Did you start off in Physics before switching to Engineering?

In summary, many people start off in physics before discovering engineering is a better fit for them. The fields of engineering and physics are complementary and offer interesting research opportunities. In the past, high schools did not offer engineering courses and many engineering students started off in math or physics. The writer shares their personal experience of starting in physics, but ultimately switching to engineering for practical applications and job prospects. They also mention the use of math in engineering and their self-taught approach to learning their field.
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Summary: For anyone that might have started off in physics but for their head turned by engineering

I am just wondering if there’s many out there that started off in physics before discovering engineering was more for them, what made you switch?

My degree is in engineering & physics and I find them both interesting and compliment each other well. Although I do like seeing real world applications, hence why my career path will be engineering.
 
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  • #2
Although I remained in physics I had two friends to did switch to engineering (Environmental).
 
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  • #3
Back in my time 1970-1980's, everyone at my undergrad school that graduated in engineering started out in math or physics. The exception was chemical engineering, they all started in chemistry. High schools just didn't teach engineering, it didn't really exist to us. They had math, physics, biology, chemistry and shop (auto, wood, metal) classes. The best engineering programs don't really start until you've done some university physics and math. At my school, EE classes didn't start until the 2nd year.
 
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  • #4
I'm in engineering and thinking about switching to physics
 
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  • #5
Joshy said:
I'm in engineering and thinking about switching to physics
Ah fair enough. Why is that?
 
  • #6
I just really like it. I'm studying EE and was looking at research that would be interesting and all the really good stuff was in the physics dept.
 
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  • #7
I started in physics undergrad and grad school. Originally I planned to get a doctorate and even took all the required courses and passed the qualifying exam but I decided that was just going to take way too long so I looked for a job and found I needed to add a masters in Electrical engineering when I could not find a job with just a masters in physics.
 
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  • #8
Joshy said:
I just really like it. I'm studying EE and was looking at research that would be interesting and all the really good stuff was in the physics dept.
What is the good stuff to you?
 
  • #9
I came to college in '67 intending to major in math. Took a special freshman calculus course for math majors. Well, that was tedious. Decided to switch to physics, which I was very interested in. (Still am, since I find myself here on this page...) Spent a year in physics grad school, then decided to leave. Why? I wanted to really DO something, with practical applications. Or maybe because the material was starting to get seriously difficult, and the job prospects weren't looking good. Or even the fact that for next year I would have to show up at 8:00 AM for my TA job!

Got a software job, found a better one with a lot of numerical analysis and DSP. Eventually realized I had turned into an electrical engineer. No problem, my father was an engineer in the US Army. As I sit here 5 months away from my retirement, I've got to say it's been good. I've worked mostly for small companies, where I was generally left free to do what was needed. A lot of interesting problems, and nearly as many solutions. I would be at least a foot-note in a history of my particular consumer electronics area.

There's enough math to keep me happy. Sometimes I think of myself as an applied mathematician. The math barrier keeps out the competition. Occasionally some physics intrudes; torsional oscillations in a spring, even. Sure I would prefer to be the person who comes up with a theory of quantum gravity, but one has to be realistic. That's a hard call to make, before you've even started a career.

I use very little of what I studied in college. I'm pretty much self-taught in my field. But if you are thinking of majoring in physics, you ought to be capable of reading a few books and journals, and coming up to speed in another area. I wish someone had pointed this out to me in fourth grade; took five years before I started going through math textbooks on my own.

Well, that's my story...
 
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  • #10
bigmike94 said:
My degree is in engineering & physics
Engineering Physics, which is a discipline/major, or engineering & physics (combined) degree?

bigmike94 said:
I am just wondering if there’s many out there that started off in physics before discovering engineering was more for them, what made you switch?
Yes. In my case, I started as a physics major with specializations in nuclear and space (astro) physics. The nuclear option had courses in thermodynamics and materials, as well as modern physics (relativity, etc), classical physics and quantum physics. The astrophysics part was astronomy and various topics in astrophysics, with general relativity at the senior level. I took various other courses, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do professionally.

