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Engineer whose true passion is physics

  1. Aug 19, 2015 #1
    Hi All,

    Recently I graduated with a BSc in mechanical engineering. I excelled greatly in studying engineering, and finished at the top of my class.

    I'm 27 and didn't start my degree until I was 23. I didn't graduate high school at 18 (I dropped out after never having applied myself in junior or senior high school) and decided at at the age of 20 that I needed to at least finish my high school education. I started with a grade 11 math course. For the first time in my life, I applied myself academically. I found that I loved math. I excelled at it. I then did the remaining math courses (including introductory calculus). I loved those courses too. I found calculus beautiful. After that I completed the high school physics and chemistry courses. I loved these courses. It was awe-inspiring to learn about nature from a logical, analytical perspective.

    After I finished up my high school courses, I decided I would enter university. My father is an engineer and so naturally I was inclined to study engineering. I thought that since engineering involved mathematics, physics, even chemistry in some disciplines, that I would love engineering since I loved all of these subjects. So I applied and was accepted to engineering.

    At the time I was naive and didn't realize that engineering is itself not science. I didn't realize that engineering is about design. I didn't realize that it wasn't physics. I didn't realize that it didn't even involve physics unless a particular problem required use of physics. I certainly didn't expect to learn so little new physics during my engineering studies. It was MY mistake for not doing thorough enough research to really figure out if engineering was for me. But hindsight is 20-20 and I'm not sure now if, even if I had done more investigation into what engineering really is about, I would've not studied it.

    Despite all this, I did enjoy many of my engineering classes. I enjoyed the fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, and dynamics courses that are fundamental to mechanical engineering. I guess I enjoyed all of the theoretical courses that do, in many respects, touch on the physics of certain phenomena (without really learning any new physics, if that makes sense). For example, in advanced fluid mechanics I was in awe of the idea of using a converging-divegring nozzle to accelerate subsonic to supersonic flow. I found it incredible that shocks could develop and that, across these shocks, a sharp discontinuity in flow properties could exist. I also loved the sequence of math courses I took. While most people hated ODEs, I loved them. I loved multivariable calculus. It was so beautiful and interesting. Triple integrals on arbitrary 3-dimensional bodies and the Divergence Theorem left me in awe. I will say that the only lectures I ever sat through and was truly happy to be there were my math lectures.

    Then came mechanical design. Oh god how I hate mechanical design. I took a mechanical design group project course in each of my 2nd, 3rd, and 4th years (3 courses in total). I hated these courses. It's difficult to explain why. I will say that I hated the "team" aspect. I hated designing something arbitrarily and analyzing it in an ad-hoc way. I just completely hated the conceptual, detailed, and final design stages of design. I hope never to have to design a mechanical thing again. I'm not sure if it's specifically mechanical design I hate, or design in general.

    From the first term of my freshmen year, I felt this weird feeling. This feeling that I should be studying physics rather than engineering. I'd watch Feynman lectures on YouTube while doing statics assignments in 1st year. After my 2nd year, I seriously considered switching to physics. I didn't listen to my heart though. I didn't realize that the past two years were a sunk cost. I continued on and graduated last April.

    At my graduation, I wasn't even happy to be graduating. It was an empty feeling. Now, here I am, posting on this forum. I've been unable to land a job. I've had interviews, but I think employers do pick up on the fact that something about me is not right. I'm not passionate about engineering. They can understand it simply from the tone of my voice. I feel in many ways depressed simply because I feel like I'm not following my heart.

    I could, now, spend the next three years taking undergraduate physics courses before applying to grad school for a PhD in physics (should I want to go that route). I'd do undergraduate research and hopefully that would be enough to bypass an MSc.

    I could also see if it would be possible to enrol now, or in a year perhaps, in a physics MSc, and do undergraduate courses while I start researching whatever my thesis topic would be (if it is even possible to perform coherent research without first establishing a solid foundation in modern physics).

    A third option could be to seek out an engineering professor who does research that blurs the line between engineering and physics. I know one such professor in the department that I graduated from who collaborates on fundamental fluid mechanics research with a professor from the department of physics at the same university. I could then jump straight into an engineering MSc with research that partially satisfies my interest in physics. However, I would only learn more about fluid dynamics. I wouldn't learn about modern physics which is what I would really like to do.

    The problem I am having is realizing that I'm 27. I live at home still and society tells me it's time to move out, to get married, and to have kids. If I choose to spend the next 7 or 8 years in intense study, all of that may be put on hold. And at that point, who's to say I won't be unhappy for having spent 7 or 8 years studying when I could have been doing those other things?

