a BSEE.

    With a degree in Engineering Physics, the path is less easy. You can end up in more different places, but mainly because it satisfies a less well-defined need and you have to be more active in selling yourself to prospective employers.

    If your main concern is to get a job, get an EE degree, but if you are positive you are going to hate your life after getting one, don't. Life is too short to end up with a career you hate.
  8. May 9, 2014 #7


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    I graduated with an ee degree. Two of my classmates are currently pursuing phds in physics (high energy and optics). While I was getting my undergrad degree I took two courses that were very similar to physics courses.

    One such course was semiconductor devices. The first 1/4 of the class was quantum mechanics. The middle portion covered the electron movement in semiconductor devices. The final portion related it back to our other ee coursework.

    The other class was fields and waves. We learned about RF and microwave propagation through different materials. After we spent most of the class learning the physics behind it, we spent the final portion of it relating it back to engineering.

    these were only the basic classes. More advanced classes were offered.
    There are many paths with an ee degree that offer classes in which you will learn material that a physicist may learn. There are many EE graduate programs that offer high level research that you may find in EP.

    Good luck!
  9. May 9, 2014 #8
    Someone please tell me I'm wrong, ... I'm not even 20.

    The good news is you are wrong. Your life is fine. Believe me though, off being 19 and wrong than almost 59 and right. If you cannot be mistaken at 19, when can you make mistakes.

    I talked to my mentor over lunch one day. We discussed the general broad science degree that can be used almost anywhere. We concluded (somewhat) that perhaps 30-40 years ago, it was physics. Today we think it is EE. Now we are not exactly biased favorably towards EE since he is a mathematician and I am a physicist. I looked at my institution recently and saw EE has programs in:

    1. Microelectronics (circuits);
    2. Some schools put plasma physics here.
    3. Power generation
    4. Control and Estimation theory including robotics
    5. Communications and Signal Processing including GPS and antenna theory
    6. Some schools put aspects of computer engineering here.

    Physics is broad too. However, you get much of the same math in EE than physics.

    I got a lot of linear algebra in physics; in control theory and estimation, I got even more. (QM was more the theoretical aspects infinite dimensional vector spaces and so on but EE had Jordan Canonical Form; Controllability)

    Now I cannot lie to you. Quantum and general relativity are exciting. Some general relativity enters into GPS though. Microelectronics is getting close to the quantum limit. Very few physicists do research exclusively in quantum and general relativity though. You can take the physics courses if you like. Maybe transfer into the physics program if you do well in EE, and you are not happy. (One friend of mine went from physics to EE, even all the effort passing the physics qualifying exam. Then he had to pass the EE one)

    I think robotics; and control have aspects that are (almost; after all I am a physicist) equally exciting to QM and GR . Many consider information theory is exciting. My profession made the most out of classical mechanics, and with my interests, My mathematician friend calls me a frustrated electrical engineer. He thinks he is one too. (By the way studying EE made my physics better.)

    I see this in the forums all the time. "Circuits" are important and Circuit concepts will persist in practically all levels of EE. Circuits are heavily stressed in the first few years especially...
    But many professional engineers do not (necessarily) work designing circuits (for the rest of their life).

    This letter is already too long. Best of Luck. Believe me EE is challenging and exciting, and does not close any doors.
  10. May 9, 2014 #9
    I agree with you that there are many similarities between the sciences in terms of mathematics, skills etc required but no such degree really exists. If you have an EE degree and wish to switch to a physics-based career, you will - in most cases - have to learn a substantial amount, not to mention that you have to convince your employer.
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