I visited a department of nuclear engineering at a different university, and I decided to transfer and change majors. If I knew then, what I knew later and now, I would have double majored in nuclear engineering and physics. Engineering after all is applied physics.

Nuclear engineering is a multi-discipline major with course in math & physics (STEM), nuclear and radiation physics, mechanical engineering (thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, mechanics of materials, . . . ), electrical engineering (circuits, electromechanics (transformers, generators/motors), power systems, control theory, . . . ), materials science, . . . . I even managed some courses in aerospace engineering (different kind of fluid dynamics). I did very well because of my math and physics background.

Professionally, I use both physics and engineering in what I do, now is how materials behave in their intended environment, which happens to include a variety of radiation fields in a variety of materials in a variety of environments. One can explore the physics of condensed matter at the atomic level (or nuclear) up through very large structures, and even blend the scales.

Computational physics, and modeling & simulation, in conjunction/combination with experimentation are hot areas now and for the foreseeable future.
 
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  • #11
I started in physics, switched to optics and then back to semiconductor theory for my terminal degree. Left academia and went straight into industry and have been essentially an engineer ever since. In aerospace, most of the jobs we post require a physics or engineering degree.
 
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  • #12
I got my doctorate in theoretical condensed matter physics after a BA physics undergrad. I taught physics for a while but was not particularly satisfied with academia. I had to work too hard and too narrowly. Then I spent twenty years with the title Research Engineer doing mostly optronics design. I loved sitting on design reviews where I was both liked and hated. Did some good designs . Did very interesting and occasionally lucrative consulting. Very happy to have taken the route I did. "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood...yada yada..."
Not bad for a lazy person.
 
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  • #13
Astronuc said:
Engineering Physics, which is a discipline/major, or engineering & physics (combined) degree?Yes. In my case, I started as a physics major with specializations in nuclear and space (astro) physics. The nuclear option had courses in thermodynamics and materials, as well as modern physics (relativity, etc), classical physics and quantum physics. The astrophysics part was astronomy and various topics in astrophysics, with general relativity at the senior level. I took various other courses, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do professionally.

I visited a department of nuclear engineering at a different university, and I decided to transfer and change majors. If I knew then, what I knew later and now, I would have double majored in nuclear engineering and physics. Engineering after all is applied physics.

Nuclear engineering is a multi-discipline major with course in math & physics (STEM), nuclear and radiation physics, mechanical engineering (thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, mechanics of materials, . . . ), electrical engineering (circuits, electromechanics (transformers, generators/motors), power systems, control theory, . . . ), materials science, . . . . I even managed some courses in aerospace engineering (different kind of fluid dynamics). I did very well because of my math and physics background.

Professionally, I use both physics and engineering in what I do, now is how materials behave in their intended environment, which happens to include a variety of radiation fields in a variety of materials in a variety of environments. One can explore the physics of condensed matter at the atomic level (or nuclear) up through very large structures, and even blend the scales.

Computational physics, and modeling & simulation, in conjunction/combination with experimentation are hot areas now and for the foreseeable future.
All the stuff you’ve mentioned on your degrees sounds so interesting! Sometimes you just want to learn everything but it’s gets overwhelming 😆

But to answer your question my degree isn’t engineering physics, it’s an open STEM degree so I can pick my modules, my first year was maths and engineering, my second (current) year is physics and engineering 50/50, and my last year will be 3/4 engineering and one module in quantum mechanics.

I also self study a lot like right now I’m doing thermodynamics, E&M, fluid mechanics, statics, coding and a bunch of maths.

I’ll be honest it feels like it’s getting too much, the reason I got into physics is because thermodynamics, cosmology, relatively and particle physics all sounded really interesting in the typical popular science books. So once I can I’ll drop everything else and focus on those.

Sometimes when I am learning about a particle moving in but it’s restricted like a bead on a wire i sit and think this isn’t what I thought physics was 😆 but I have to remind myself it’s all necessary to learn the good stuff!
 
