1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Applied Physics vs. Computer Engineering

  1. Jul 22, 2015 #1
    Hey all,

    I'm at a bit of a major crossroads between studying Physics or Engineering. There are two major milestones in my life that I want to achieve, or die trying: a) Own and operate a consumer electronics company (definitely computers) and b) If astronaut and space based programs begin kicking into high gear at some point, apply to those and be apart of them. These are two ambitious goals, and I have every intention of achieving at least one of them.

    Computer Engineering of course satisfies the first goal, and is literally full to the brim with every course being 100% useful. I need that underlying knowledge of how silicon based computer systems work, and how information science can be applied to any type of computing system. However, I feel that this doesn't adequately prepare me for the second aim. In that realm, I would really want to know the underlying foundations and first principles of any physical phenomena that I could apply to the job. Elon Musk has spoken frequently about this, and I really do agree with him. Physics is the study of the first principles behind physical phenomena, and physical phenomena comprise both goals.

    Also, I want to get an undergraduate education not just based on the world now, but on where we're headed. I want to be able to understand, in great detail, the science behind quantum computing. Both Computer Engineering and Physics contribute to it in both ways so importantly, and I really do want to know both.

    I know that I want to do graduate school, but in that realm I'm still not sure which is the best option. Applied Physics stuck out to me for awhile, and the Electronics laboratory and Undergraduate research I get to do in fourth year definitely satisfies both requirements, but I feel that still isn't comprehensive enough.

    I've also looked into Engineering Physics, and while it does sound good on paper it sounds like it may be a tad less respected than an Engineering degree in one discipline or a Physics degree which covers the foundation for all disciplines. It looks like basically an Applied Physics undergraduate degree (some of them aren't even BEng degrees) but please correct me if I'm wrong there.

    Am I asking for too much here, and should just pick one? Or, should I just go in for the long haul and dual major in them. It may take 5-7 years (I'd probably graduate in 2021) but by that time I'm sure I'd know which one I liked more for graduate school, and I'd have the added benefit of a truly comprehensive Science and Engineering background.

    I'm trying to pick based on what's in demand now, where the wind of innovation is blowing, and how to leverage my undergraduate degree as best as I can based on my interests.

    Any advice?
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2015
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 22, 2015 #2
    You say you want to be involved in space programs. I'm willing to bet places like NASA and SpaceX hire far more engineers than physicists. Combine that with the fact that a graduate degree (in any STEM field) is essential for anyone aspiring to be an astronaut, and it seems like computer engineering would be the better choice.

    Now, certain specializations would give you different opportunities. For instance, if you focused on embedded systems work in computer engineering, you'd probably have a better chance of finding work with NASA than if you focused on semiconductor devices.
  4. Jul 22, 2015 #3
    Thanks for the reply. I did some research on the different streams of CE, and you're totally right about embedded systems. These decisions are really frustrating - I feel like whatever I choose I have to leave something behind. Do you think that CE offers enough foundations in math and physics, or is it even too specialized? I mean, any engineering is specialized, but at least EE/CE seems to offer a really great balance between math, physics, chemistry, programming, and current technologies. Plus the ability to go into an AI stream is a nice bonus, with self-driving cars finally becoming more mainstream.
  5. Jul 22, 2015 #4
    Any field you go into will be specialized in a way that you won't get to experience other fields. If it wasn't that specialized, it wouldn't be a separate field. With computer engineering, you'd probably have to take 3 semesters of calculus, differential equations, Newtonian mechanics, electricity and magnetism, a couple courses in circuit analysis, digital circuit design, maybe semiconductor devices, maybe control systems, etc.

    In terms of modern physics, the most you'd see is maybe some basic quantum mechanics in a semiconductor device course, if you'd even take one. But computer engineers don't need quantum mechanics. Heck, NASA engineers don't need modern physics. We can land on the moon with Newtonian physics.

    It seems to me like you would prefer computer engineering, but that you like the idea of doing physics. That's okay--just explore the fields some more and figure out what you like doing, not what you think would be cool to do without experiencing what it's like. I may be biased on this as an electrical engineering major, though.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook