Anxious about majoring in physics — considering a switch to engineering

In summary, this first year student is considering switching majors to engineering, but is unsure if the field is for them. They are weighing the pros and cons of the decision and feel trapped because either path will lead to anxiety and regrets. He appreciates physics for its lack of "money" driven motives and the professors and students alike.
  • #106
vela said:
So you decided to change majors from the one that would prepare you for graduate studies in physics to one which will not?
Yes.
 
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  • #107
dpatnd said:
Yes.

So, how do you think you are gong to handle graduate physics courses when the freshman sequence scared you off... you'll have close to zero of the prerequisites necessary to take the courses.
 
  • #108
Dr Transport said:
So, how do you think you are gong to handle graduate physics courses when the freshman sequence scared you off... you'll have close to zero of the prerequisites necessary to take the courses.
Once again, I never said I was scared off. I got A's both semesters, with exam averages in excess of 100%. I was top of the class.
Your question also presupposes that I am set on physics graduate school. In truth, I am no more certain of that path than I was before changing majors. I have set that as my goal because I need some ideal to which I can aspire. I cannot function in an academic sense otherwise.
If I do decide to go down that path, I will cover whatever I missed on my own, just as I have always done. There have been many electrical engineers who became physicists.
 
  • #109
dpatnd said:
vela said:
So you decided to change majors from the one that would prepare you for graduate studies in physics to one which will not?
Yes.
@dpatnd, I've been thinking some more about the things you've written on this thread, and I'm feeling more prescriptive today. I tend to agree with @vela's sentiment shared above, with a couple of caveats. First of all, there's no shame in changing majors, and I'm pretty sure it remains doable throughout your undergraduate time at ND, so if you don't "get it right" this time around, it's not the end of the world.

Getting down to brass tacks, I can think of only one good reason to switch to EE at this point, and that is if it's a competitive track that's harder to get into later on. If that's the case, then switching now makes sense, at the very least to give it a good go. You mentioned being two classes behind the pack, and I'd make a point to take one, and only one, of those classes next term. See how it feels and do all you can to "own it" and break it in. If enrolling in that class requires being a EE major (because it's impacted or something like that), then there's instrumental purpose in having switched majors. If not, then I'd say it was premature of you to switch. Though if I understand correctly, that switch happened kind of by accident anyway, and it's not a big deal provided that switching back to Physics later remains an option.

Is this sentiment ringing true to you, or am I missing something?
 
  • #110
anothermike said:
@dpatnd, I've been thinking some more about the things you've written on this thread, and I'm feeling more prescriptive today. I tend to agree with @vela's sentiment shared above, with a couple of caveats. First of all, there's no shame in changing majors, and I'm pretty sure it remains doable throughout your undergraduate time at ND, so if you don't "get it right" this time around, it's not the end of the world.

Getting down to brass tacks, I can think of only one good reason to switch to EE at this point, and that is if it's a competitive track that's harder to get into later on. If that's the case, then switching now makes sense, at the very least to give it a good go. You mentioned being two classes behind the pack, and I'd make a point to take one, and only one, of those classes next term. See how it feels and do all you can to "own it" and break it in. If enrolling in that class requires being a EE major (because it's impacted or something like that), then there's instrumental purpose in having switched majors. If not, then I'd say it was premature of you to switch. Though if I understand correctly, that switch happened kind of by accident anyway, and it's not a big deal provided that switching back to Physics later remains an option.

Is this sentiment ringing true to you, or am I missing something?
The switch was accidental but, in truth, I would have most likely made the same decision. I do not feel it was premature, as I would be significantly behind if I was to wait. The reverse will also be true to an extent if I decide to switch back to physics after a semester. Unfortunately, ease of switching majors at ND seems to be restricted to the liberal arts and business.

As for those two classes, they were the Introduction to Engineering sequence first-year engineers take. Those who switch into engineering after the first year typically have to make up those credits with two more technical elective classes. In the case of EE, it turns out that I will only be one technical elective behind. As I am ahead of the other EEs in physics, I can make up that elective whenever I please (most likely my senior year). My major classes for next year will be those required to remain on-track. I believe they are Introduction to EE, Introduction to Circuit Analysis, and a coding class.
 
