Anxious about majoring in physics — considering a switch to engineering

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I'm late to this thread, just joined PF the other day. @dpatnd, I'd say you've received a lot of great feedback here, even if some of it was worded a bit harshly.

Having been raised in a culture that trades in shame as a parental negotiation currency, I recognize that, silly as it may be to direct your choices in response to it, for many of us that's just a very difficult to escape fact of life. I do urge you to move past it, but I also recognize that may take many years for you to accomplish.

What worries me the most about your responses is the level of apathy you have stated feeling for your new major. That's never a good sign, and even more so when you feel that way so strongly from the very start. In fact, I'd make that job one as you go forth in your new major, to seek avenues within it that move you away from that preconditioned sense of apathy. You might be surprised with what you find, and then you'll be in a much better position.

The other wisdom I would add, is that looking for top achievement as the status marker for your success and suitability in a field is shortsighted at best. As one other commenter suggested, it's important to have commitment to the path you are choosing, and if at first you don't succeed as much as you might have wanted, persistence and a willingness to try harder is essential. And not just because that's what you do to ward off shame, but because it's what you truly want to do going forward.

I've walked through some of the same decision points you have described yourself, with similar feelings and impressions. Not sure I made the best choices myself, but I'm pretty sure if I'd kept these two guiding principles in mind throughout, I might have navigated them more effectively.

I started off as a Physics major, then took on a Chemistry minor for poorly considered reasons. After receiving my bachelor's degree, I launched myself along software engineering trajectory in the field of computer graphics, in the era when photorealistic rendering was just starting to emerge. Like you, I didn't enjoy software engineering enough to keep at it, and I self-funded myself through graduate school in an Electrical Engineering master's program. I had similar feelings about engineering as yours the entire time I was in it, and for me it ultimately became a bridge to nowhere.
I try to keep what you say about exploring avenues in mind. I suppose that I do not yet share any of the enthusiasm I see in other electrical engineers for their discipline. I cannot relate to their excitement when it comes to putting together circuits and seeing circuit components in action. Unfortunately, it seems that EE (at least at my school) is largely focused on circuits and their uses in electronics. I am more inclined towards electromagnetic fields and waves in an abstract sense. We do have a communications concentration, which I am told might relate more to my interests.

Interest in the discipline itself aside, I do try to motivate myself past apathy by framing my education in terms of physics, as I mentioned in a previous post. If I set my goal as being in a strong position for graduate studies in physics (regardless of whether or not I actually intend to go that route), then I will have a reason to be diligent in my studies. Otherwise, as you say, the apathy would become a severe detriment.

May I ask what you went on to do after your EE Master's if it became a bridge to nowhere?
 
  • #102
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I’ll share an anecdote along the lines of you never know what life will bring, so be flexible. A former colleague of mine got her doctorate in physics, specializing in the physics of scanning tunneling microscopy. She readily got a job in this field (assistant professor at a good school). She had confidence this is what she wanted to do since beginning of grad school. However, within several years she was bored and dissatisfied. Along the way in her education she had developed computer skills, and transitioned to software development. But then further transitioned to development management, and feels far more satisfied than in any earlier career. She would never have believed she would find this more satisfying than physics earlier in life. She insists now that even if someone paid her as much as she now earns to do scanning tunneling microscopy, she would not be interested.
 
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  • #103
I try to keep what you say about exploring avenues in mind. I suppose that I do not yet share any of the enthusiasm I see in other electrical engineers for their discipline. I cannot relate to their excitement when it comes to putting together circuits and seeing circuit components in action. Unfortunately, it seems that EE (at least at my school) is largely focused on circuits and their uses in electronics. I am more inclined towards electromagnetic fields and waves in an abstract sense. We do have a communications concentration, which I am told might relate more to my interests.

Interest in the discipline itself aside, I do try to motivate myself past apathy by framing my education in terms of physics, as I mentioned in a previous post. If I set my goal as being in a strong position for graduate studies in physics (regardless of whether or not I actually intend to go that route), then I will have a reason to be diligent in my studies. Otherwise, as you say, the apathy would become a severe detriment.

May I ask what you went on to do after your EE Master's if it became a bridge to nowhere?
I completed my master's degree during a really bad job market, and lacking strong EE industry ties (I'd done one summer internship at HP Labs in the printing technologies division, with mixed reviews), I returned to my former industry in a much more production line-oriented capacity. Several years later, I had the opportunity to work in a job that more directly related to my EE education, and I hated it. Found myself falling into depression within 2 weeks on the job and quit it just a few months later. I never had or found that "enthusiasm for the discipline" you alluded to seeing in your colleagues, and my program was less about circuits and more about signal processing and information systems.

That said, I can certainly relate to feeling beholden to family dictates when they're funding your education. I could share more about that privately, if you wish. In my case, I was in that position in graduate school, which calls for a much higher level of commitment. As an undergraduate, you may be able to ride the situation out better than I did, and keeping ties to Physics close as you've stated sounds like a good idea. I have to re-read why you didn't want to simply go the PhD route in Physics.
 
  • #104
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I completed my master's degree during a really bad job market, and lacking strong EE industry ties (I'd done one summer internship at HP Labs in the printing technologies division, with mixed reviews), I returned to my former industry in a much more production line-oriented capacity. Several years later, I had the opportunity to work in a job that more directly related to my EE education, and I hated it. Found myself falling into depression within 2 weeks on the job and quit it just a few months later. I never had or found that "enthusiasm for the discipline" you alluded to seeing in your colleagues, and my program was less about circuits and more about signal processing and information systems.

That said, I can certainly relate to feeling beholden to family dictates when they're funding your education. I could share more about that privately, if you wish. In my case, I was in that position in graduate school, which calls for a much higher level of commitment. As an undergraduate, you may be able to ride the situation out better than I did, and keeping ties to Physics close as you've stated sounds like a good idea. I have to re-read why you didn't want to simply go the PhD route in Physics.
Well, family dictates do not play a role as such, as I am on a full four year scholarship. Rather, it is a matter of family expectations, I suppose. The reason I did not simply go the PhD route is because I was not sure that was what I wanted, and I felt overbearing anxiety about the prospect of being forced to go the PhD route after graduation if I was to get a job that made use of my physics education (the PhD being in physics or in any related field). Physics graduate school remains an ideal to which I may aspire, even if I am not necessarily intending to go that route.
 
  • #105
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Thank you, but does my conclusion follow from the premise? More importantly, do you think it is a mistake to switch into I major I have little interest in and am apathetic towards?
I'd say it depends on your personality. For me, changing into a major which did not appeal to me would have been a disastrous mistake, but for others, interest does not seem to be an important factor. They're satisfied doing something they don't really care for as a means to an end. Only you know which type of person you are.

I can tell myself that my goal during my undergraduate career as an EE will be to put myself into a strong position from which I may elect to attend graduate school for physics. That would hopefully keep me emotionally tied to physics and give me some purpose.
So you decided to change majors from the one that would prepare you for graduate studies in physics to one which will not?
 
  • #106
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So you decided to change majors from the one that would prepare you for graduate studies in physics to one which will not?
Yes.
 
  • #107
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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
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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
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
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@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
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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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@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.
 

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