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Cross-over between Enjeneering and Physics (Graduate school decisions)

  1. Jan 16, 2013 #1
    I am a senior who will complete his B.S. in physics from the College of William and Mary (VA) in one year. By the end of that time, I will have taken (as is typical) two semesters of classical & quantum mechanics, two of E&M, one of Stat. Mech./Thermo, analog electronics, etc. I will also have had three semesters of calculus, linear algebra, and ordinary differential equations. I like physics for the theory, and am on track to apply for graduate programs in physics. However, I am still interested in engineering (mech., EE, aero, etc).

    Other that experimental, I don't know what physics I want to specialize in. I am afraid that in grad school I will run out of appetite for higher and higher abstract theory (and perhaps talent).

    1. I want to know if switching in grad. school from physics to engineering is easy, impossible, unheard of, etc.

    2. If possible, what type of classes would someone with my previous physics experience (above classes + 1.5 years of research) need to take to switch from a graduate program in physics, to one inn engineering. Like what undergrad. stuff would I be lacking. Perhaps CAD skills, more thermodynamics, ect?

    I know I need to look more into what types of things engineering offers, as well as physics grad. school. I am looking over graduate classes in both to try and get a feel for it. A lot of this is just personal choice (except the talent bit), but I feel like I need help in the practical scheduling of what I could do as a backup plan.

    Thank you
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 18, 2013 #2


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    I did all my degrees in EE, and know quite a few people who went from physics undergrad to EE grad. So my answer to question 1) is that it is not at all uncommon.
    By the way, especially for the "applied physics" parts of EE, many professors will LOVE to get a physics major. Here I am thinking semiconductor devices and physics, photonics, electromagnetics, plasma physics, etc.

    For question 2) the number of undergrad classes you need to take will depend upon your exact background, what specialty you want to do in engineering, what the department requires (especially if there are formal qualifiers that cover certain undergrad topics ...) and what your advisor requires.

    I cannot speak to other fields, but for EE the two main holes I see in your background are:

    a) probability theory. This is really key. I know that you learned some of this in stat mech, but are you comfortable with things like conditional expectation? Anyway, you will almost certainly need to take probability if you haven't already. This is a common hole in the background of most physics majors I end up interviewing as well; if physics departments would start requiring at least one semester of probability theory the marketability of physics majors would go way up! (sorry for the rant).

    b) signals and systems. This is the class that will take a physicist and make them think like an EE. This is not hard stuff - mostly aspects of Fourier analysis, but the qualitative and quantitative understanding it provides is key.

    You could easily teach yourself these topics. Neither are that hard given your physics background. If you know these, then in my opinion you are not really missing anything essential from the first three years of an EE education. Senior level courses are often taken by grad students anyway, so specialty classes can always be made up without any fuss.

    Best of luck,

  4. Jan 21, 2013 #3
    Thank you very much. You are correct, I can get my physics degree without ever having to take a dedicated stat. mech. or thermo. class. All my advisers say it would be essentially required for grad. school though. My college offers a 400 level probability theory course through the math department. I will consider taking it if I can squeeze it in.
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