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Does a physics background combine better with ME or EE industry jobs?

  1. May 16, 2014 #1
    As the title asks, does a physics background combine better with EE or ME for industry jobs in America? Which engineering field would have more jobs for someone like that?

    I'm talking in the context of someone double majoring in physics and ME/EE or doing an engineering physics degree.
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  3. May 16, 2014 #2


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    I don't think combining Physics with EE or ME would significantly increase a candidate's prospects. Employers most likely won't care about the Physics major. EE and ME are quite a bit different in approach, some people love one and dislike the other, and vice versa. You should choose between EE and ME based on your interests, not on which fits better with Physics from an employment standpoint.
  4. May 16, 2014 #3


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    A lot of people on here always say that EE is the closest engineering field to physics, But I do not know for sure since I haven't studied any EE.
  5. May 16, 2014 #4
    That is a very tough question to answer. So I won't. Instead, I'll tell you what I do and how that overlaps with MEs and EEs I work with.

    I design medical devices and the assembly lines on which they are produced. Most of the work of designing an implant overlaps with the kind of things an ME is educated to do, and not so much for an EE. Unless you are designing an X-ray machine, in which case the reverse is more true. The work of designing the assembly line calls on the talents of both MEs and EEs, usually working together to design machines. My own role is in the specialty of process engineer, rather than design the machine, I spec out what the machine needs to do, validate the machine when it is built, write procedures to run the equipment, and train machine operators to use the machine. I haven't seen very many EEs do this job, but a great number of MEs, as well has ChemEs.

    In my career, I have found use for both ME and EE concepts. I'm not sure I could tell you which one fits "better". I think either could work, but you are likely to find very different career options depending on which you choose.
  6. May 16, 2014 #5
    Wouldn't a background in physics be good for nanoelectronics engineering? Doesn't that field require knowledge in quantum physics/statistical mechanics?
  7. May 16, 2014 #6
    I don't have any pat answers because both ME and EE are very broad fields of practice. Basically, you're looking at a degree in theory and you're asking how applicable it is to a field of practice. You're looking at one hell of a learning curve either way. The differences between the two are dwarfed by the practical shortcuts that you'd need to learn to practice in either field of engineering.
  8. May 16, 2014 #7


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    I would say there is just as much theory in EE education as there is in physics (having both a BS in physics and EE). I don't know if you have ever completed a physics degree, but there are a lot of useful practical skills that can be gained in a physics program.

    Maybe waste water treatment plants don't require much physics knowledge, but advanced semiconductor device design and processes in the semiconductor industry, for instance, are a good match for the skills obtained in a physics program. In fact, the process engineer jobs for Intel, for example, specifically call for either a physics degree of engineering degree (and most as for an MS or higher).
  9. May 16, 2014 #8


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    yes, physics is a good background for nanoelectronics.
  10. May 16, 2014 #9


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    I agree with this. I have both an EE degree and physics degree. Most jobs outside the semiconductor industry call for an engineering degree of some type. The HR drones usually don't understand the value of a physics degree.
  11. May 16, 2014 #10


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    I do agree with jake's comment though. You will have a steep learning curve when you get to industry regardless of what you major in.
  12. May 16, 2014 #11
    Most people can build something that works once. Keeping it working properly and safely under all the conditions you're likely to encounter is the art of engineering that nobody seems to teach in school. Only those with hard-won experience and mentoring can do it.

    And by the way, physics is not what wastewater processing is about. There is a lot of microbiology, chemistry, fluid dynamics, telecommunication and electrical power design, and so on. The study of physics is interesting, but barely sufficient to get your foot in the door.

    Most of all, we depend upon each other to keep an eye on some very subtle dangers that you'd never guess at. For example, years ago, we had some workers in an open silo of activated carbon. They were installing an ultrasonic level sensor. The activated carbon had reduced the oxygen supply at the bottom of the silo, even though the top was open to the air around them. It was lunch time and someone wondered where they were. They were passed out from hypoxia at the bottom of the silo. Thankfully a quick thinking welder heard the commotion. He cracked open the valve of an oxygen bottle and lowered it down next to the workers. The men recovered in time for the ambulance to cart them away to the hospital.

    This is the kind of place I work in. The dangers are not always obvious. They don't teach it in physics class, but you do have to think about problems like this when designing a process. This is the sort of thing that I think about when I mention that learning curve.
  13. May 16, 2014 #12


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    I didn't say or imply that I thought waste water treatment was easy. I am just saying that a physics major does indeed learn applicable skills. They don't teach that stuff in engineering school either. Not sure what point you are trying to make.

    But to say "physics is theory" and "engineering is practical" is an absurd assertion to make. Some fields of engineering DO make use of physics principles.

    The OP is asking what field of engineering makes use of physics extensively and I gave an example.
  14. May 16, 2014 #13
    I do have a physics degree, and - in general - I strongly disagree.
  15. May 16, 2014 #14


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    Might be a difference between schools then. That is unfortunate for you. I learned a lot about designing experiments that I didn't learn in my EE degree. I assume you don't have an engineering degree to compare to. Engineering degrees are A LOT of useless theory too. I have even thought engineering was too much theory.

    Things that were hand waved in my engineering classes were rigorously explained in my physics classes. Physicists and engineers gain very different thought processes, but they both can have their uses.
    Last edited: May 16, 2014
  16. May 17, 2014 #15

    Actually they do teach that kind of stuff in engineering school. A big part of engineering is safety, so yes they do spend a fair amount of time addressing things like that. I'm a nuclear engineer, which is the most regulated field ever so maybe that's why we cover safety and things like that so much
  17. May 17, 2014 #16


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    Not in EE....at least at my school. But clearly, NE is different and more emphasis will be on safety in that field. I have an EE degree and we didn't cover it much, so my school or field is an example that counters your statement.

