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Math Employability of PhD - Engineering vs Math

  1. Feb 7, 2013 #1
    I want to get a PhD no matter the cost, so I have been trying lately to figure out which exact field I should "major" in in graduate school. I will be graduating with a mathematics B.S., but my main interest is in nuclear engineering (I am taking pre-req NE classes and will be doing a summer REU in NE, don't panic). I know I want to get at least my master's in nuclear engineering, and I want to do my research in nuclear fusion/plasma physics, but I am concerned about the cost-benefit analysis of doing my PhD IN nuclear engineering. I have heard that the private sector cares very little about a PhD in engineering vs. a masters in engineering. That is why I am considering doing the masters in NE and then finishing with a PhD in Applied Math. Is this a good plan? Will it help me stave off unemployment and low wages? Eventually I want to have a research and design oriented job, but I want to be building something that will improve our standard of living in the real world and not sitting in an ivory tower writing academic papers to save my career.

    Another thing that is influencing me to doing this, and this may be a bit naive, but in my opinion one of the greatest engineers to have ever lived, Stanislaw Ulam, was actually a mathematician. When they were working on Project Orion, the main team was composed of a mathematician and a couple of physicists, not engineers, and it would have worked if it hadn't been outlawed. I guess I have been kind of biased towards physics/math against engineering because I have been lightly reading on different famous engineers throughout history, like Von Braun, Ulam, Feynman, Compton, etc...but none of them were actually engineers, rather almost exclusively physicists and mathematicians. Am I being delusional or is there something to this?

    However, with the state of the economy as it is, it doesn't seem like there is much work for physicists and mathematicians, but engineers don't seem to be having too much trouble.
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  3. Feb 10, 2013 #2
    Does anyone have any thoughts on this? Would a national lab research position rather see an engineering phd or a mathematics phd?
  4. Feb 10, 2013 #3

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    A position in the mathematics division will probably prefer a math PhD. A position from one of the engineering divisions will probably prefer an engineering PhD.
  5. Feb 10, 2013 #4
    Thanks! My dream job would be to go into research at Livermore labs on inertial confinement fusion. But lately, I have noticed that I do better in my math courses than I do in physics/engineering courses. I guess I will just work harder.
  6. Feb 10, 2013 #5
    Project Orion was headed by a number of mathematicians and physicists because no one had ever done something like that before, so it stands to reason theorists laid the groundwork. It's not that it was outlawed it's that Freeman Dyson saw in his calculation the fallout per explosion would kill a number of people that he felt was unacceptable; so he signed the treaty mandating the banning of exploding nuclear weapons in space. Had it gone through it would've been optimized and built by engineers; but you should know all three (math/phy/eng) have similar skill sets, and there are alot of very smart engineers out there that do work just as complicated as physicists and mathematicians.

    Engineers have red tape in their favor, industry favors them because their training is directly related to industry. A physicists or mathematician could do the work they do but that would require extra training apart from the bread and butter of their own degrees wereas the engineer's bread and butter teaches him directly applicable skills. I too like the idea of being a jack of all trades so to speak (I'm a physics and EE double major) and I think NE or engineering physics is a good blend of all three math, sci, eng. National labs have positions in theory and experiment and hire all three, and in many departments there are blends of all three in them (I've seen applied mathematics research in NE departments for instance).
  7. Feb 10, 2013 #6
    I'm interested in magnetic fusion myself! What do you want to be? A theorist or an experimentalists? Mixes happen all the time but your goal would probably dictate what you want to learn; experimentalist? More electronics and solid state/laser physics the like. Theorist? More math and theory. Alot of engineers (all of all kinds) work on fusion.
  8. Feb 10, 2013 #7
    Hey! Thanks for the quick response. I like the idea of doing experimental work better than theory, but strangely I tend to get better grades and have better understanding in my math courses than I do in physics/engineering (at least this semester). So I am really not sure at this point all I know is that I want to work in an inertial confinement lab. I'm doing an REU in plasma physics this summer so hopefully I will have a better sense of direction once that's done.
  9. Feb 10, 2013 #8
    A PhD in Engineering is not usually considered to be particularly practical. It is good if you're doing research in to very new methods. It is good if you're teaching. It is good for making impressions.

    Nevertheless, Engineering is usually a very practical field. There is typically not much room for academics unless you're trying to develop something so radical and new that nobody has ever built anything like it before. Even then, experience usually counts more than academic learning.

    I can tell you first hand, my professors from a very respectable school, were very light on experience and very heavy on theory and math. That sort of approach is almost a guarantee of mediocre performance, if not outright failure. I don't mean to be rude, but there usually isn't much financial return on the investment for someone who seeks a PhD in Engineering. Like many PhD certifications, it is useful for scratching a mental itch that you may have; but unless you have a very detailed and well backed plan for doing something with your research, it won't impress most employers.
  10. Feb 10, 2013 #9


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    Your advice applies to certain fields (like automotive) but for the semiconductor industry, for instance, it does not apply. Many engineering positions in that field demand a PhD as it is a high tech industry that requires an advance degree.

