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Anxious about majoring in physics — considering a switch to engineering

  • #101
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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
PAllen
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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.
 

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