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Programs Could i get a masters and someday phd in physics with bs in engineering?

  1. Jun 12, 2012 #1
    I am currently enrolled as an Aerospace-Mechanical double major in engineering but i would like to go to grad school and study physics. My long term goal would be to acquire a phd in physics (theoretical or experimental) and work in research or practical applications of physics. I am fascinated by physics and have just discovered Stanford's physics lectures are uploaded to youtube. I have been watching them and have decided i think i truly want to study physics. My only question is do i need to get an undergrad in physics as well? or will engineering suffice?

    Thanks for the help this is my first time posting on this forum.
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  3. Jun 12, 2012 #2
    I can only speak for my experiences in the UK, but it shouldn't be too much of a problem getting onto a physics masters if you have a good engineering degree - you should have covered a lot basic physics (mechanics!) and maths(?). Have a look at the entrance criteria for a few taught masters degrees and, even if they don't look like they accept engineers, ring up a couple of ones that appeal to you and ask \ brow-beat \ plead according to taste. If it's any help, Dirac's first degree was in Engineering.

    I have no problem (in principle) getting onto engineering and neurology masters courses ... and quite right too, having a Physicist on-board adds a touch of Class to their otherwise tawdry classes. :cool:
  4. Jun 12, 2012 #3


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    You should start by reading this:


  5. Jun 12, 2012 #4
    ZapperZ I read your thread and it was very helpful, but i guess what I'm really asking is should i switch to a physics major before i start classes in the fall? (I am an incoming freshmen so I could switch majors with no consequences as of now)
  6. Jun 12, 2012 #5
    Seeing as you would like to go to graduate school for physics, it should make sense to switch to a physics program before you begin.
  7. Jun 12, 2012 #6
    I would recommend staying in engineering for the first semester or even year and see if you may like it. In the mean time research into what it takes to truly be a physicist. Graduate school is an absolute MUST in most cases but if you are planning to anyway...

    I wouldn't worry too much about it though, you will easily be able to switch into physics after the first year or vice versa. I only recommend to start with engineering if you're unsure because often engineering programs have a few requirements in their first year while physics typically doesn't - besides possibly intro physics and math which will overlap with engineering anyway.
  8. Jun 12, 2012 #7
    I plan on pursuing a PHD in theoretical physics (most likely) and I would love to do research, but because of the competitiveness of the field I would not mind working in industry either. I like the idea of having a back up career if i was unable to complete the doctoral program, but if engineering would hinder me from obtaining the PHD as soon as possible i would be willing to drop it for phyiscs.
  9. Jun 12, 2012 #8
    I felt the exact same way last semester (besides the theoretical part) but I realized that i can get into biophysics programs just as easily with a biological engineering degree so I'm sticking with it. Theoretical physics is a different story though. While biophysics is extremely interdisciplinary with students from all over the board, theoretical physics is not.
  10. Jun 13, 2012 #9


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    Here's the thing that I don't understand, and it comes up here very often.

    You have an engineering field on one hand, which is highly applied, highly practical, highly in demand, and often requires someone with hands-on skills, i.e. you have to be able to DO or MAKE something. Engineering schools typically require students to do a lot of "lab" work, some even field work.

    And then you go to other extreme of "theoretical physics", where, by definition, one does theoretical work with hardly any (often completely none) practical work. You're not expected to be able to measure, do, or build anything.

    So I'm always amazed to see people wanting to either do engineering, or theoretical physics! I mean, is there nothing IN BETWEEN these two extremes that would be more viable? I'm just puzzled that the only choices being considered are on such opposite ends of the scale! Either I do something that is 100% practical and with direct applications, or I do something that could probably be 100% non-practical and with no direct applications whatsoever!

    I find this option to be very strange and puzzling.

    BTW, when someone who is just starting school and tells me he/she wants to do "theoretical physics", chances are, this person actually knows very little what that means:

    https://www.physicsforums.com/blog.php?b=3727 [Broken]

    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  11. Jun 13, 2012 #10
    Agreed. I would add, you should attempt to be practical. Examine careers in depth before you choose. Your first year is pretty generic, and the core requirement classes for physics and engineering are like to overlap. e.g. math, classical physics, etc. I started out as a Chem Eng major and switch to physics midway into my sophomore year. It didn't cost me 1 credit hour and I graduated on time. You are making a life choice. Choose wisely after careful deliberation. As well as doing what you like, make sure you can get a job and make a living.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 6, 2017
  12. Jun 13, 2012 #11
    I understand what you are saying and agree in some degree. The problem I have with your statement is that you are using the word engineering WAY too generally. There is definitely graduate work in engineering that blurs the line between physics and engineering - many labs have equal numbers of physicists and engineers working in them. Also, getting an undergraduate degree in engineering doesn't by any means restrict you to staying in "100% applied" engineering. Many people are able to change focus to less "applied" fields.
  13. Jun 13, 2012 #12
    A few of the physics professors at my school started as engineers; though they came from engineering programs that were more mathematical and theoretically oriented and most were electrical engineers.

