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EE or Theoretical Physics

  1. Apr 24, 2006 #1
    Hello everyone! I'm in 12th grade and having trouble finally deciding what to choose between Electrical Engineering and Theoretical Physics. My real problem is that I love Math and Physics and false modesty apart, I think I'm good at it.( I haven't entered into University yet but presently I study Calculus II . I finished Calculus I about three weeks ago. I want to keep going. All of this by myself) Also, I am not sure about physics theoretical career future in terms of earning a salary. It is quite competent since there are so many brilliant and socially charismatic people out there and so little financial opportunities to fight for. My concern is that I tend to have a somewhat negative perception about EE: circuits, spending years with little things, (I mean physical size). Also, I don’t feel I’m a practical type of person. I find reading and learning theory much easier and enjoyable although I’m fascinated when math concepts are applied to any sort of real thing, especially above all PHYSICS. Everyone around me roots for EE, but except for the money I can’t figure out why. It is just me…

    For any comments, GREAT THANKS.:biggrin:
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 24, 2006 #2
    wow... if you can finish calculus yourself i think you can do more challenging things than just engineering. maybe physics is more suitable.

    at later stage you can switch to engineering from physics, for example doing some engineering research on semiconductor, making use of your solid state knowledge. no one in EE can do that, becaus they don't know quantum mechanics for example.

    i may be wrong.
  4. Apr 24, 2006 #3
    I'm at the same stage as you, grade 12 but i'm about to finish Calc 2 at my local college. Then I plan to do Astrophysics at FIT. I recommend you talk to the department head of Physics whenever you get to looking at a university.
    I was also choosing between Computer Engineering, Astrophysics, and Aerospace Engineering. You are probably more employable as an engineering major, but from what professors have told me you are not going to be out of work for doing a physics field - there are job opportunities, not necessarily ones in Research and Development.

    I think the general consensus is: do what you love most. And make sure you really love it.
  5. Apr 24, 2006 #4
    Yes, you are.
  6. Apr 24, 2006 #5
    EE group at my univ is working on quantum dot (for quantum computing) and physics group is working on Rydberg atom implementation. So EE need to know quantum mechanics and solid state physics too! The main difference is EE don't need to learn QFT or particle physics.

    It depends on what you do. If you want to focus on device physics, then inevitably you work will be on the nanometer scale (and quantum effects). I'm a 3rd year EE and I haven't worked on circuits very much. I had to take two circuits classes. One was more like a math class because you learn how to solve linear ODE. The other one was on transistors, which most schools tend to integrate with basic device physics. I think of circuits as just another tool, not really something you spend your career doing. Even if you go for physics you still need to take basic circuits class.
  7. Apr 24, 2006 #6
    I think that the basic answer here is do what you love, and make sure it's what you want to do. If you do that, eventually everything will fall into place.
  8. Apr 24, 2006 #7


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    I must say that I am truly baffled by the extreme choice that you are making here, as if there's nothing in between.

    On one hand, you have an EE area, which has many hands-on, practical approach. On the other hand, you have "theoretical physics" (and pardon me, I don't think you quite know what exactly that is) which is truly the exact opposite of what an engineer does.

    How come your choices are THAT extreme?! What about being an experimental physics? You get to be as creative as you want in tinkering, building, designing, and running an experiment, AND you also need to know a lot of theories and in depth knowledge of the physics involved to be able to deciper what you're measuring. Some experimentalists even write theory papers!

    So why do the choices have to be such extremes?

  9. Apr 24, 2006 #8


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    This probably isn't true of all universities, but at my undergraduate school (UC Davis), the lower division (first 2 years) classes for EEs and Physics students were pretty much the same. So you can spend a year or two finding out what EE and Physics are really like, and make a more informed decision. At this point in your studies, just make sure that you pick your university partially based on how easy it is to transfer between the two disciplines within the first 2 years.

    In my lower division classes, I found that I really loved Physics, and I liked EE/CS. But in the end I decided to earn my EE/CS degrees and forego Physics, based entirely on the earning potential of EE and the portability of that degree so that I had a lot of options on where to go to work.

    It's now 25+ years since I finished my MSEE, and I'm mostly glad that I decided on EE. Physics is really my first love, though, and I study it whenever I can. The finiancial security that you get with a strong EE degree is pretty hard to beat, and if you link up with a good startup company, you can make early retirement a real possibility.
  10. Apr 24, 2006 #9


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    it's important to be able to recognize what it is you're good at (and what you like) and what it is you're not good at. unfortunately, because of the lure of $$$, there are quite a few engineering students that just ain't good at it. they become the "engineering managers". i used to think that if it was music that everybody and their dog were paying big bucks for, these same mediocre engineering students would be majoring in music instead and be producing all sorts of mediocre music.

    it sounds to me that, in any case, grad school will be in your future. if so, i would recommend (dual) majoring in Physics and Applied Math and when you get your B.S., you could choose to go on to Physics or go into Electrical Engineering with probably only 2 or 3 makeup courses that you would need that would not get graduate credit. almost all senior level EE courses canbe applied to graduate credit as long as it is not more than half of your graduate courses.

    not all of EE is ultra-practical (just take a look at the IEEE Transactions, if you doubt what i say). some EE, especially in signal processing and control theory is very theoretical. it's essentially "pure" applied mathematics. i do DSP for a living and i haven't touched a soldering iron for decades (although i would recommend that you do get some good practical experience with electronics).

    there will be a lot of stuff in common between your two wide choices. Mathematical modelling (and computer programming) using C/C++ and Mathematica or MATLAB.

    being and EE and majoring in EE, i wish i had majored in Physics/Math as an undergrad.
  11. Apr 24, 2006 #10
    As a EE major in the solid state / semiconductor area who's taken the same three QM classes that the physics majors take, I can tell you that yes, you are wrong.