  • #111
dpatnd said:
The switch was accidental but, in truth, I would have most likely made the same decision. I do not feel it was premature, as I would be significantly behind if I was to wait. The reverse will also be true to an extent if I decide to switch back to physics after a semester. Unfortunately, ease of switching majors at ND seems to be restricted to the liberal arts and business.

As for those two classes, they were the Introduction to Engineering sequence first-year engineers take. Those who switch into engineering after the first year typically have to make up those credits with two more technical elective classes. In the case of EE, it turns out that I will only be one technical elective behind. As I am ahead of the other EEs in physics, I can make up that elective whenever I please (most likely my senior year). My major classes for next year will be those required to remain on-track. I believe they are Introduction to EE, Introduction to Circuit Analysis, and a coding class.

Thanks @dpatnd, I'm sensing a rather high amount of anxiety around this question for you, and I'd urge you to focus on the glass being half-full rather than half-empty. If you need to be an EE major to take the three classes you mentioned above, then by all means, the switch you've made is optimal for you at this point. If not, it might have been more conservative to take one or more of these classes before going all-in with the major switch, but I expect this actually wasn't an option for you.

Rather than viewing this as a full change of major, I'd frame it in your mind as an exploration to see if anything more is there for you in EE. You've mentioned how the software development aspect of Physics does not appeal to you, but after spending some time in EE, you may find it to be an effective compromise. You could finish a BA in Physics and then, rather than opting for grad school, get a non-Physics job based on those marketable skills, and you'd be no worse off than if you'd majored in EE. That way, you'll have given the economic concerns you raised at the beginning some serious consideration, and you'll be in a better position to know what to do next when that time comes.

The main reason an EE major would be better for you is if you really find a big difference between the software work you could do with a Physics degree and the EE circuit or systems work that is more specialized, in terms of liking the latter more than the former. In my own case, these both held about the same amount of appeal for me, so the EE degree added little to my marketability above and beyond what I already had with a physics background and software coding experience.

Also very good is what @vela shared above, about it depending on your personality. In the position you've described, having had similar feelings as yours myself, I couldn't stay in EE, and I would have been better off in Physics. But I'm really terrible when it comes to "means to an end" without deeper interest, and that's me.

Seems like the Physics PhD path has more options than you might realize. You've mentioned that you can't get tuition support unless you're in the PhD program, but there are ways to stay marketable even as you undertake those steps, and you wouldn't be the first person to leave the Physics PhD track for industry if you decided at any point along the way that completing the program wasn't for you. Seems like that would be all-around better for you than finishing a degree program with a major that doesn't interest you, unless you begin find that interest along the way in the year to come. You've embarked upon an exciting exploration.
 
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  • #112
anothermike said:
Thanks @dpatnd, I'm sensing a rather high amount of anxiety around this question for you, and I'd urge you to focus on the glass being half-full rather than half-empty. If you need to be an EE major to take the three classes you mentioned above, then by all means, the switch you've made is optimal for you at this point. If not, it might have been more conservative to take one or more of these classes before going all-in with the major switch, but I expect this actually wasn't an option for you.

Rather than viewing this as a full change of major, I'd frame it in your mind as an exploration to see if anything more is there for you in EE. You've mentioned how the software development aspect of Physics does not appeal to you, but after spending some time in EE, you may find it to be an effective compromise. You could finish a BA in Physics and then, rather than opting for grad school, get a non-Physics job based on those marketable skills, and you'd be no worse off than if you'd majored in EE. That way, you'll have given the economic concerns you raised at the beginning some serious consideration, and you'll be in a better position to know what to do next when that time comes.

The main reason an EE major would be better for you is if you really find a big difference between the software work you could do with a Physics degree and the EE circuit or systems work that is more specialized, in terms of liking the latter more than the former. In my own case, these both held about the same amount of appeal for me, so the EE degree added little to my marketability above and beyond what I already had with a physics background and software coding experience.

Also very good is what @vela shared above, about it depending on your personality. In the position you've described, having had similar feelings as yours myself, I couldn't stay in EE, and I would have been better off in Physics. But I'm really terrible when it comes to "means to an end" without deeper interest, and that's me.