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  • #14
B.C. said:
I came to college in '67 intending to major in math. Took a special freshman calculus course for math majors. Well, that was tedious. Decided to switch to physics, which I was very interested in. (Still am, since I find myself here on this page...) Spent a year in physics grad school, then decided to leave. Why? I wanted to really DO something, with practical applications. Or maybe because the material was starting to get seriously difficult, and the job prospects weren't looking good. Or even the fact that for next year I would have to show up at 8:00 AM for my TA job!

Got a software job, found a better one with a lot of numerical analysis and DSP. Eventually realized I had turned into an electrical engineer. No problem, my father was an engineer in the US Army. As I sit here 5 months away from my retirement, I've got to say it's been good. I've worked mostly for small companies, where I was generally left free to do what was needed. A lot of interesting problems, and nearly as many solutions. I would be at least a foot-note in a history of my particular consumer electronics area.

There's enough math to keep me happy. Sometimes I think of myself as an applied mathematician. The math barrier keeps out the competition. Occasionally some physics intrudes; torsional oscillations in a spring, even. Sure I would prefer to be the person who comes up with a theory of quantum gravity, but one has to be realistic. That's a hard call to make, before you've even started a career.

I use very little of what I studied in college. I'm pretty much self-taught in my field. But if you are thinking of majoring in physics, you ought to be capable of reading a few books and journals, and coming up to speed in another area. I wish someone had pointed this out to me in fourth grade; took five years before I started going through math textbooks on my own.

Well, that's my story...
That’s quite an interesting story thanks for sharing 👍 I also keep convincing myself that I want practical applications etc but I resonate that sometimes it’s just because things can get tough in physics and to be honest a lot of the time I find myself asking “is this what I thought physics was”

I wish there was more motivation in intro physics books, it must be obvious nobody starts a physics degree to learn about blocks on inclined planes and swinging pendulums and tbh even circuits. (I’m not saying parts were not enjoyable) it would be nice to explain how each chapter will help you in the future with more advance things, you know, the real reason we got into physics, relativity, quantum anything, particle physics, cosmology.
 
  • #15
bigmike94 said:
nice to explain how each chapter will help you in the future with more advance things
Partially because the future physics is truly unknown. Also because teaching how it fits would require you to understand the subjects you don't yet know and that is not efficient. But, where possible, we agree
Teaching the elementary methods to bright students is particularly difficult because often they use shortcuts to do the simple provblems: "Why do I need to draw a free body analysis when I can just write down answer from my head ?" The method of analysis is what is being taught, not how to play with Atwood Machines. Soon enough the problems will be non-intuitive. You need some faith that these folks understand what they are doing.
 
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  • #16
hutchphd said:
Partially because the future physics is truly unknown. Also because teaching how it fits would require you to understand the subjects you don't yet know and that is not efficient. But, where possible, we agree
Teaching the elementary methods to bright students is particularly difficult because often they use shortcuts to do the simple provblems: "Why do I need to draw a free body analysis when I can just write down answer from my head ?" The method of analysis is what is being taught, not how to play with Atwood Machines. Soon enough the problems will be non-intuitive. You need some faith that these folks understand what they are doing.
Yeah you are completely right to be honest. I am just very impatient, 2.5 years ago I started teaching myself maths for the sole purpose to learn physics, I started from scratch, literally didn’t know how to add fraction or anything, now I’ve completed courses in multivariable calculus, differential equations etc. so I’ve come along way but I know I haven’t even scratched the surface. I’ve only just started to learn Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics and 2nd year E&M.

So I am starting to get my feet wet with the good stuff. But it’s always tempting to jump ahead. For example maybe Griffiths quantum mechanics, it would also motivate me to up my linear algebra skills and start partial differential equations.
 
