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Physics Can one successfully be an Engineer AND a Physicist?

  1. Jul 27, 2017 #1
    What I meant in the title is Theoretical Physicist (character limit).

    A year ago, when I decided to get a Physics bachelor degree, I was 100% sure I'm going to do theoretical research. Since high school, I was always searching stuff about particle physics, relativity and other topics on the internet, out of curiosity. What I wasn't sure about is the type of work I would be doing, and it didn't matter, I just cared to pass the year well, because I'm studying abroad (France).

    I wasn't quite sure what an engineer does - I thought it's much about architecture, technical details of devices, which I didn't find very attractive. Now I found out about a job called Design Engineering - and I instantly got curious about it. Truth is, I always liked drawing and, as a self-taught designer, in high school, I even tried to work as a Freelancer (not gaining very much from it because I was competing with professionals, but it's still an experience). Design engineering requires a degree in Industrial design - which I won't have. However, I found out thet Engineers also deal a lot with design, especially Mechanical engineers, combining it with a lot of math and problem solving. I found out that it is possible to be the one with a concept in mind, with a good design, to search the optimal solution in terms of cost, materials etc to make it work - I find it just perfect for me! For me it seems like being an inventor, and actually being able to apply your ideas to reality.

    However, here's the problem: I don't want to leave theoretical research aside. I have a powerful inner drive that makes me question about the nature of things, sometimes questions pop out out of the blue and I can't sleep until I find a solution. I really want to be able to understand QFT, General Relativity and even String Theory maybe - though I know it would require years and years of study.

    Why don't I pursue my studies in Theoretical Physics then? Well, I just don't see myself as a professor, or even constantly doing research in particle physics. I'm the type of person who needs diversity, if I do something requiring analytical thinking, problem solving I need to do some drawing or writing after, otherwise my brain just won't work. That's why I think Mechanical Engineering will provide this type of diversity, however it won't fulfill my curiosity about the nature of things.

    These are the reasons why I'm asking: is it possible to be an Engineer and, also, a good Theoretical Physicist? I am good at math - and, about hard theoretical concepts, the only problems I see are time and approach, not negligible though. Especially time.

    If I'll choose a career in Mechanical Engineering - will I have time and energy to study physics, at a high level?

    Now, for the second year of university, I must choose a path: Physics or Mechanical Engineering. If I choose Physics, I will have less chance to be employed as an Engineer, because ME graduates studied design and materials, more practical stuff. If I choose ME I will have little or no chance to be accepted for a Master degree in Subatomical physics (or Condensed matter, but the first is more appealing to me), which opens the path to a PhD. I just don't know what to do.

    I will highly appreciate any suggestions, ideas or life experience.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 27, 2017 #2

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    If by "study at a high level" you mean "contribute", the answer is no. This is a full-time job, one in which people with doctorates struggle to make a career, and I can think of no examples of people who have done this successfully without dedicating all of their effort to it.
  4. Jul 27, 2017 #3
    There are however examples of successful transition from theoretical physicist to designer or at least one example: http://nautil.us/issue/38/noise/this-physics-pioneer-walked-away-from-it-all - it's worth reading. However from what I understood she got proper art/design education after her PhD in Physics. You can't work as both designer and theoretical physicist same time but it doesn't mean you can't study physics as a hobby with internet courses and books.

    However why Mech engineering for industrial design career? Even if you need to start over again it's not very big deal if you are freshman. I mean while it's not completely off-track MechE is VERY different from industrial design (even if they both can work in the same team). Mech engineers indeed design but in very different (and imo more mundane) way than industrial designers do. If you want to be industrial designer you need solid drawing fundamentals, develop your aesthetic sense, learn 3d, prototyping and so on in very 1st place - and then add some engineering knowledge to your skill set depending on project that you are currently working on. So MechE major gives you many unnecessary knowledge/skills and leaves you with little time to learn drawing/3d/other industrial designer skills not to mention pursuing physics as a hobby. If you really want to stick with engineering school I would recommend architecture as a major but tbh the most suitable would be industrial design major. More suitable major for your goals = more free time to pursue your hobbies.
  5. Jul 27, 2017 #4