    Also, a PhD shows you can plan and follow through on a major project with little direction.
  11. Feb 11, 2013 #10
    Thanks for the opinions. What if a Phd student were to do full time internship work at an engineering firm over the summers when generally little to no graduate classes are taught? Would that be satisfactory experience? Over a 4-5 year period one could probably accumulate 1-2 years worth of industry experience, albeit spaced at intervals.
  12. Feb 11, 2013 #11
    Don't you think you will be too busy with research to intern as well? If you spend two years not working on your PhD then your PhD will take two years longer. I have known PhD students who interned in grad school. Not from physics, but from chemistry. They did it for less than a year and were paid from their internship, not their professor, during the internship.

    I can't imagine an adviser being ok with you putting your research on hold every summer while you intern.
  13. Feb 11, 2013 #12
    The fact that there are no other things like teaching to worry about is why summers are the most important times to be doing your primary research work at the university.
  14. Feb 11, 2013 #13
    If that's the case, I might recommend doing simulations in a fusion program. About half my friends from my program are working on NIF - three did simulations, one did hardcore theory, and two did experiments. Only one of the six actually did Ph.D. work directly on inertial confinement fusion. However, all of them went to the same pretty good program and all are US citizens (it helps at the weapons labs).
  15. Feb 11, 2013 #14
    Not really true, depends on the specialty. If you want to do circuit design at the cutting edge, a masters is all you need. If you want to do control systems or solid state at a high level a Phd has advantages and industrial value. In general, though, from a pragmatic standpoint, the Phd has no advantage over a masters (from what I've heard, I just know this from engineering friends, I'm not actually in engineering).
  16. Feb 11, 2013 #15


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    I agree with your comments in general, but at most places I've worked, the very top technical slots (chief technical officer, technical fellows, that sort of thing) required a Ph.D.

    At my current employer, we certainly hire Ph.D.'s, but only some of them work in researchy sorts of positions. The rest are doing the same jobs as someone without a Ph.D, e.g. software developer. A Ph.D. gets you the title "scientist" instead of "engineer", but the pay scales are the same, so for example a principal scientist gets paid the same as a principal engineer.
  17. Feb 11, 2013 #16
    This dovetails exactly to the point I made. If you are working at the bleeding edge of semiconductor fabrication, a PhD is helpful. If you are working at the bleeding edge of development for building, say, a space elevator, a PhD is helpful. However, if you're trying to design the next electric car, you need to be a very pragmatic, hands-on sort who has seen what breaks, why it breaks, and have some notions of what you'd like to do about it. That sort of experience doesn't come from a classroom or a lab.

    The key thing to understand is that for every engineering job out there, only a very small fraction might actually benefit from the rigor of studying for a PhD. And while such positions often do come with significant prestige, you won't likely become financially independent this way. I know. It somehow seems unfair that you can study so hard; be this smart, and yet, you are bested by all those C students who studied business administration, partied hard, and went in to marketing. But that's the reality of our society. Rant about it all you want, but it won't change a thing.
  18. Feb 11, 2013 #17
    I disagree. A PhD shows that you investigate to the edge of what is known and push a little further. It does not prepare you for the full experience of designing something for use by the public.

    A PhD can't be used to hold you legally liable for your work. In contrast, a PE can. A PE shows you've been involved in projects with mentors to show you how things are often done in reality. A PhD usually does not make claims of business, management, or ethics experience to handle large projects.

    When the budget goes in to many millions and even billions of dollars; when the scope of the project affects critical infrastructure for millions of people; when decisions include usability, public safety, ethics, timelines, marketing, financing and politically determined design criteria THEN you can talk about what a real project is.

    A PhD can get a PE certificate, but so can many others in pretty much the same amount of time. The moral of the story is that Engineering is the welding of academics and application. You will need a solid grounding in both to make things work.

    Let it be said that a PhD in Engineering has its place, particularly for projects at the very edge of the state of the art. But if anyone here thinks you can march out of a University and straight in to a high level responsible, technical position, you are deluding yourselves.
  19. Feb 12, 2013 #18


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    A PE is generally not all that necessary for many fields of engineering (except for civil and power distribution industries). While it is a respectable credential, it is not generally something that can enhance your career that much in most fields.
  20. Feb 12, 2013 #19
    There are lots of places which soak up new PhD's in certain fields though. Arizona State University where I'm at pretty much pumps most of the new physics Phd's into industry, mainly Intel and related smaller companies, and increasingly biophysicists are winding up in new biotech start ups. I do know of Phd's in engineering with similar outcomes.

    But it's the aggregate that matters, I suppose.
  21. Feb 15, 2013 #20
    Honestly, I don't see the point in a phd in engineering unless your interested in the material sciences. The only other one I know that is valued is pertroleum engineering, it's not because you know more, but the fact many companies will give you more $$$ for having it so you increase your earning potential by 10-15%+ over a masters in some fields which when you talk about oil money is major cash.

    Materials sciences is the majority of research nowadays. Other things just lie into novel engineering applications of said materials or your university is contracted to make something for a company or organization. At least that's all I saw when I graduated last year.

    If you want to work at a national lab physics, material sciences, and EE's are largely what are employed but I don't think the EE's are design engineers and to be honest to be a credible design engineer isn't going to happen till your old (probably in your 40's minimum). Pick a field of material engineering or a section of physics you like and aim for academia or something else (you got to be top notch if you want this though ... not an easy path).
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