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  • #17
hutchphd said:
Partially because the future physics is truly unknown. Also because teaching how it fits would require you to understand the subjects you don't yet know and that is not efficient. But, where possible, we agree
Teaching the elementary methods to bright students is particularly difficult because often they use shortcuts to do the simple provblems: "Why do I need to draw a free body analysis when I can just write down answer from my head ?" The method of analysis is what is being taught, not how to play with Atwood Machines. Soon enough the problems will be non-intuitive. You need some faith that these folks understand what they are doing.
This is exactly what every student needs to be told. Essentially be patient and have trust, don’t expect overarching perspective from the get go. I certainly needed to be told that when I started.

Not to be hyperbolic but what you just said has to be my favorite post on all of PF.
 
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  • #18
bigmike94 said:
Yeah you are completely right to be honest. I am just very impatient, 2.5 years ago I started teaching myself maths for the sole purpose to learn physics, I started from scratch, literally didn’t know how to add fraction or anything, now I’ve completed courses in multivariable calculus, differential equations etc. so I’ve come along way but I know I haven’t even scratched the surface. I’ve only just started to learn Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics and 2nd year E&M.

So I am starting to get my feet wet with the good stuff. But it’s always tempting to jump ahead. For example maybe Griffiths quantum mechanics, it would also motivate me to up my linear algebra skills and start partial differential equations.

By now you should have learned to trust yourself because you have made remarkable progress.
 
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  • #19
Started in math with a BS degree and now I'm trying to get BS/MS in mechanical engineering. The math of engineering is relatively simple and fun.
 
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  • #20
My bachelor's degree is in physics/mathematics. I studied these because I always wanted to understand how the things in the world work, and I thought physics was pretty much the key to everything. After graduation, reality set in and I quickly figured out it was grad school or a low-paying job that has little to do with physics. When looking at grad school, at that time, it seemed like all the research was either cosmic scale or quark scale - and I had (and have) no interest in either of these.That brings me to mechanical engineering. I thought in ME, at least, I could work with things that were more tangeble and still apply what I had learned from physics. I got a thesis-based MSME and went to work at a research laboratory. I found that being able to talk to the physicists and also to the engineers (they really do speak different languages at times, it seems), and serve as a translator between groups, gave me an advantage among the engineers there. I did that job for quite a while. But then I hit a ceiling where there was no more promotions left without a PhD. For this reason and others I went back and got a PhD in ME. Along the way I discovered that I enjoy teaching as much (or more) as I enjoy research, and so I found my way back to academia.For me, engineering has as even more of the aspect of understanding how things in the world work, but I am not sure how much of that is because I more thoroughly studied physics from the beginning. The disciplines are not as far apart as many think, imo. An exception: when I went to engineering, the biggest shocker was suddenly having to use Imperial Units. "What?! Slugs? pounds-force, pounds-mass?! Sometimes we use the gravitational constant and other times not?! Huh?!" :oops: I'd say it was worth it overall to switch to engineering in my case, but of course this will be highly dependent upon the individual.Good luck!
 
  • #21
mfig said:
when I went to engineering, the biggest shocker was suddenly having to use Imperial Units. "What?! Slugs? pounds-force, pounds-mass?! Sometimes we use the gravitational constant and other times not?! Huh?!" :oops:
I remember having the same shock. "Gallons per minute? you're kidding, right?!"

Now, 45 years later, I'm very happy with the old fashion units.

EDIT: I was puzzled for quite a while, seeing the conversion between BTU and kW-hr; it varies from 3412, 3413, even 3415. Turns out, there's several definitions for "BTU"
 
