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Physics Can one successfully be an Engineer AND a Physicist?

  1. Aug 11, 2017 #21
    Being aware that most threads eventually get read by multiple parties interested in the discussion other than the OP, I try not to limit myself to the intent of the OP, but try and speak to the question raised by the title in a way that will prove useful to a broader readership as the topic pops up in internet searches well after the OP has gone on his way. It's like answering a question in class for the benefit of the whole class rather than just the student who asked it.

    For me, "success" in science is ultimately about good science rather than paying the bills. Lavoisier was a successful scientist even though he made his living in other areas and funded his science with income from other pursuits. There are many other similar examples in history of science. Galileo is another important example of one who had many notable accomplishments in engineering as well as theoretical physics. The arbiter of good science is repeatable experiment. Peer-review is a temporary expedient since sometimes the experimental tests of theoretical work are well in the future. Alternate metrics of success in science are often counterproductive to good science.
  2. Aug 15, 2017 #22
    I'd like to thank everyone for all the answers! I have a much clearer view of what I have to do next.

    @ZapperZ Successful is pretty much what @Dr. Courtney described (I'm more inclined towards the second variant):
    "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."

    Having no work experience at all, I am curious to know other people's perspectives and experiences in any specific area. I am still in search of what would be right for me and any view/definition on success or being an engineer/physicist is valuable. I am aware that I cannot invest full time in both of the fields, I thought engineering would be my basic job and I could do theoretical research besides that. I see a lot will depend on my independent study besides university.

    Again, thanks a lot!
  3. Aug 15, 2017 #23
    I think you should also ask yourself how much fun it really is to work on pure, fancy theory these days. Since there are few good experiments, mostly you just get to publish derivative papers with no relation to the immediate real world.

    If you work on applied problems, you get to build new models within the context of pre-existing physics (and applied mathematics like machine learning), and there are countless problems to work on.
  4. Aug 16, 2017 #24
    This is the answer; it is unbelievably difficult to find funding in theory. Try scanning university physics faculty rosters and you will notice a distinct lack of pure theorists in at least 90% of these institutions.
  5. Aug 16, 2017 #25

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    Can you name a few? I have a feeling that you mean something very different by "theory" than most people do - perhaps restricting it to string theory or something like that. The majority of theory is in condensed matter (just like the majority of everything else).

    There are 160 institutions that grant PhD's in physics. More than 16 do theory.
  6. Aug 16, 2017 #26
    That's fair, 90% is certainly an exaggeration but it seems to me as though a lot of departments only have 1 or 2 remaining theorists in a sea of experimentalists with large groups and plenty of funding.
  7. Aug 17, 2017 #27
    That's the main problem, I think: time! They are both very demanding fields! It's hard and it takes a lot of energy and hard work! But it's certainly possible! People have done it. Although recent examples (in our times) would be more demanding, in our demanding times and careers of today's progressed and specialized science, the most classical and famous (but older) example is that of Albert Einstein, that has already been mentioned:
    So 'Time' is not just a [theoretical] physics problem, but it is also our [every day life etc.] problem too! Especially when you realize that "there isn't much of it" on a 24hr day! ... to do everything. But then the next day follows! ... That's the good news ... . The other bad news is that we're humans and limited by our own human biological constraints, clock, potential and capacities. [And we all have only one lifetime! ...]

    [Or you can say that "In Physics, time is plenty, while in real life the problem is not time itself but rather just the fact that there isn't enough of it! (for us humans) ...".]

    So in any case what I consider important and crucial for the seeked demands is to obtain some good time-management and hard work skills first, or during your other efforts, at the same time with getting good scientific solid backgrounds in both areas that you desire.
    I had to do something similar in combining different [scientific] domains and other demanding intelectual and non ... activities, and adapting and working to different time zones (but I do not consider myself very successful).
    One idea for example is to learn some "work round-the-clock" tricks and techniques ... (and how you fit in your sleep and meals in between). At the same time that makes you more flexible with time zones, jet lag etc., and you end up working [in] and having "your own time and time zone" (kind of, more or less) ..., but it's hard not to get exhausted every few days or so ... (which requires some extra rest, to catch up).

    Then of course, at the same time, you have to coordinate and adapt to the real world and its daily demands, time and schedule. It's not always easy. But if you know the 24 hr (round-the-clock) technique(s), you have an advantage because you are more flexible [with time etc.] (e.g. demanding business travelling people, or people on duty [doctors in hospitals, policemen, firemen etc.], etc. have also similar or such skills, being used to working at various shifts and different schedules).

