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Anxious about majoring in physics — considering a switch to engineering

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Hi all,

I am a first year student at the University of Notre Dame, and I will be choosing classes for first semester second year in a week or so. I am currently a physics major, but am getting anxious as the time to “commit” approaches.

I came in not knowing what I wanted to do as a career. My initial reasoning was that, as I do not know what I want to do, I should pick something both broad and rigorous, hence physics. I haven’t come any closer to figuring out what I want to do, so it seems that physics is still a logical choice. However, I am getting increasingly anxious about what I would do after graduation. Most of the advice I see indicates that I would go on to graduate school in a related STEM field, such as engineering, and transition into that career. The problem is that there is no way I could afford a Master’s, while a PhD (while funded) is a serious investment of time and effort I may not be prepared for. That would leave me with just my Bachelor’s in physics, which I am told is not really enough to get into any specific career besides maybe software engineering for those who learned how to code. In the event of me not having a job lined up immediately after graduation, I don’t know what I would do, as I do not have family to house me in the US while looking for a job (though I am a US citizen). Fortunately, undergraduate loans are not something I will have to worry about.

In light of the above, I am tempted to just drop physics and switch to engineering. However, I do not want to. First, I am not sure I want to be an engineer; their work often seems unappealing, in fact. Second, I do not want to leave my physics peers. There are fewer than 40 of us, and everyone knows everyone. I feel a sense of belonging among them, and I relate to them. I love how there is not a single person in physics who is in it “for the money“ — a very refreshing attitude. The professors are close to the students as well. For example, I am stuck at the university right now because of COVID-19, and my current professor personally reached out to check on me. Conversely, engineering classes are large, and I know next to no one in them. From my observations of the engineers, I will say that I do not relate to them. They act differently, value things differently, etc. I am scared of losing the one place where I have a sense of belonging at my university. Third, I have a physics mentor who was assigned to me at the start of the year. If I switch, I lose the contact I made in her and other physics professors. It takes me years to build up rapport with people. To switch means throwing away whatever progress I made towards establishing connections for future recommendations. And last, quite simply, I would be ashamed of myself if I switched simply because I was too afraid of uncertainty. Therefore, switching may make me build up resentment towards my new area of study.

And that’s all, I suppose. Those are the things I am weighing. I feel trapped, like either path I choose will lead to anxiety and regrets. Any advice or encouragement would be much appreciated.
 
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Answers and Replies

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I came in not knowing what I wanted to do as a career. My initial reasoning was that, as I do not know what I want to do, I should pick something both broad and rigorous, hence physics. I haven’t come any closer to figuring out what I want to do, so it seems that physics is still a logical choice.
If you don’t have a destination in mind then pretty much any path will do. It seems like you are fine where you are.

I think your comments about engineering are a bit silly, but it seems like physics suits you and without any clear goals there seems to be little reason to change direction.
 
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  • #3
berkeman
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I am tempted to just drop physics and switch to engineering. However, I do not want to. First, I am not sure I want to be an engineer; their work often seems unappealing, in fact.
Have you looked at the more technical aspects of EE? There may be some engineering majors and specializations that you might enjoy, since they involve a lot of physics. Maybe look at some of the classes you would be taking for RF and for Semiconductors -- they should be pretty similar to the physics versions of those classes. And the skills you learn in those classes are very much in demand right now.

Do you need to declare your major at the start of your 2nd year? I was fortunate enough not to have to decide and declare until near the end of my 2nd year (and it took me pretty much the whole time to decide). But that was many years ago, and perhaps is less common now.

Best of luck no matter which way you go. :smile:
 
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Have you looked at the more technical aspects of EE? There may be some engineering majors and specializations that you might enjoy, since they involve a lot of physics. Maybe look at some of the classes you would be taking for RF and for Semiconductors -- they should be pretty similar to the physics versions of those classes. And the skills you learn in those classes are very much in demand right now.

Do you need to declare your major at the start of your 2nd year? I was fortunate enough not to have to decide and declare until near the end of my 2nd year (and it took me pretty much the whole time to decide). But that was many years ago, and perhaps is less common now.

Best of luck no matter which way you go. :smile:
The deadline to declare a major has actually passed. I declared physics, and am picking classes for next year. My university has a large core requirement, so STEM students really do have to settle on a major by the start of sophomore year if they are to be on track. I’m technically already two classes behind the engineers, which I would have to make up if I switched.
 