Seems like the Physics PhD path has more options than you might realize. You've mentioned that you can't get tuition support unless you're in the PhD program, but there are ways to stay marketable even as you undertake those steps, and you wouldn't be the first person to leave the Physics PhD track for industry if you decided at any point along the way that completing the program wasn't for you. Seems like that would be all-around better for you than finishing a degree program with a major that doesn't interest you, unless you begin find that interest along the way in the year to come. You've embarked upon an exciting exploration.
Your observation is correct -- I do feel a great amount of anxiety surrounding this question. Having a tendency towards anxiety-induced obsessive thinking does not aid things. That being said, I think you have done a good job of framing my situation in more positive terms.
Given my distaste for change, I severely doubt I will revert to physics. My classmates will have moved on in their sequence, and so there would be little left for me in that program emotionally. Whether I enjoy it or not, I will probably see this EE degree to the end. Who knows, maybe I will 'withdraw from the world' after graduation and seek out a simpler life as a high school teacher.
I think a way I personally try to frame things more positively is by reminding myself of my identity as a polymath with a general love of learning rather than a specialist. Electrical engineering is just another area of knowledge, and if there is something to be learned I am almost always up for learning it.
For the moment, there is still my undergraduate research which I arranged in my physics days to keep my mind busy. I am doing some summer prep-work, which I am increasingly enjoying as I delve deeper into the material.
 
  • #113
dpatnd said:
First, I am not sure I want to be an engineer; their work often seems unappealing, in fact.

I am a physicist. I did a lot of physics. My PhD/postdoc were in (sort of) condensed matter theory, I did a tenure-track position at a teaching college for a while. I now work in industry, alongside engineers. There's no difference between what they do and what I do. So you know, something to consider is that unless you go the ultra-pure physics route and end up an academic, what you end up doing in the workforce may not be all that different from engineering.

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.

I think this is part of what kept me in physics for grad school. When I finally did leave academic physics (just over a year into my teaching college job) for industry, it was difficult and painful at 10x the level it would have been to change majors ten years earlier, because over the years I'd slowly become part of a physics community and put down roots. When I left, I really missed my physicist friends and the unique culture. Some people from my academic life I did keep in touch with, but it was different now that we didn't have this huge thing in common. I had many "conference friends" whom I had been meeting every year at APS March Meeting and whom I never saw again. And of course all my scientific collaborations ended.

But anyway, from about 20 years down the line from where you are now, I'd say don't make long-term career decisions based on how much you like your short-term environment or college classmates. It's hard to see this now, but in the long game, college is a blip.

As you get older, your values may change in ways you can't predict. Many people, ultimately, end up with a spouse and family. At that point, they value geographic flexibility, job security, free time, and salary more than they did in college. Because they have less time and mental space to devote to career, having exactly the right career becomes less of a priority.

The culture of engineering definitely is different. But being so vast, engineering attracts all types of people. There are academic engineers who are really passionate and research oriented, and don't wear suits or care about money. Some collaborate closely with scientists.

So...don't force yourself into something you know you hate--that's a recipe for resentment and "what-if's."

But also, don't stay in physics just because it's comfortable and you like the culture of your undergrad class, because all of that is so fleeting. Even at the same department of the same university, the graduate student culture is often totally different than undergrad. Understand that if you stay in physics you may end up in engineering anyway, but potentially with fewer options than someone who has actual engineering credentials. And you know, maybe that's fine.

Best of luck in your studies!
 
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  • #114
moontiger said:
But also, don't stay in physics just because it's comfortable and you like the culture of your undergrad class, because all of that is so fleeting. Even at the same department of the same university, the graduate student culture is often totally different than undergrad. Understand that if you stay in physics you may end up in engineering anyway, but potentially with fewer options than someone who has actual engineering credentials. And you know, maybe that's fine.

Neither path is "right" for me. The way I see it, there is no clear solution. I am picking between two forms of emotional struggle: the constant anxiety of physics or the indifference and lack of motivation of engineering. In the end, I concluded that the latter was less harmful.

I do not hate engineering, per se. I just do not find it interesting. Hate develops from experience, and so only time will tell if I will grow to hate it. If that occurs, I do not know what I will do. In any case, as I've said previously, I will try to keep my ties to physics. It is still my goal to earn a degree in physics at some point after graduation.
 
