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Choosing a major physics versus EE

  1. May 10, 2007 #1

    PS--this will be a long post.

    A year ago, I posted here under a topic which went something like "physics after electrical engineering". At the time, I was getting into an undergraduate program in Electrical Engineering. I have just finished my first year and will be entering my second year in July. I am from India.

    A little background: I have had a course in electronics, two courses in physics (basic classical mechanics, special relativity, electromagnetism, some wave optics and quantum mechanics), two courses in mathematics (real analysis and complex analysis/linear algebra), a computer programming course (java) apart from other compulsory engineering courses (physics and chemistry labs, electronics lab, drawing, humanities, etc).

    I am interested in pursuing research in certain topics in physics (as of now these are: quantum computation, particle physics/high energy physics) that interest me. Although I have not had much formal exposure, I have read a few things myself which have furthered my interest in physics and inspired me. At the same time, I have interests in electrical engineering subjects (microelectronics, semiconductor devices, etc).

    I have to decide between physics (a five year integrated masters program) and electrical engineering sometime soon. I have been given to think that an engineering degree opens a lot of doors in terms of jobs and opportunities, but a graduate school education in physics (esp theoretical) will be harder to get without a solid background in undergraduate physics. (I am sure I want do research, that isn't a problem and that opinion will not change, even though I do not have research experience myself :smile:)

    If I do physics, I am not yet sure about choosing between experimental and theoretical. I would like it to be a bit of both, but I am not yet exposed to enough courses and lab work to have a taste of either. I am told that an EE background will be very useful in experimental physics but will make it somewhat difficult to do theoretical physics, due to lack of exposure to a lot of ug courses.

    I would like to know the scenario of post-undergraduate studies (I have already read "So you want to be a physicist"), what I should expect should I go in for physics, etc. I was told that post-docs and jobs after PhD in physics are hard to find and many people turn to industry jobs (not necessarily research) after PhD in physics. If I want to work in the area of particle physics, quantum computation, semiconductor device physics, what should I be looking forward to? Is there reason to worry about a post-undergrad "what to do next" especially if I want to pursue a research career in these fields? I understand that I can get into some form of experimental condensed matter physics (semiconductor device physics) work after an EE degree?

    I invite comments from those of you who have some advice for me and/or would like to give me more information. Thanks for your time and help :smile:
    While some of my questions may be old and may have been answered before, I would still like to initiate some discussion here so that I may get to know a lot more than by just using google.com.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 10, 2007 #2


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    Staff: Mentor

    Well, I'll try to give you one answer (my perspective). There are many other answers/perspectives of course.

    When I got to undergrad, I was focused on engineering of one form or another, and found EE the best match. But I also found that I had an affinity and genuine love for Physics, so the decision at the 2-year boundary was very difficult for me. Physics was the subject that really turned me on (and that I got the extraordinary grades in), but I felt at the time (late 70s) that EE would be a better guaranteed-income path if I did well in it, and I ended up chosing the BSEE+MSEE path.

    I don't regret the choice at this point, because I've worked very, very hard in EE and done well financially (not quite enough to retire young yet, but close). But Physics is still my first love, and one of my goals is to return to school for my BS/MS in Physics and to work on some pet peave projects that I've been wanting to get back to.

    On the other hand, one of the most important things that I've come to learn over my years of working, is that it would be great if you had a daily job where you had a smile on your face as you walked into work each day. There are only a few jobs that I can think of where you would have a smile on your face each day as you got to work, and honestly, my EE work does not qualify. Yeah, there are times when I'm happy with my work, but my EE work has mostly been very challenging and rewarding, not smiling happy fun stuff -- do you know what I mean?

    But if I could have pursued a career in Physics, and gotten lucky enough to link up with a challenging and well-paying job, then I probably would have been smiling ear-to-ear each morning as I walked through the front door. But it's pretty hard to beat the satisfaction of working your butt off at an EE startup and achieving financial security for your family...

    Hard choices.
    Last edited: May 10, 2007
  4. May 10, 2007 #3
    Thanks for the reply berkeman :smile:

    Well, I am hoping to get into some challenging and (intellectually) rewarding stuff either way, and I doubt if someone in a highly technical position can have a "smiling happy fun stuff" job at a stretch--unless he/she is in the smiling happy fun stuff company or something :tongue2:. On a serious note, I am not looking for a job...just trying to decide between these two fields, and trying to keep in mind my goals or possible opportunities 5 years from now. These thoughts are more due to the variety of information I gathered from different sources (for instance, some theory phd students saying that very few options are left in physics, expt facilities to do phd are not available for all grads, might not get a position for a long time, etc etc)

    While the majority of people might end up doing that, there are research opportunities too--after all, people in universities who teach engineering have gone through bachelors in engineering themselves. So its not at all about the financial satisfaction...I am not bothered about the money (of course I cannot sustain my future endeavors with zero money, but just about enough)...and while I do not have as much experience, I will still say that for some folks, the satisfaction of doing something as part of a research project is more than working at a startup. I somehow feel I will have a better time working at those challenging problems you're referring to (either in physics or EE) as I would get an opportunity to learn a lot in the process.
  5. May 10, 2007 #4
    EE has theoretical aspects, as well. For example, computer vision(CV) field is in a way near to theoretical physics, as applying mathematics to real problems. No, CV is not physics; but it uses calculus of variations, PDE, differential geometry and indeed classical mechanics is based on calculus of variations.
    On the other hand, semiconductor physics is a research area in EE, and a person who likes theory, will not like them, since they are experimental.
    Please follow the link
    http://ee.stanford.edu/~jela/. You will see that that professor is physics graduate, and work on seminconductor physics experimentally at EE.
    A person who likes physics and theory(like quantum information theory, quantum field theory, etc...) should choose THEORETICAL PHYSICS, EE is boring for him.
    A person who likes experiment, can choose EE and go on with SEMICONDUCTOR PHYSICS (quantum dots, photonics, nanotechnology, etc...).
    A person who likes applications of mathematics can enjoy EE, for example in control.
    Today as an EE student, I still do not know you can escape from practical aspects in EE ( I mean not practical problems, but hand usage(i.e.,hardware) by practical). If one can answer my question, I will be happy. I think that you can write codes in PC, and escape practical things(hardware) as an EE. Is it right?
    Last edited: May 10, 2007
  6. May 10, 2007 #5
    No, thats not right. I am interested in the practical aspects of EE as well...in fact that is what is keeping me from deciding in favor of either field--I am interested in and have participated and worked in several projects involving electronic circuits, robotics, etc. But of late my interests have diversified to two topics in physics as well...mainly particle physics and quantum computation. But I don't see how one can evade practical aspects at all.
  7. May 10, 2007 #6
    Well, Paul Dirac escaped from EE, because he did not like the practical things and he realized that he had a passion in mathematics. (or Bardeen) Then, he became a theoretical physicist. If one likes practice, he/she will be happy at engineering for sure.
    Last edited: May 10, 2007
  8. May 10, 2007 #7
    But those two guys were geniuses. Go for the EE direction because it will garantee you a "life". Doing theoretical physics is not a rewarding job unless you are extremely good at it. Otherwise you will just pass your time jumping from one ****ty post doc to another. EE is a very interesting and rewarding field to work in. Keep in mind that you should do what you love, BUT you also have to deal with financial reality !

  9. May 10, 2007 #8
    Wow, berkeman, you really depressed me. Your description of how you felt about EE and physics as an undergrad is almost identical to what I've felt as an undergrad. I'm about to graduate with a degree in EE and start grad school, and you've got me thinking that I've made a huge mistake.
  10. May 10, 2007 #9
    Absolutely not. Berkeman chose for the financial security and that is the only way to go. He would have been far more miserable with no money and no life as a theoretical physicist. EE will bring you lots of good things in life. At least, if you wanna work for that. But at least you have this prospect, a theoretical physicist has none !!!

  11. May 10, 2007 #10


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    Staff: Mentor

    Why do you say that? I said that I feel that I made the right choice, and have been pretty satisfied in my work. As marlon said, you have to deal with financial realities in life.

    If it's the smile each day going into work thing, as I said, there are very few jobs that I can think of where you could do that realistically. If I were a park ranger at a local dirtbike park, for example, I would definitely have a smile on my face most of every day! But the pay is pretty low for that job (folks are climbing all over each other for a sweet assignment like that), so you'd have to already have financial security somehow to be able to work that job.

    A couple other jobs that I can think of that would put a smile on my face each morning would be a teacher (in the right place, with good students), doctor (in the right specialty), park ranger (there it comes up again....), or physicist (in the right job). But if you're stressed about finances, it would be hard to keep that smile on your face, in my experience and opinion.
  12. May 10, 2007 #11
    Okay before you get the wrong impression, this isn't about a comparison between EE and theoretical physics. Why is it that anyone who wants to do physics necessarily means theoretical physics? As far as I know, the distinction arises only when you go for a PhD...at least in India, there exists no theoretical physics undergraduate program.

    PS--Its also not about comparing the practical or theoretical side of EE with physics. (I believe there's a thread in here somewhere about EE versus theoretical physics...I didn't initiate that one)

    Why is life difficult for physics grads? I can understand the situation back in India, because there's a rat race in engineering (those who choose to do physics do it because of interest and they constitute a very very small fraction) and a lot of people I know want to go on to do either business administration, software jobs or related stuff (not academia). But I am just curious to get an insight into why things are bad elsewhere in the world...(is this really about theoretical vs experimental??)
    Last edited: May 10, 2007
  13. May 10, 2007 #12
    It is me who like theoretical(mathematical) physics from outside (but I'm not a physicist), (i.e. calculus of variations from CM, Hermitian Operators from QM, lie algebra from Q.Information.) if it is wrong topic to discuss it, sorry for it!
    Last edited: May 11, 2007
  14. May 10, 2007 #13
    Does your school have a concentration program? Some universities offer physics degrees with a concentration in a field--the most popular being materials science, electrical engineering, advanced physics topics, and chemistry. I know this because Auburn University has this exact program.
  15. May 10, 2007 #14
    What does the (or Bardeen) part of that post mean? Bardeen believed strongly that research should have direct, practical benefits. To suggest he "did not like the practical things" would not be accurate.
  16. May 10, 2007 #15
    No Younglearner, it doesn't offer any such concentration program.
  17. May 10, 2007 #16
    What should someone who has an interest in some aspects of physics, EE and both theory/experiment do? As I said before, there isn't any theoretical physics undergraduate program here. The theory/experiment distinction arises only in graduate school. Is it true that getting into particle physics after EE is virtually impossible? That other branches of physics might still be open to some extent..?
  18. May 11, 2007 #17
    Lots of electronic engineers work at CERN. You can certainly go into experimental particle physics with your degree. I suggest you contact some university departments and ask them your question. With the proper guidance, this transition should go quite fluently

  19. May 11, 2007 #18
    I can't remember his speech fully, but I think Bardeen says that theory is made for practical problems. He stopped make engineering for an academic job, and his role in invention of transistor was theoretical such that investigating experimental data which his friends get, and also he did BCS theory.
    Last edited: May 11, 2007
  20. May 11, 2007 #19
    I tried, and generally I've been told the following: if you are sure of your interest in physics, do physics. Otherwise, don't do physics. But yes, I guess I should talk to a wider spectrum of people now that you've suggested this.

    PS--There is also a school of thought that says a UG degree doesn't totally determine what you do after UG :rolleyes: This however, doesn't totally explain or answer any of these queries.
  21. May 12, 2007 #20
    Do all PhD programs (in the west for instance) require students to take lots of courses in the first few semesters, irrespective of whether they've done them in their undergraduate education. If so, how do people who do not have UG physics degrees fit in? Isn't it possible for them to do the relevant courses and go ahead? (I understand this is easier said then done...we're talking about at least 2-3 years of hardcore physics courses here..but still).
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