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    There are areas of physics where mechanical engineers are right in the thick of serious research. Turbulent flows come to mind, although not all physicists seem to regard this as "serious" physics. Nevertheless there are probably ways to harmonize the career with the scientific interests.
  6. Aug 2, 2017 #5
    I would do experiment or computation in a field of applied/engineering physics that you like. There's a lot more physics out there than just QFT and GR, both of which are neat, but not really intrinsically neater than, say, statistical physics. They do have more abstract math, but some people have been porting that to statistical physics problems for some time now if that's what gets your jollies off.

    Mechanical engineering departments often have engineering physicists in them who are super hardcore; you'd probably have to learn some serious theory working for them. As an experimentalist or computationalist working in such a group, you'd have to draw upon a huge breadth of knowledge. You would not get bored.

    Forget string theory/fundamental physics, it's not based in good experiments these days. I don't understand why any good student would be interested in something where there is, quite literally, no data to work with. Physics is an empirical, experimental science first and foremost. Uppity geniuses like Einstein and Dirac, while immensely important, only show up once every few centuries; an industry of people trying to emulate them just seems ridiculous to me.

    EDIT: Also, any physicist who doesn't consider turbulent flow to be "serious physics" is probably a fraud who should be ignored.
  7. Aug 2, 2017 #6


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    Something to add. there are fields of EE and ME that are VERY math heavy and have crossover with physics.

    I'm an EE and when I designed night vision goggles I worked with more people who had phds in physics than I did engineers. With an EE degree you can go into semiconductors which deal with quantum mechanics at a low low level. There is definite crossover into the high level math that you encounter as a theoretical physicist.

    ME has those crossover points too, fluid mechanics already being mentioned.
    In material science or materials engineering you have a very heavy crossover into physics. The same can be said of control theory (a combo of ME and EE).
  8. Aug 2, 2017 #7
    ^^I definitely second the above, I'm getting a PhD in EE doing engineering physics for semiconductor device simulation. I've learned about everything from semiclassical non-equilibrium transport to DFT to even dabbling a bit in Berry's phase and topological materials.
  9. Aug 4, 2017 #8
    Cathr... A little about how I got to where I am now... I graduated with an EE degree and did 2 summers intern at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft in West Palm Beach, FL where UTC had a turbine research facility... I was recruited into the Physical labs dept. doing 'sputtering deposition' work getting thin film strain gages onto turbine blades and rotor disks, etc. This at the time was high tech state of the art engineering... from this I got my MSME while still at Pratt & Whitney and ventured into the testing and design of advanced jet engines... from there I was recruited by Boeing in 1988 and been here ever since... I now have a seat at NASA under Boeing and have been at this spot for over 8 years... I went from research to design to trade studies in space projects... I love the design side and miss the R & D side too but can't have both... I like what I do now and have access to some pretty nifty things I can't talk about but in the end you will to. My take is do the physics side for a couple of years then move into design of what you like and move into senior positions which allow you to do the 'conceptual' engineering before the other engineers break it up into manageable tasks.
  10. Aug 5, 2017 #9
    Easier for a PhD in physics to work as an engineer and keep up a sideline publishing papers in physics.
  11. Aug 10, 2017 #10
    This really depends on the topic of physics. For instance, physics departments don't work much on fluid mechanics, so a mechanical/aerospace engineer with such a background is probably better suited for it.
  12. Aug 10, 2017 #11
    Maybe, but both external ballistics and blast physics are heavily dependent on fluid mechanics, and I've managed to publish a lot of work in both areas over the past decade or so (PhD in AMO Physics.) When a client calls and is looking for someone to solve a problem, the published papers on my CV usually convince them that I am more than capable. The lack of a degree in mechanical or aerospace engineering has not been a hindrance.