  • #115
dpatnd said:
Neither path is "right" for me. The way I see it, there is no clear solution. I am picking between two forms of emotional struggle: the constant anxiety of physics or the indifference and lack of motivation of engineering. In the end, I concluded that the latter was less harmful.
You should choose something other than Physics or Engineering, since you have no strong attraction to either of them.
 
  • #116
symbolipoint said:
You should choose something other than Physics or Engineering, since you have no strong attraction to either of them.
I beg to differ. I do have an attraction to physics, just not one at the level of being certain that I want nothing other than a career in academia. Physics has been the only subject that has intellectually satisfied me in a way that allows me to devote hours to working on a single problem or trying to understand a specific concept. No other subject has summoned that kind of voluntary effort from me.
 
  • #117
It seems I may be able to distract myself from this feeling of purposelessness by engaging with my studies, just as I have in the past. Today, I read about and watched videos on transistors from about 8 PM to 2 AM with an hour or so break in between. While it was overwhelming at first (I have next to no background in circuit analysis), I managed to gain a basic understanding of how to work through simple transistor circuit problems, as well as general principles of common base/collector/emitter topologies.
 
  • #118
dpatnd said:
It seems I may be able to distract myself from this feeling of purposelessness by engaging with my studies, just as I have in the past. Today, I read about and watched videos on transistors from about 8 PM to 2 AM with an hour or so break in between. While it was overwhelming at first (I have next to no background in circuit analysis), I managed to gain a basic understanding of how to work through simple transistor circuit problems, as well as general principles of common base/collector/emitter topologies.

@dpatnd , I have a question for you. The University of Notre Dame does not offer an Engineering Physics major (which may be something you may be more ideally suited for). However, do you have the option of taking extra physics courses while pursuing EE, perhaps to the point of earning a minor?

In this way, this would allow you to explore physics at a more in-depth level, while still allowing you to pursue a more "practical" major.
 
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  • #119
StatGuy2000 said:
@dpatnd , I have a question for you. The University of Notre Dame does not offer an Engineering Physics major (which may be something you may be more ideally suited for). However, do you have the option of taking extra physics courses while pursuing EE, perhaps to the point of earning a minor?

In this way, this would allow you to explore physics at a more in-depth level, while still allowing you to pursue a more "practical" major.
There is no physics minor. I am, in theory, able to take physics courses as electives, but that may prove difficult due to class conflicts. Physics would count as a "technical elective" and not as an "EE elective," the latter having comparatively large credit requirements. I hope to be able to at least take the physics version of quantum mechanics, even if I will not be able to do so with my old physics class.
 
  • #120
This thread came to mind a few days ago. It is interesting to look back on the thought process that led me here.
In the end, I greatly underestimated the importance of maintaining the mental environment that allowed me to succeed.
I cannot undo my actions (nor would I, considering I had no choice), but I may salvage what I can by declaring physics as a second major.
 
  • #121
In college, about 20 years ago, I majored in computer science. You speak of apathy; I didn't even have a theoretical subject I was 'passionate' about. I spent a lot of my undergraduate playing counter-strike, starcraft, and wrestling with depression. I went in and out of academic probation. I hated EE and wrangled with the department to let me graduate without taking the one required EE course.

20 years later, my current great wish is to land a job in BCIs, for which EE knowledge would be very helpful.*

I'd say you will not regret whatever EE you can force yourself to choke down. This is predicated on EE still being a useful branch of knowledge 20 years from now. It stands a good chance of being so because it is essentially the study of transmuting electric forces into computation. Electrons are small which makes them efficient computators. Of course, if quantum computing takes over it will all be wasted effort. Or maybe connecting computers to our brains will enable new styles of learning such that learning EE the old fashioned way will have been too shallow.

*not as helpful as work experience and networking though
 
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  • #122
aa said:
In college, about 20 years ago, I majored in computer science. You speak of apathy; I didn't even have a theoretical subject I was 'passionate' about. I spent a lot of my undergraduate playing counter-strike, starcraft, and wrestling with depression. I went in and out of academic probation. I hated EE and wrangled with the department to let me graduate without taking the one required EE course.

20 years later, my current great wish is to land a job in BCIs, for which EE knowledge would be very helpful.*

I'd say you will not regret whatever EE you can force yourself to choke down. This is predicated on EE still being a useful branch of knowledge 20 years from now. It stands a good chance of being so because it is essentially the study of transmuting electric forces into computation. Electrons are small which makes them efficient computators. Of course, if quantum computing takes over it will all be wasted effort. Or maybe connecting computers to our brains will enable new styles of learning such that learning EE the old fashioned way will have been too shallow.

*not as helpful as work experience and networking though

I suppose regret does not come into the equation. Regret implies that there was a choice that can be regretted, but I see no such choice to begin with. My actions were obligatory.
It simply pains me that my mental health went down the drain as a consequence, and my high-achieving record with it.
 
  • #123
dpatnd said:
I suppose regret does not come into the equation. Regret implies that there was a choice that can be regretted, but I see no such choice to begin with. My actions were obligatory.
It simply pains me that my mental health went down the drain as a consequence, and my high-achieving record with it.

It is truly down the drain only if you do not learn from the experience. The issues of mental health are painful but not usually dispositive. My 150 IQ came with plenty of depressive chemicals lurking in my brain. You learn to play the hand you are dealt, just like everyone else on the planet!
So figure out a good next step. The fat lady has not sung.
 
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  • #124
hutchphd said:
It is truly down the drain only if you do not learn from the experience. The issues of mental health are painful but not usually dispositive. My 150 IQ came with plenty of depressive chemicals lurking in my brain. You learn to play the hand you are dealt, just like everyone else on the planet!
So figure out a good next step. The fat lady has not sung.

As you say. If I learned anything this semester, it's that I taking away my free choice when it comes to something as important to me as my major has disastrous consequences. As such, I've spoken to my former professor about declaring the double major and am working out the scheduling details as we speak. I do not know if I will actually be able to complete the second major, but all that matters to me right now is being able to say I am a physics major in the present.

A pleasant bonus is that it seems I will be able to take a class with my former fellow physics majors next semester. In hindsight, I have also realized that they were what kept me afloat last year.
 
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  • #125
dpatnd said:
As you say. If I learned anything this semester, it's that I taking away my free choice when it comes to something as important to me as my major has disastrous consequences. As such, I've spoken to my former professor about declaring the double major and am working out the scheduling details as we speak. I do not know if I will actually be able to complete the second major, but all that matters to me right now is being able to say I am a physics major in the present.

A pleasant bonus is that it seems I will be able to take a class with my former fellow physics majors next semester. In hindsight, I have also realized that they were what kept me afloat last year.

As it turned out, the fat lady had indeed not yet sung. I ended the semester with A's in all but one class, and stayed on the Dean's list. It seems that the prospect of being a physics major again was what it took for me to claw my way back up.
Motivation, or rather a sense of purpose, is still hard to come by. However, I think I'll survive.
 
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  • #126
Good of you to follow up.

A's in all but one
That's great to hear! You are displaying resilience.

You also sound more self-confident.

seems that the prospect of being a physics major again was what it took for me to claw my way back up
You are learning about yourself.
 
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  • #127
Here's my two cents. Sorry if it is controversial. You probably won't get another chance to do undergraduate, to lead your life in the right direction by becoming qualified in what you love.

I'm going to be frank. Engineering is easy compared to physics. I know people are going to get up in arms about me saying that. I say this as someone who has been employed by a major university to tutor and mark for postgraduate Engineering. My bachelor's in physics and mathematics was well and truly enough for me to mark these people and to be frustrated at their ignorance. Unless you're at an excellent university leading the world in engineering, engineers are not taught to think analytically or how to do mathematics. They are taught to shut up and calculate using a mathematical toolbox someone else set aside for them. I am sure some people will be angered by this comment but that's what I believe based on my own observations.

Take physics if that's what you love. Engineering is good if you want to become formally qualified and trained in specific types of problem solving, i.e. to get an engineering job. But if you enjoy problem solving for the sake of it, for the intellectual exercise, and to understand the natural world, and to actually understand what the mathematics is doing, then mathematics/physics is a better choice. I don't think any good physics student will have trouble catching up with an engineer later on if that's what they choose to do.

Also consider that some people take physics degrees with the express intent of increasing their employability in unrelated areas. e.g. taking theoretical physics to be employed in finance. It's a thing.