    A lot of experimental physics however, especially in condensed matter and nuclear, IS engineering; I'm doing a small research project in plasma physics and it's all python programming, cad machine drawing work, and soldering circuits.
  14. Jun 13, 2012 #13


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    You guys need to read my thread on the job prospects in Accelerator Physics. I know quite a bit of areas in which engineering and physics coexist very nicely.

    The point here is that "engineering", by definition, is an applied field, even if it is "theoretical". It isn't what you do, but rather, it is the topic involved, that defines what it is.

    When people talk about "theoretical physics", most of them are often mistaking it for "String, Cosmology, Elementary Particles, etc.. etc.", even when the so-called applied physics areas such as condensed matter, atomic/molecular physics, etc. also have theoretical work. Often, these "theoretical physics" topics are quite esoteric and have very little direct applications. That is why I said that these two areas are polar opposites of each other, and I don't understand why someone who might have an "interest" in both somehow do not see all the different scales in between those two! There are tons of areas in physics that have varying degree of engineering and physics. If you like to work on devices and high energy physics, go into Detector Physics. If you like material science and QFT, go into Condensed matter, etc.. etc. I just don't understand the choices that involve only the extreme situations.

  15. Jun 13, 2012 #14
    Zapper, I am interested in engineering because I am fascinated by the physics of aeronautics and the practical applications of it; however, my foremost interest is learning as much physics and mathematics as possible. As far as I understand theoretical physics is going to have some overlap with experimental and vice-versa.My dream job would be research in physics. I'm interested in theory behind condensed matter, but I am not naive enough to state that is what i want to study until I have a higher education and chance to be exposed to all of the different concentrations in physics during college. The reason the engineering undergrad appeals to me is the statistical chance of getting into a research job in physics is relatively low. More PHD's are being produced than jobs are being offered as far as I can tell. I would love to do research, but I am also trying to be realistic and keep a back up plan in mind. Whether or not I will get a job with a PHD in physics, my plan is to get the degree regardless just so that I can learn more about physics and mathematics. I have done quite a bit of research on both this forum and other websites as to the practical and everyday jobs of both engineers and different kinds of physicists so I am at least aware that theoretical physics does not mean me sitting in front of my black board drinking coffee and looking for equation to for everything.

    I do really appreciate all of the help and opinion I have received and i am glad to join this forum. The community here is great and it is vast source of knowledge.
  16. Jun 13, 2012 #15


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    I suspect the issue of the gap between engineering and theoretical physics really has a lot to do with the popular influences on youth. There are a lot of popular science physics books that tend to focus on more exotic theoretical concepts. Young people read about (or watch television programs on) black holes, superstrings, quantum entanglement, etc. most often at the conceptual level. Rarely do these books really delve into the experimental side of physics. So you have young people who come into physics only being exposed to the more theoretical concepts.

    And of course, they're young. So they are captivated the notion of discovering some major paradigm-shifting concept that will enable warp-drive or time travel.

    Then on the other hand there is the pressure of real world application. Which is why "engineering" comes up. To young people who enjoy physics, math, and other technical subjects engineering presents itself as an organized profession dealing with the direct application of such things.

    Exposure to the more applied branches of physics tends to come as the student matures.

    So maybe one solution might be to figure out how to write a popular book on applied physics - and get it on the bestseller list next to A Brief History of Time, or The Fabric of the Cosmos.
  17. Jun 14, 2012 #16
    But something applied physics-like titled for example "Principles of Nonlinear Optical Spectroscopy" just doesn't sound as accessible and exciting as "A Brief History of Time" or "How to rev up your car!"
  18. Jun 15, 2012 #17
    Well I have decided to drop ME and double major in aerospace and physics. Hopefully I can get the best of both worlds now.
  19. Jun 15, 2012 #18
    I remember almost double majoring in EE and physics. The department has it to where you can complete both degrees in 4 years. I changed my mind after the physics advisor asked me, "Well, do you want to be really good at physics or do you want to be okay at both?"
  20. Jun 15, 2012 #19
    I did my undergrad in EE, and then I earned a MS in physics.

    The misleading part of all this is that I found a physics school that has a whole department devoted to electronics and the application of electronics to physics problems. So, really, I consider my masters degree a continuation of EE more so than a physics degree.

    I picked up most of the required physics courses pretty easily since the math is similar in both fields. I could have chosen a different program path in physics at my school, like nuclear or theoretical, but the truth is that I don't have the prerequisite undergrad classes to easily step into those programs. I played it safe and stayed in electronics.

    So, I don't think you will have a problem getting a masters or phd in physics with an undergrad in engineering. Just be cautious that you study the right topics to be able to advance into the particular physics field you choose.

    If you studied ME or chemical engineering, you are obviously more aligned with certain physics topics than if you study EE. Still, you should be able to do any field if you have the basics down well enough.
    Last edited: Jun 15, 2012
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