    Ryuk, I would recommend majoring in the engineering field you are most interested in regardless of which field makes the most use of physics. I admit that I double majored in physics and EE because the EE major would ensure I get a job but I also had a strong interest in physics too but that was more just an intellectual itch I had to scratch.
    Last edited: May 17, 2014
  18. May 17, 2014 #17


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    Also, I agree with this. Usually the HR people recruiting engineers have no idea what a physics major does in school and the physics major will not help you get a job.
  19. May 17, 2014 #18
    No, based on the difficulty physics BS holders typically have getting a job, this is pretty widespread. The poor foundation the physics BS gives has been unfortunate for lots of people (though it worked out okay for me).

    I've never heard of an example of "designing experiments" taught in a physics undergrad curriculum I thought was a "useful practical skill", but I believe you when you say your program taught you such.
  20. May 17, 2014 #19
    They did (somewhat) at mine.

    It's not absurd at all. It's very true, and is essentially the difference between engineering and physics. I'd imagine that every field of engineering is based on physics principles and their practical application, as that's essentially what engineering is.
  21. May 17, 2014 #20

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    I do not believe you wrote what you meant. If you disagree with the statement that one can gain useful practical skills, you are saying you cannot. Not that people often don't, or that you didn't - that it is impossible. Somehow a physics degree taints you and prevents you from learning useful practical skills.
  22. May 17, 2014 #21
    It prevents you from learning practical (marketable) skills because you are spending your time and money learning physics and doing esoteric research instead. Sure, one can learn useful skills before or after a physics degree. One can even learn useful skills outside of the program in spite of the time and money the degree consumes.

    My undergrad was an average program. What I learned in the curriculum is not useful for a potential employer. The basic circuits course maybe... But even then it was far to basic to be of any real use to an employer.
  23. May 17, 2014 #22
    Physics is about discovery. Engineering is about building something better using the existing experience, standards, and technologies that are known to work. It isn't just about the scientific principles. If this was just about learning science, you'd be absolutely right. A physics degree would suffice. But it isn't, and so it doesn't.

    That said, Engineering educations, though they try to instill this sort of understanding, often fall short. Yes, I have met engineers who knew nothing but science and mathematics. They're hopeless idiots. I once knew a guy tasked with designing a stepper motor controller. He didn't realize that he had a defective multi-turn potentiometer. He spent TWO WEEKS looking for that sweet spot where the circuit gain would be just right for it to work. He had no practical experience to tell him how much his time was worth, how the circuit should have behaved if the gain wasn't correctly configured, or what a defective part might do.

    Now I'm not suggesting that a physics student would have done the same thing. But my point is that this is not strictly a technical endeavor. Economics, Ergonomics, and failure modes are a huge part of this, and while they don't teach engineering students nearly enough of this, Physics students get even less.

    Could a physics student learn this? SURE! You might also ask if an physics student could be a hairdresser, a psychologist, a politician, or an author of fiction.

    Physics is a degree for a generalist, in much the same way as a degree in mathematics is a for generalists. You could branch off in to many other areas. I'm not here to tell you it can't be done. But you shouldn't trivialize what others do by declaring that a physics student knows the technology, therefore it should be easy. It is not.
  24. May 17, 2014 #23


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    Exactly how much time and money does a regular BS program in physics take up that would prevent the students from acquiring or learning practical (marketable) skills?

    For example, I think there is a consensus that programming is a useful/marketable skill, and it is something that is not usually taught in most regular physics undergraduate programs (nor in most regular math programs, for that matter). However, I know many physics students who have strong programming skills (acquired before or during their studies), and I know many physics students who take computer science courses, enough to earn a minor or a possible double-major, just like I know many math students who double major in computer science.
  25. May 18, 2014 #24
    I have degrees on physics and engineering, and I agree with Jake in that the most useful skills required to build dependable, safe solutions in a pragmatic and cost-effective way are picked up on the job and by learning from experienced colleagues.

    That said, there have been aspects of projects I did as a student that came very close to this real-life learning experience:

    As a master student in physics I had to figure out how devices work and maintain 'my' experimental setups. Other students showed me tricks how to find vacuum leaks quickly. As an engineering student I learned how to apply my existing programming skills to simulating, say, wind turbines.

    However, the point I am trying to make here is that these most useful skills were not really part of the curriculum - it was self-paced learning or learning in a peer group.
    The university either provided the infrastructure - such as lasers and the option to 'hire' technicians to build stuff (as for physics) or it provided the contact to real-life 'customers', such as the operations manager of a wind power plant who 'contracted' us team of engineering students.

    This role of a university is not to be underestimated and I am grateful for these learning experiences. But I think had somebody with a BSc degree not been enrolled in a master's or PhD degree program given the same access to equipment or "job opportunities", he/she would also have picked up the same skills while simply doing the job.
    Last edited: May 18, 2014
  26. May 18, 2014 #25
    I am from Europe, I try to answer nonetheless in order to stay on-topic: I think a physics degree gets useful from an employer's perspective because / when you specialize in something - working towards your master's degree (for the reasons explained in my previous reply - practical experience in projects).

    Here those specializations in 'physics' are often very close to some sort of engineering - it depends on the taste of the university if this is called [XY] physics or [XY] engineering (... nano, laser,...)

    What I am trying to say here is that you have to specialize as a 'physicist' anyway - and if you do experimental work this can get rather close to engineering. So you can pick either a subfield in physics that is closer to EE or to ME. I think there is no universal answer to your question.
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