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If you don’t have a destination in mind then pretty much any path will do. It seems like you are fine where you are.

I think your comments about engineering are a bit silly, but it seems like physics suits you and without any clear goals there seems to be little reason to change direction.
Which comments about engineering were silly?
 
  • #6
Dr Transport
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Engineering Physics????
 
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Which comments about engineering were silly?
These:
I would be ashamed of myself if I switched simply because I was too afraid of uncertainty. Therefore, switching may make me build up resentment towards my new area of study.
From my observations of the engineers, I will say that I do not relate to them. They act differently, value things differently, etc.
And this one is not about engineers but was also silly
I love how there is not a single person in physics who is in it “for the money“ — a very refreshing attitude.
I would characterize it as a very silly attitude when preparing yourself for a career. We get a rather large number of people who have this kind of self defeating cycle where on the one hand they are in fact (reasonably) concerned about their future economic and job prospects but then they deliberately choose fields with more career risk and express feelings of shame towards less risky career paths. It doesn’t make sense.

If you value a lower career risk then you should pursue a course consistent with your values, where you can be both intellectually satisfied and economically rewarded (it is not that hard to find). If you really honestly in your own heart don’t value lower career risk, if you are really “not in it for the money”, then you won’t be stressed about the job prospects since you don’t value it anyway
 
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These:


And this one is not about engineers but was also silly I would characterize it as a very silly attitude when preparing yourself for a career. We get a rather large number of people who have this kind of self defeating cycle where on the one hand they are in fact (reasonably) concerned about their future economic and job prospects but then they deliberately choose fields with more career risk and express feelings of shame towards less risky career paths. It doesn’t make sense.

If you value a lower career risk then you should pursue a course consistent with your values, where you can be both intellectually satisfied and economically rewarded (it is not that hard to find). If you really honestly in your own heart don’t value lower career risk, if you are really “not in it for the money”, then you won’t be stressed about the job prospects since you don’t value it anyway
You are correct. From a purely economic standpoint, it does not make sense. That, I suppose, is what makes us humans rather than machines — we sometimes fail to act in our own self-interest even if we are tempted to do so. Indeed, there are many things we are tempted by, and it is the values that we developed growing up that influence whether or not we give in to those temptations. I am tempted by taking the “less risky” path to financial stability, just as I am tempted to cheat on my exams now that they are all online. The risk to my GPA would surely be lessened. And yet, in the latter case, I do not act in my own self-interest. So, too, do I fail to act in my best interest in the case of the former.

I wish I could have as few mental impediments to pursuing a career as you do. It sounds so liberating.
 
  • #10
berkeman
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t. From a purely economic standpoint, it does not make sense.
I am tempted by taking the “less risky” path to financial stability
I had the same difficult decision to make in undergrad, but under different circumstances. I ended up choosing engineering:
https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/mentor-bios.720125/
just as I am tempted to cheat on my exams now that they are all online.
Please don't go down that path. Integrity is a very important part of who you are.
 
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  • #11
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I am tempted by taking the “less risky” path to financial stability, just as I am tempted to cheat on my exams now that they are all online
And this is a silly analogy. There is nothing remotely dishonest or “cheating” about realistically considering the economic value of your education. And it isn’t giving in to some illicit “temptation” to plan for your livelihood.

From a purely economic standpoint
Who said anything about “purely economic”? I said “both intellectually satisfied and economically rewarded“. If you don’t want to live a one-dimensional life then you should consider all aspects of your choices and honestly embrace all of your personal values. You should know your own intellectual, economic, social, romantic, physical, and spiritual values and make plans that at least consider all of them.
 
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I had the same difficult decision to make in undergrad, but under different circumstances. I ended up choosing engineering:
https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/mentor-bios.720125/

Please don't go down that path. Integrity is a very important part of who you are.
I read your interview. I also grew up in different countries, albeit for different reasons.
I think engineering was certainly more defensible for you, however. I did not have a father who explained how machines work to me. As a matter of fact, I am in many ways a first generation student. The parent that raised me never had a career except being a mother, and so I never had any exposure to the concepts “career choice” or “career development.” I feel that, because of that, I never tied what I was learning to any career path. The things I enjoy learning exist only abstractly — as things to be learned for their own sake. I first became aware of the profession of “engineer“ in high school. To this day, I have never met an engineer in person. All this to say, thinking about careers is something entirely alien to me.
 