    Earlier in my career, I worked in an engineering job for which Cisco Systems usually hired electrical engineers. But when they looked at the depth and breadth of my instrumentation experience and E&M coursework and experience, they didn't hesitate for a moment to hire me. I provided a good balance to all the EEs they already had in the stable and proved so capable I received numerous promotions and raises in my 7 years with the company.

    Most engineering teams at big companies can benefit from a physicist on the team. Some know it and are open to hiring the right physicist when their application appears in the pool. Some don't know it, so they end up hindered by teams of engineers whose training and experience are too similar to each other so the brainstorming phase of problem solving is more limited than it has to be.
  13. Aug 10, 2017 #12
    True, but I don't think a physicist has an easier time publishing on physics topics while doing engineering than vice versa. It depends upon the engineer's training. In fact, some engineers have superior training in some branches of physics than physicists in my experience (non-equilibrium statistical physics being a prime example). The same goes for physical/theoretical chemists.

    All of which is moot relative to how hard working and flexible the individual is, however.
  14. Aug 11, 2017 at 5:14 AM #13
    I guess I've been underwhelmed when I've seen engineers publish "research" that is more properly within the sphere of physics. Here's an excerpt from a paper by an engineer showing the equations of motion of a bullet as a projectile with an added drag force. Not only did the author miss the glaring error, all the ASME peer-reviewers missed it too. Four years later, no retraction, no erratum, nothing. Reminds me of the time a few years back when simple inspection demonstrated the graphs in a paper by engineers in an engineering journal violated the work-energy theorem. It was a simple physics problem (the area under force vs. displacement must equal the mechanical work), and both the engineer authors and the engineer reviewers missed the mistake.
    Knox wrong equations.JPG

    From: Michael Knox, Paper No. IMECE2013-62517, pp. V015T12A001; 11 pages
  15. Aug 11, 2017 at 8:07 AM #14


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    I think we are going off on a tangent here, while the OP @Cathr doesn't seem to want to participate or follow-up on the original question.

    The OP is asking if one can be "successful" being (i) an engineer, and (ii) a physicist (a theoretical physicist, no less), simultaneously!

    There are plenty of assumptions here, and also things that need to be defined. Since the OP never clearly stated the assumptions and never defined a few necessary items, I will do it myself.

    Assume that this person has the necessary degrees to be an engineer and also a "theoretical physicist". This is a big assumption, because these two areas are almost on the opposite scale of the spectrum, based on what the OP narrowly-described-area of what "theoretical physics" is. So now, we have to consider what is defined as being "successful".

    To me a "successful engineer" is someone who has been hired to be an engineer and to work as an engineer for many years. This means that this person has an expertise that is known from either within the company that he works for, and/or within the engineering area that he specializes in.

    A "successful physicist" is similarly someone who works as a practicing physicist, who has consistently published research papers in respected physics journals, and if this person is in an academic institution, is fully tenured, has graduate students and/or postdocs, and has an active, funded, research program.

    So those are my starting points and how I lay down the "rules of the game".

    Now, the question is, can one be BOTH at the same time? But more importantly, are there currently people who are doing exactly that?

    This is not the same as someone working in an area which straddles both physics and engineering, and thus, by definition, that person's job involves both physics and engineering. The OP did not specifically asked about this (and probably isn't aware of such a thing). I work in accelerator physics where, as a physicist, almost 75% of what I do is engineering. And there are many examples of accelerator physicists being prominent professors and faculty members in engineering departments. Again, if you read the first post, this is FAR from the scenario the OP is asking for.

    From my perspective, the answer to the OP question, especially the one in the topic, is "NO".

