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Changing from Physics to Engineering

  1. Feb 17, 2015 #1
    Hello everyone,

    This is my first post.

    I just want a quick reality check on myself here, to calm my nerves down a little bit.

    Is a physics major employable? Or am I that much at a disadvantage to an engineer?

    A little background:

    I'm a sophomore at the University of Chicago studying physics.

    My senior year of high school I was offered a full ride to UChicago to study physics and also admission into UIUC's aerospace and electrical engineering programs.

    I chose UChicago based on the fact it was cheaper, it had a "better" physics program and overall education (I know I shouldn't have considered the prestige factor, but high school me did anyway), and I was having some health troubles so I wanted to be closer to home, just in case.

    Ever since I've came here, however, I've just been extremely nervous. I've always wanted to work in some way connected with airplanes, from design to design or even avionics design.

    Now I'm just worried I won't get that opportunity?

    I'm doing OK as a physics major, ~3.4 GPA, I took some electives including our electronics class, and I've been doing research at Fermilab since the end of my freshman year.

    However I'm worried I just will completely lose the engineering opportunity, seeing as my school lives and breathes finance.

    I'm just a bit anxious, is all.

    Can someone share their personal story with me, some advice about school and the future, and help calm me down a bit?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 17, 2015 #2


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    Find some places you might like to work. Google up the labs or industry locations. Get their contact info.

    Ask them what sort of person they want to employ. Ask what requirements they have. Do they want more hands-on or more theory or more computing experience? Do they want the kinds of things engineers learn that physics students do not? Or the other way around?

    Engineers tend to get a lot more in the way of project management, economics, legal theory of engineering projects, contract law, and things of that nature. Engineers are expected to become the project leaders, if they have the aptitude and talent. And they are often expected to be the people who start those new engineering companies with those new ideas for a new device or process. And they are expected to do a lot more consultancy work.

    Physicists tend towards being the technical specialist. They tend to learn a lot more about a technical subject, maybe two or three related subjects. They are expected to have the detailed technical understanding of an entire project, and the intuition to know when things are performing as expected. They tend to be the guy in the office who knows how to use every method in Korn and Korn, or Arfken.

  4. Feb 18, 2015 #3
    I think you are right to worry. A physics degree does not prepare you for airplane design. There are very few careers that a physics degree specifically prepares you for. In fact, I think the only job a physics BS prepares you for is being a physics graduate student. Nearly all physics undergrads want to go to grad school and try to become a professional physicist. Most fail, quit or change their mind along the way. If you don't want to go to grad school for physics then I think you should change your major or consider going back for engineering after graduation. Also, I would recommend that you find a relevant industry internship to do rather than undergraduate research. Undergrad research is good for getting into grad school, relevant industry internships are better for getting a job. One is not a substitute for the other.

    In my case I graduated with honors, did undergrad research, took extra programming and math classes and couldn't even get an interview. I went to grad school for physics, got a masters, did research related to material science/solid state and could not get an interview after hundreds of applications over a couple years. I went back to school for engineering and applied for internships. I was finally able to get a full time engineering position after applying for internships and having a hiring manager interview me for a full time position. But Ill never be a "real" engineer with just physics degrees and a smattering of engineering classes. I still consider finishing up the engineering undergraduate degree I started for better employment prospects...

    I guess if I were you the first thing I would do is talk with some advisers in your engineering department about dual majoring, minoring, or interning as a non-engineering major.
  5. Feb 18, 2015 #4
    Ouch, I knew a physics degree won't prepare me for airplane design, but I thought it would still help me get my foot in the door and work my way up. Also I had a goal of physics undergrad then moving onto to aerospace engineering grad school at somewhere like UIUC.

    It surprises me, however, that you say most physics undergrad plan to go into physics grad school. Maybe I'm just pulling from anecdotal evidence, but most students here at UChicago don't seem to want to go into physics grad school.

    I've been trying to find find internships but I really enjoyed my research position last summer. I worked at fermilab and at the University and spent a lot of time on SolidWorks and programming. I felt like this would give me good footing for getting engineering interships starting after my junior year.