This is just my opinion. Only you can choose what's right for you. I just think it would be a shame for you to choose engineering over physics under the false impression that physics would limit your employability. In fact, I think a physics degree looks 10x better than one in engineering. And I know others agree. Please just consider this point of view and decide for yourself what you need to do. Don't listen to career advice from people who don't actually know anything about STEM careers, e.g. family who are not technically minded. I suggest you talk to a career counselor at your university or attend career events to see what careers are available for someone with a physics degree. I think you may be pleasantly surprised.
 
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  • #128
Wizard said:
I'm going to be frank. Engineering is easy compared to physics.
Do you have any actual data to support that claim? If so then please post it. Otherwise please express this claim as a personal opinion. Anecdotes are not data.

Wizard said:
I know people are going to get up in arms about me saying that.
If you have actual evidence to support the claim then you are on solid ground, but if you are just expressing a personal opinion as though it were fact then you deserve to have your opinion challenged.

FYI, in contrast to your claim based on your personal experience, my personal experience is that I am an engineer and I now teach physics. I was previously a hiring manager and felt that engineers and physicists were equally qualified for the positions I was hiring. So we have two sets of anecdotes reaching different conclusions. Based on the anecdotal evidence I state only my opinion that there is not much difference.
 
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  • #129
Wizard said:
Engineering is easy compared to physics.

Well, my first semester in EE sure didn't seem like it. A lot of the difficulty was likely due to the simple fact that I despised the classes, but the workload was nevertheless made more difficult by its quantity. Engineering problem solving is also sometimes difficult for me because that's simply not how I think; I am rather accustomed to the question types and wording of physics.
 
  • #130
As someone with undergraduate degrees in both physics and mechanical engineering, I'd (anecdotally) agree that engineering is easier. I took GR the same semester as three ME heavy hitters (fluids, thermo, and heat transfer), and GR blew all my other classes combined out of the water in terms of difficulty.

But I feel that engineering (at least at my university) did a better job at preparing for a career - so I'd strongly disagree that a physics degree looks 10x better on paper. I think they both show a great deal of problem solving ability, but my impression is that most people outside of those who study physics, don't really have a great grasp of the physics curriculum. Whereas with engineering, they have a more concrete idea (correct or not) about specific sets of knowledge - tools - you've been introduced to.
 
  • #131
I strongly recommend ditching physics and studying engineering/CS. To study physics these days is almost certainly a vow of poverty. Ditto for math.

Better options include electrical or chemical engineering, mechanical/aeronautical engineering, computer engineering, computer science, or statistics.

Another option if you already have a good physics background is to transition that to medical physics. That is an extremely lucrative area.
 
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  • #132
nucl34rgg said:
I strongly recommend ditching physics and studying engineering/CS. To study physics these days is almost certainly a vow of poverty. Ditto for math.

Better options include electrical or chemical engineering, mechanical/aeronautical engineering, computer engineering, computer science, or statistics.

Another option if you already have a good physics background is to transition that to medical physics. That is an extremely lucrative area.
I made this thread at the end of my freshman year, and am now able as a junior (who is once again a physics major) to articulate why that line of reasoning is wrong.

I spent my sophomore year in electrical engineering because I was frequently told what you yourself have stated: that physics leads to destitution and that engineering somehow guarantees a good paying job. After a year of despising every single moment of my studies (yet still somehow maintaining straight A's), I realized that this is nonsense.
To put it simply, one is not given a job just because they have the right degree. They must show themselves to be interested and driven, having gone out of their way to participate in relevant activities and learn useful skills. If, however, one simply has a pretty GPA and nothing else, then that is worth little. The fact is that I would be in a far worse position career-wise if I stayed in EE. I felt no motivation at all and had nothing I looked forward to, nor any goals whatsoever. I did the work and got good grades because the alternative was rolling over and dying, and there was no chance in hell I would let engineering have its way with me.

It took a year of doing something I loathed plus a bad case of COVID for me to come to the realization that I had nothing to gain and much to lose by staying in engineering. Now, I am a physics major once again. For the first time in quite a while, I feel at peace. I enjoy my studies, and currently plan to apply to graduate school for physics.
As an aside to your comment about 'destitution' -- that, too, is false. Physics majors in general do just fine; those at my university particularly so, with starting salaries comparable to the engineers.
 
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