  • #13
Dr. Courtney
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When someone raises the "making a living" question comparing STEM majors with lots of humanities majors, I tend to support the validity of their concerns.

When someone compares the employability of different STEM majors, my advice tends to be "follow your heart" and "be excellent and stop worrying."

If you really love physics and really work at it in a wholehearted way, your odds of a high level of employability are good. Half-hearted engineers are a dime a dozen.
 
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  • #14
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I had the same difficult decision to make in undergrad, but under different circumstances. I ended up choosing engineering:
https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/mentor-bios.720125/

Please don't go down that path. Integrity is a very important part of who you are.
Another difference I found curious was that you said you struggled your first semester, and that one of your fondest memories was getting a 97/100 on a physics midterm. Thus far, I’ve had all A’s in all my classes, and only once dipped below 100% on a physics midterm (there’s always a bonus question). Of course, my physics classes are probably much easier than yours were. More to the point, you bounced back and became successful afterwards. Meanwhile, I’m here sitting on my A’s and feeling like dropping it all to hide under a rock and not deal with questions of major or career.
 
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symbolipoint
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I read your interview. I also grew up in different countries, albeit for different reasons.
I think engineering was certainly more defensible for you, however. I did not have a father who explained how machines work to me. As a matter of fact, I am in many ways a first generation student. The parent that raised me never had a career except being a mother, and so I never had any exposure to the concepts “career choice” or “career development.” I feel that, because of that, I never tied what I was learning to any career path. The things I enjoy learning exist only abstractly — as things to be learned for their own sake. I first became aware of the profession of “engineer“ in high school. To this day, I have never met an engineer in person. All this to say, thinking about careers is something entirely alien to me.
You must think about possible careers and how they relate to your interests and education (regardless how far and what kind of education you have achieved up to now). Knowledge is good. Skills are good and important. When you hope to become employed later, employers will want to know what skills YOU have which you can use FOR THEM. This may tend to point more to "engineering" than to Physics.

Since you are early in your education right now, maybe you might see attitudes among the more educated engineering students which are different from what you are currently finding among the lesser educated ones.
 
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I don't entirely feel that this question is genuine...

I mean, you say you're considering possible career paths and financial stability, but then you give a very long list of excuses as to why engineering doesn't fit or isn't good enough. And @Dale is right: a lot of these reasons are plain silly, and I think they're obvious attempts to justify a decision you've already made.

You don't really value financial security, at least not as much as you value short-term things like your college community. The point stands that absolutely none of that would matter if you didn't go into physics as a field, or on to graduate school. You're making connections with your physics professors and classmates in order to go ahead in the field of physics. If you don't go ahead in that field, if you don't go on to academia, then a lot of those "contacts" are actually worthless. So they are not a reason to stay.

The only reasons you have left are:
1. You don't know if you like engineering work
2. You'd personally feel ashamed for switching

That's all you have, the rest are bunk.

And those are perfectly fine reasons to want to stay in physics if they're good enough reasons for you, but you need to acknowledge that and accept it. You have to personally acknowledge, i.e. to yourself, that you don't value financial stability or a clear career path very highly. You are choosing the uncertain path. You need to learn to live with, and thrive under, that uncertainty because it is what you have chosen.
 
  • #17
symbolipoint
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I am a first year student at the University of Notre Dame, and I will be choosing classes for first semester second year in a week or so. I am currently a physics major, but am getting anxious as the time to “commit” approaches.
You are very early in your education, possibly major field to be Physics. One must have the willingness to explore, think hard, and if necessary, CHANGE major field of study.

Can you or are you ready to ask yourself, what do you want to do within Physics? and exactly what do you want to do with Physics? If you finally can not give yourself very clear and specific answers, then CHANGE MAJOR FIELD.
 
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You are very early in your education, possibly major field to be Physics. One must have the willingness to explore, think hard, and if necessary, CHANGE major field of study.

Can you or are you ready to ask yourself, what do you want to do within Physics? and exactly what do you want to do with Physics? If you finally can not give yourself very clear and specific answers, then CHANGE MAJOR FIELD.
No, I cannot answer those questions yet. That being said, I do not see how changing majors would fix that specific problem.
 