  • #22
mfig said:
My bachelor's degree is in physics/mathematics. I studied these because I always wanted to understand how the things in the world work, and I thought physics was pretty much the key to everything. After graduation, reality set in and I quickly figured out it was grad school or a low-paying job that has little to do with physics. When looking at grad school, at that time, it seemed like all the research was either cosmic scale or quark scale - and I had (and have) no interest in either of these.That brings me to mechanical engineering. I thought in ME, at least, I could work with things that were more tangeble and still apply what I had learned from physics. I got a thesis-based MSME and went to work at a research laboratory. I found that being able to talk to the physicists and also to the engineers (they really do speak different languages at times, it seems), and serve as a translator between groups, gave me an advantage among the engineers there. I did that job for quite a while. But then I hit a ceiling where there was no more promotions left without a PhD. For this reason and others I went back and got a PhD in ME. Along the way I discovered that I enjoy teaching as much (or more) as I enjoy research, and so I found my way back to academia.For me, engineering has as even more of the aspect of understanding how things in the world work, but I am not sure how much of that is because I more thoroughly studied physics from the beginning. The disciplines are not as far apart as many think, imo. An exception: when I went to engineering, the biggest shocker was suddenly having to use Imperial Units. "What?! Slugs? pounds-force, pounds-mass?! Sometimes we use the gravitational constant and other times not?! Huh?!" :oops: I'd say it was worth it overall to switch to engineering in my case, but of course this will be highly dependent upon the individual.Good luck!
What is a low paying starting salary where you are? Where I am from, England, pretty much all the graduate STEM jobs start at the same salary. So if I graduate in mechanical engineering I would start on around £27-30k a year, if I graduate in physics I would start on around the same price but the job could be anything from finance related to logistics etc. in the U.K. the average graduate salary is £27k. Which tbh isn’t great at all but it puts your foot in the door with big companies and more opportunity for promotions, plus it beats working as a hotel receptionist which I’m doing now aha! The upside is that it’s a quiet hotel so I take by textbooks to work and study 😃
 
  • #23
i have passion in electrical engineering but my jamb score is 184 and I went for physics
can I change it to electrical engineering when I enter school and which level?
 
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  • #24
can I change from physics to electrical engineering when I enter school
 
  • #25
Surely that would depend on the educational system in question?
 
  • #26
hazoni said:
i have passion in electrical engineering but my jamb score is 184 and I went for physics
can I change it to electrical engineering when I enter school and which level?
The answer to your question is dependent on the particular university. So contact the admissions offices of the particular universities you plan to apply to.
 
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  • #27
bigmike94 said:
Summary: For anyone that might have started off in physics but for their head turned by engineering

I am just wondering if there’s many out there that started off in physics before discovering engineering was more for them, what made you switch?

My degree is in engineering & physics and I find them both interesting and compliment each other well. Although I do like seeing real world applications, hence why my career path will be engineering.
Edit: i actually won’t be doing anymore engineering modules now. I’m going to focus on just physics with added astrophysics and cosmology modules.
 
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  • #28
hazoni said:
i have passion in electrical engineering but my jamb score is 184 and I went for physics
can I change it to electrical engineering when I enter school and which level?
You are a Nigerian?
 

Q: What made you switch from Physics to Engineering?

A: I originally started off in Physics because I was curious about the fundamental laws and principles that govern the universe. However, I realized that I wanted to apply these principles and use them to solve real-world problems, which led me to switch to Engineering.

Q: How is your background in Physics helpful in your current field of Engineering?

A: My background in Physics has been extremely helpful in my current field of Engineering. It has given me a strong foundation in mathematical and analytical skills, as well as a deep understanding of fundamental principles such as mechanics, thermodynamics, and electromagnetism. These skills and knowledge are essential in solving complex engineering problems.

Q: Do you feel like you are at a disadvantage for not starting off in Engineering?

A: Not at all. While I may have started off in a different field, my background in Physics has given me a unique perspective and set of skills that I can apply to Engineering. In fact, many successful engineers come from diverse backgrounds and bring a range of perspectives and ideas to the table.

Q: Was the transition from Physics to Engineering difficult for you?

A: It definitely had its challenges, but I found that my strong foundation in Physics made it easier for me to grasp the concepts in Engineering. It also helped that many of the fundamental principles and equations are shared between the two fields. With some hard work and determination, I was able to successfully make the transition.

Q: Would you recommend other aspiring engineers to start off in Physics?

A: I would highly recommend it. Physics provides a strong foundation in critical thinking, problem-solving, and mathematical skills, which are all essential for a successful career in Engineering. It also gives you a deeper understanding of the fundamental principles that govern the world around us, which can be applied to a variety of engineering disciplines.

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