    Ouch man, I'm sorry that sounds rough.

    I'd gladly go speak to my engineering department, but UChicago doesn't have one. Going into engineering would require me to completely transfer schools.

    I've just been looking around and trying to figure out if having a degree in physics from UChicago would allow me to go straight into industry work or engineering. I'm ok with either.

    I just want to observe my options, but if it's the consensus that a physics undergrad is severely hindering my chances at engineering related work, I'm open to considering transferring or whatever I need to do.
  6. Feb 18, 2015 #5


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    If you do a physics undergrad then an aerospace engineering masters you should be able to get a job doing aerospace engineering
  7. Feb 18, 2015 #6


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    Don Pacino offered good advice.

    However, since you are a sophomore, you still have time to take engineering type classes where you can, graduate with a Physics degree, but take an EIT exam in the engineering field of your choice (take in your senior year while still in school). Passing an NCEES EIT exam will allow you to claim to have an education equal to the engineering discipline of your exam. Most employers who hire engineers will gladly interview with you, knowing you passed a national exam that has a 50-60% pass rate for degreed engineers from ABET accredited colleges.

    Once you pass an NCEES EIT exam, I believe you can call yourself an engineer in any job title. You are certainly entitled to place EIT (Engineer in Training) after your name. Of course, you will want to find a mentor with a PE to work with if you want to pursue a professional license.

    The only downside to this plan.... you may not be automatically allowed to take the exam, that is why I say to try and take the exam while in school and take engineering classes related to the engineering field you want to pursue.

    As a licensed PE in electrical engineering, I have a liberal arts degree (you want fries with that?) in Math & Nat Science (Physics lite), so I believe I speak with some authority (I don't get to say THAT often!!!). You will sometimes encounter engineering snobs, but as a general rule, a Physicist should have as good of a technical background as most engineers. You will just have to focus on the discipline you intend to pursue.
  8. Feb 18, 2015 #7
    I've been told that some states require a bachelor's degree in the required discipline in order to become a licensed professional engineer in that state, so that's something the OP should look into (though I could be wrong).
  9. Feb 18, 2015 #8
    Despite popular opinion a physics major can be marketable/employable but you have to do the right things during your studies. A physics major who graduated with me did research in accelerator physics and now works as an engineer (electrical essentially) for the Naval Surface Warfare Center, doing testing and simulations. I myself did a double major in physics and electrical engineering and essentially do the same thing as my friend above for a national lab. Friends of friends did physics bachelors, got masters in nuclear engineering and now work as propulsion engineers for the Navy. Many aerospace companies like Lockheed, Northrup Grumman and others hire physics majors by name to do systems, software, or electrical engineering (avionics is essentially aerospace electronics) work; typically not vehicle design though but with a good GPA (3.4 is alot better than OK) and research experience I don't see why you couldn't get a masters in aerospace engineering and move to a job doing that. You don't need an engineering bachelors to do a masters or a PhD in engineering, so you might look into that as well. Good luck.
  10. Feb 19, 2015 #9


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    My road is NOT the easiest, nor would I suggest it as a first choice. For most states you should have a BS in engineering from an ABET accredited school. However, most states allow technical degrees or outright experience, but the time required to gain that (Documented!!) experience is 2-3 x longer ie an Engineering technology major needs a minimum of 8 years and a non-degreed designer should have a minimum of 12 years. And some districts don't even allow that as you state. Some states will review your work and academic record and make a determination on that. However, nearly all states will recognize an educational assessment by the NCEES (which isn't cheap) and if you get a favorable report ie that you have the equivalent to an ABET accredited engineering degree, that would probably be acceptable to any state or district that I know of.

    Keep in mind, the state board that reviews applications to become a Professional Engineer do so with the following mindset. It is better to deny 10 competent engineers than to allow a single non-competent individual to practice Engineering (design, oversight, and authorize
    Last edited: Feb 19, 2015
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