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I do not see how changing majors would fix that specific problem.
I agree. I think you would benefit from an honest understanding of your own personal values first, clearly considered goals consistent with those values second, and selection of a major consistent with your goals as a third step.
 
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  • #20
symbolipoint
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No, I cannot answer those questions yet. That being said, I do not see how changing majors would fix that specific problem.
I can understand that upon further thought. Main point, or part of the point, is that some as-yet undetermined major field is more for you than that of Physics. Right now, you need more experience and more education.
 
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I came in not knowing what I wanted to do as a career. My initial reasoning was that, as I do not know what I want to do, I should pick something both broad and rigorous, hence physics.
OK...

That would leave me with just my Bachelor’s in physics, which I am told is not really enough to get into any specific career...
(emphasis added)

So, the lack of specificity is both a boon, and a curse? Only you can decide, if that makes sense for you. It might!

Aside from that, the idea that all engineers are tedious people doing boring work is (as said) silly. Just as silly as the idea that physics students are all interesting people working to unlock the secrets of the universe.

There is lots of good advice in this thread from others. You can pick what makes sense for you. Don't feel bad about being confused or undecided. Most freshmen don't really have a good idea of what they are doing, or why. People mostly figure these things out as they go along.
 
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OK...

(emphasis added)

So, the lack of specificity is both a boon, and a curse? Only you can decide, if that makes sense for you. It might!

Aside from that, the idea that all engineers are tedious people doing boring work is (as said) silly. Just as silly as the idea that physics students are all interesting people working to unlock the secrets of the universe.

There is lots of good advice in this thread from others. You can pick what makes sense for you. Don't feel bad about being confused or undecided. Most freshmen don't really have a good idea of what they are doing, or why. People mostly figure these things out as they go along.
That’s a good way of putting it.
I didn’t mean that engineering students are tedious. Rather, they are more... ”normal.” A large proportion of my fellow physics majors are social awkward. I am, in addition to that, on the autism spectrum. As are a few of my peers, I suspect. While I am sure there are a few people like this in engineering, the proportion is much smaller (based on my interactions with engineering students). One of the things keeping me in physics, as I mentioned, is being surrounded by people to whom I can relate. I was rather unhappy at my university until I got to know the other majors, and I guess I am afraid of being robbed of the one thing that has thus far made my university experience enjoyable. Now, you may argue that I will just be able to find “my people” in engineering, but I think the odds of that are lowered by the size of engineering classes, as well as by the fact that engineering majors don’t move together as a cohort from class to class the way physics majors do.
 
  • #23
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Sounds like you know what makes you happy. I would go that way. But listen to @Dr. Courtney and be excellent:

When someone compares the employability of different STEM majors, my advice tends to be "follow your heart" and "be excellent and stop worrying."

If you really love physics and really work at it in a wholehearted way, your odds of a high level of employability are good. Half-hearted engineers are a dime a dozen.
 
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  • #24
symbolipoint
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I was rather unhappy at my university until I got to know the other majors, and I guess I am afraid of being robbed of the one thing that has thus far made my university experience enjoyable. Now, you may argue that I will just be able to find “my people” in engineering, but I think the odds of that are lowered by the size of engineering classes, as well as by the fact that engineering majors don’t move together as a cohort from class to class the way physics majors do.
Again, you are still very early in your education. You do not know yet for certain how the Engineering students are in the more advanced courses; you have up to now, only been experiencing the Engineering students at the lower-division levels of study.
 
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One of the things keeping me in physics, as I mentioned, is being surrounded by people to whom I can relate. I was rather unhappy at my university until I got to know the other majors, and I guess I am afraid of being robbed of the one thing that has thus far made my university experience enjoyable.
Sounds like you recognize and accept your personal social values.

I think that you probably need to spend some time honestly evaluating your personal economic values. You praise the “not in it for the money” attitude but are simultaneously concerned about the money. To me that indicates a personal unresolved economic values conflict.

Don’t let other people tell you what your economic values should be. Sometimes parents push lifestyle and income goals on kids who are content with less and have other priorities. Sometimes peers accidentally draw you into their worries simply by talking about them, when it isn’t something that would otherwise bother you. Sometimes there is an internal conflict between the values that you actually hold and the values that you think you should hold or which you think others expect you to hold. Whatever the situation, I think that is where you need to start. What sort of an economic life would make you happy?
 
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