    Fisico, I know how you feel: I found myself faced with the same dilemma three years ago. Obviously, I chose EE, mainly for the financial security associated with it. You may chose otherwise. However, remember that despite what anyone says about doing what makes you happy, like it or not, financial security factors into happiness.
  12. Apr 24, 2006 #11
    You really can't focus on theoretical physics as an undergraduate (generally speaking), so its not a choice you would have to make until grad school. Having said that, you can go to grad school for physics with a degree in physics or EE. You don't have to have your future written in stone before you even start college. Either path you choose with have plenty of overlap and almost all opportunities that would be open to you with one will be open with the other. For now, just choose what you like the most.
  13. Apr 24, 2006 #12
    Thank you so much for every single comment. I found all of them very helpful. I am glad I decided to start the thread. Wow, only a few hours ago I wrote this, and there are ten replys already. You people are great!!
    Like some of the replys state, I think for a situation like this, maybe the best approach should be wait for a while and see what the balance finally points more consistently and solidly into one or the other career. It is obvious also that I don't concretely have a factual descriptive view of what EE may hold in store. Anyways, I have decided to start with Theoretical Physics. The idea mentioned about mixing it up with applied math is seriously appreciated. Again, big five with all of you. Thank you.
  14. May 8, 2006 #13
    First post. Hi all, this seems to be a great forum with very helpful people. Too bad I didn't find it before.

    I'm 27 and finishing my first year of EE. I might be a little late for the race but that’s the way life played out for me. Not because of my knowledge in physics or engineering, but I think I might have a little advice. Don’t worry about it so much right now. You are very early in what it seems to be a very promising career. It doesn’t matter if you choose physics or EE. My opinion is that math, physics and engineering overlap each other in so many ways that you can’t go wrong with any of them. Once you start getting into the higher levels you will have a clearer view of what you want. If what you want is something different, the knowledge that you have accumulated up to that point will only make you a better physicist, mathematician or engineer. So do like I'm doing, enjoy your college years acquiring all the information and skills you can, and in one level or the other it will make you a better physicist, mathematician or engineer.

    Of course thats just a first year student opinion and I might have arrived at the wrong conclusions. Good luck

  15. Apr 18, 2007 #14
    If you like theoretical physics, you would be happy with signal processing or control theory, since they are theoretical. Signal processing is not related with pyhsics, but it is applied mathematics and engineering together.
    But, you can only deal with Quantum Mechanics, Solid State Physics, etc. in EE, if you like experimental physics. A man who like theoretical physics and dislike electronics, and measurements, etc, won't like solid state physics(electronics). But, then signal/control is an alternative for him.
    There are 2 choises in EE:
    1.experimental physics
    2.theoretical EE (No physics, but a lot MATH)
    Circuits are also fun. You will learn some theoretical concepts like Linear Time Invariant Systems, etc. in Circuit Theory. In graduate, circuit branch will become signal processing, which is Fourier Transforms, etc. You don't have to deal with circuit in even circuit branch because since DSP chip is invented filters are mathematical algorithms, not resistors, capacitors, etc. (But, there is possibility that you can deal with circuits in electronics, control, or circuit branch also) EE is a very wide discipline, it inclueds many different jobs.
    Last edited: Apr 18, 2007
  16. Apr 18, 2007 #15
    Absolutely. I would venture to say about half of the EE fields are very theoretical. The line between a lot of EE topics and applied mathematics is very, very fine. There is also plenty of physics/EE blending as well.

    I think a big problem with a lot of freshman students is that they do not understand EE and Physics - they don't see the scope of each field, their wealth of subfields, and the fine line between many of them. It is not the the fault of the student, of course, as they are not taught this in High School and most universities don't do a good job making this point in their intro classes.
  17. Apr 18, 2007 #16
    I was going to post in this thread, until I realized that I did so a year ago! Regardless, my advice last year still stands.
  18. Apr 18, 2007 #17
    Holy crap, I didn't even realize! It's so funny when people bump year old threads - were they reading back that far?
  19. Apr 25, 2007 #18
    I found this thread while searching on google for "what can i do with an ee degree". I'm a third-year EE student, going into my fourth year, and I'm still not sure what I want to do with this degree. I originally chose EE as a major after taking a physics electronics class; I thought it was really cool building little gizmos like counters and ADCs in lab. I've come to realize that EE is just a fancy term for "the study of making tools out of chips and circuits". Now that i know how the tools are made, i feel like i want to be in a profession that actually uses the tools themselves, but i want my knowledge of circuits and comp arch and dsp to better my profession. What options are available for me after i graduate? How will they be dependent on which Senior Design Capstone course i choose?

    I really just want to do some cool stuff with my life, maybe be an astronaut. Can EE majors become astronauts?
  20. Apr 25, 2007 #19


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    What makes you think that?
  21. Apr 25, 2007 #20


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    I think that's a rather naive comment to make. Are you suggesting that everyone who has an undergraduate degree in EE becomes and electrial engineer? :rolleyes:
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