    Time management [and hard work] is [/are] not an easy thing! The other method would be to focus on 'speed' and getting things done fast and to the point! (if you want to be sleeping and eating like a normal person! ...) But that doesn't mean that you will always get things thoroughly and successfully right! (as required in both your scientific domains ...) ...

    I hope you take these into account with your decision.

    Good Luck!
  8. Aug 17, 2017 #28
    During my years at the Air Force Academy, my supervisor was amazed at my research and publication productivity while maintaining a full teaching load and even winning awards for teaching. I averaged over 12 papers a year in fields including rocket science (experiment), physics education, blast physics (experiment), traumatic brain injury (theory), ballistics (experiment), fisheries science (experiment), fisheries science (theory), chemistry education, traumatic brain injury (experiment), ballistics (theory), and mathematics education. Secrets of my high productivity: 1. No TV 2. lots of different co-authors 3. organization.

    Looking back at my career, I've published 8 papers in theoretical physics, but only two while working as an engineer. I was very organized, did not have any children yet (more time), and did not have a TV. I suspect other forms of screen time have become the big time waster for most younger folks that TV was for my generation.
  9. Aug 17, 2017 #29
    I agree too that no TV etc. may be key (have tried that deliberately twice during 2 very productive seasons of mine [undergrad student and 1st work appointment after grad school]). It worked. All the other times I tried to manage myself and make good choices.
    I like all three, I agree and think of them as important. However, life has many more "distractions" than just TV and kids, etc. .

    I also find useful the following (with overlapping): 1. Organization (includes goal setting and general or first-run prioritizing and lists, etc.) 2. Dedication 3. Good choices and correct decision making 4. Self-discipline (or correct imposed Discipline [e.g. like in the military, or air force (academy) that you mentioned, or organized groups of work ... (kind of includes your #2.)] ) 5. Appropriate time managing (management) and wise, fair and productive Time-Sharing (of all our actions, on a 24 hr period etc.). [I think of that as very important, as well as the following.] 6. Prioritizing [appropriately] and setting up and executing an appropriate hierarchy/sequence of tasks, duties and actions, depending and based on all conditions and other events. It is best if that prioritizing, hierarchy and sequence is as dynamical as possible (basically be accustomed and learn "to be thinking on your feet" ...), so that it can always change anytime to include new and adjunct tasks, events and actions that come in and out all the time! ... ("Wedges" I call them ...)
    [It all depends on, and is examined relatively and based on, the collection of all current conditions and things. These change, ... everything can change. (Many times there are no hard and fast lines and rules ...) ]
    6a. Always try to keep track of completed, semi-completed and pending tasks and matters. E.g. having a "pending list" will help you locate what's left (e.g. things that lost their priority) and have a chance to get back to it at a later time, with different perhaps priorities, standards and sequence.
    7. Set up some principles (list) that best suit your success (e.g. from your so far experience, goals, methods, peculiarities, tricks etc.) and try to follow them or modify them appropriately, until you succeed!

    I'm sure that in order to accomplish those you acquired or had good mutilateral and time management skills. It's not easy, let me tell you ...
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2017
  10. Aug 17, 2017 #30
    Actually, my time management skills were better as an undergraduate at LSU. I worked harder for that summa cum laude BS in Physics than I ever worked since. It was a perfect display of time management.

    During my years at the Air Force Academy, I was a mid-level administrator, so people were always in and out of my office. At home, I was a dad to four children ranging from late elementary to high school. Waaaaaaaaay too many interruptions for perfect time management. I flitted from task to task. I did manage 50-60 hours per week working on something or another, but 25+ of that was face time with students, and I also spent more time with my children than any man I knew who was gainfully employed. What I did with my co-authors (mostly students) was to have them write the first few drafts of papers, including text, references, data analysis, figures, etc. Then when they had taken things as far as they could go, I'd hole up somewhere where no one could bug me for a week or two and make a bunch of the papers mature enough to submit for publication. I also have the great blessing of a wife who is a physicist also and who served either as an adviser or even a co-author on a lot of the projects. Alas, that pace was not sustainable in the long term, and I think my productivity has slipped to closer to 6 papers a year since my Air Force Academy days.
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