    First of all, I know of no such example of someone who is a "successful engineer" but who is also a "successful physicist", based on the criteria of what I consider to be "successful". Even if there are, the numbers must be exceedingly small, which implies that the likelihood of this occurring is terribly small. It requires not only knowledge and expertise, but also a lot of luck, and being in the right place at the right time. For most of us who have lived long enough and had gone through a full career, we KNOW how luck and timing can play a significant role in affecting our career. This is not something one can plan for.

    It leaves me to conclude that the question being asked in this thead is actually rather meaningless, and someone who is considering something like this is planning one's life as if one will win the lottery.

    Last edited: Aug 11, 2017 at 8:29 AM
  16. Aug 11, 2017 at 10:57 AM #15


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    I don't think there are many employment opportunities to do both. Only one I can think of might be designing high energy machines.

    Its worth understanding that in some fields of engineering, if you are any good, you will probably migrate from being a hands on engineer into project management at some point in your career.
  17. Aug 11, 2017 at 11:27 AM #16


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    Not even that. As I have stated, accelerator physicists, even those doing theory work in accelerator physics, is not something the OP has considered and includes as part of his/her "theoretical physics" topic. And designing HEP machines is definitely beyond the realm of "theoretical physics" within this contest.

    The OP needs to come back and explain him/herself on this, and like I said already, if this is the way I interpret it, then the phase space for this to happen is either minuscule, or non-existent.

  18. Aug 11, 2017 at 11:46 AM #17
    By defining "successful" on both the physicist and engineering sides as requiring normal full time careers, you've constructed your definition such that it is impossible to fulfill.

    A more reasonable definition would be to only require a full time career on one side (engineering or theoretical physics) and allow other criteria to fulfill the other side. For example, a track record of patents, inventions, and marketable designs would tend to fulfill the normal expectations of success as an engineer, as would holding a PE (Professional Engineer) certification, even if one's "day job" was as a theoretical physicist. Likewise, a track record of publishing theoretical physics papers in the peer-reviewed journals should be sufficient to qualify one as a theoretical physicist even if one's day job was as an engineer.

    A lot of theoretical physicists at the service academies (most of which do not grant tenure) and at institutions without graduate programs will also be surprised that they don't meet your criteria as a "theoretical physicist." The whole world might be surprised to learn Albert Einstein would have failed to meet your criteria for a real "theoretical physicist" during his Annus Mirabilis when he published some of the most important papers ever in theoretical physics.

    During Einstein's years in the Swiss patent office (1902-1909), the tasks for which he was paid (evaluating patents) were much closer to engineering than physics, so Einstein probably provides the most famous example of someone being a successful theoretical physicist while earning paychecks for engineering work.
  19. Aug 11, 2017 at 12:17 PM #18


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    But you see, that is my whole point! If the OP didn't define what he/she meant, then each one of us are free to define it any way we want! And I chose to define it that was because that is what I consider to be a "successful engineer" and "successful physicist". And this discussion will go into a million different directions and we will constantly talk past each other because we have different things in mind and different criteria that we measure up to.

    I think asking for a clear definition that we all can use as a starting point is an extremely reasonable request.

  20. Aug 11, 2017 at 12:20 PM #19
    From what I understood OP wants to work as industrial design (more artsy stuff) and is interested in learning about theoretical physics at highest level (but not working in it) - for some reason all of that had led him into studying MechE (wtf?!) and he asks if he can learn about physics while being MechE major.
  21. Aug 11, 2017 at 12:26 PM #20


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    The OP indicated in the first line that the title is what he/she is asking, and the rest of the post was his/her description on what he/she is doing and intending to do. So I started from the very beginning and giving him/her of what I consider to be a "successful engineer" and a "successful physicist". If this is really what he/she intends to be, then by MY metric, this is what he/she needs to accomplish.

    I'm hoping that clear minds will take over and give an indication to him/her that (i) it takes A LOT of work, education, and effort to be a successful "engineer/physicist" and (ii) a lot of it depends on luck and timing as well. How he/she can get there is a different story, but if the goal is really not attainable, why waste time in trying to figure out how to get there?

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