    I'm sorry for such a long post and would appreciate any advice anyone may have.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 19, 2015 #2

    Vanadium 50

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    Then you will hate a career in science as well.
  4. Aug 19, 2015 #3
    Follow your heart, not the ticking clock and the expectations of society.
  5. Aug 19, 2015 #4
    I'm not so sure. The "team" aspect in courses is much different from the team aspect in real science. Too often in courses, team members are poorly motivated and don't contribute much. Other than the occasional student, I've found most team members in real science to be highly motivated timely contributors. Not being limited to team members from one class or constrained to a course project schedule are also huge advantages. It is easy enough to add the right talent or to graciously bow out of a partnership that isn't working.
  6. Aug 19, 2015 #5
    Science interesting in theory, and boring in practice. Engineering is boring in theory, and interesting in practice. In my opinion, just to be clear. I am certain there are a lot of people on this board who would disagree. I really liked my undergraduate physics coursework, and I really disliked my undergraduate physics research. This is an individual experience, and one shouldn't overgeneralize, but my point is that what you do in school, and what you do after school may not map well to each other. The thing about a mechanical engineering degree is that is prepares you for an activity that most mechanical engineering graduates never do. There is a subset of mechanical engineers who will spend their time doing mechanical design in the way you practiced in school. Some people really like that, and those people gravitate to those jobs. Most of the rest end up doing something a little different. Mech E is a broad field, and graduates end up doing a lot of things that bear very little resemblance to what you did in school. Plus, as Dr. Courtney noted, the team environment outside of school is very different than in school. I cannot think of any team I have ever worked on that resembled what went on in an engineering design course. Others probably have different experiences, but that is precisely the point: there is a lot of diversity here.

    Out of curiosity, have you worked in your field at all? Any internships or co-ops? What about the work experiences of your father? If you have some experience, and you hated all of it, then your feeling that engineering is not for you may be right. Go find something else you like better. If not, then your feelings may not be well-founded. Feelings can tell you things, but they are often untrustworthy. Feelings need to be validated against reality, especially if you are planning on investing 7 years of your life in a course of action.

    In my opinion, your idea of doing an MSc with a professor you already know, who does research you already find interesting, is a good plan. You might find that you really like that kind of thing, and decide to plunge further in. It would at least give you the opportunity to go deeper than you did in undergrad, which sounds like what you want. You should keep in mind that any graduate education is going to be specialized. The further you go in school, the more specialized you become. Modern physics is a *very* broad thing, and any course of study will only give you a taste of what is out there.
  7. Aug 20, 2015 #6
    Do YOU want to have kids? you have the intelligence to hack engineering and math, but not the intelligence to think outside the box instead of blindly following "society"? And you're just gonna have kids (another human being with feelings) even if u don't want them because society tells u to?????

    if you wanted to have kids, this would be probl if you were female. but males window of time is less tight
  8. Aug 20, 2015 #7


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    First of all, my question to you (the OP) is, do you actually want to get married and have kids? I find it perplexing why people feel pressured to have to marry and have children, as if this is some type of requirement for all people. I will be turning 40 this year, am single, and am happy & successful with my life, and at no point do I feel like I need to justify my life choices. I'm not necessarily ruling out marriage in the future, but if I were to spend the rest of my life being single, I don't feel that I'm missing out on anything.

    Of course, perhaps you may feel differently about this, so this is a personal decision on your part, but I would say that you should pursue what you think is in your own best interest, not what others tell you.

    Just my 2 cents worth on that topic.
  9. Aug 21, 2015 #8
    I should have been more clear. It's not that I hate team work, I just hate what team work usually becomes. In any design project I've been a part of in school, the "team" identifies pretty early on that I care about doing well and am willing to do more than my fair share of work. This leads to me basically carrying the entire project on my back and doing most of the work.

    Someone once told me that in any team setting 20% of the team does 80% of the work. In my experience this is completely true. It also doesn't help that the remaining 80% of the team takes all the credit for the project and gets rewarded. I understand this stuff happens in all walks of life, not just engineering. I just feel it is particularly bad in engineering where the "team" aspect is pushed so hard.
  10. Aug 21, 2015 #9

    H Smith 94

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    Hi there! Admittedly, I have little knowledge of what an engineering course is like and little knowledge of what a physics job is like. I am a physicist working (rather unsuccessfully) in an engineering role. I can tell that my physics knowledge and skills could be useful if I could put it in engineering terms, which I just can't.

    I think being a physicist with in-depth engineering ability could be a huge advantage to you in both the real world and in academia. I may be biased in encouraging you to do physics (as a physicist) but it certainly sounds like it's what you want to do, so go for it!
  11. Aug 21, 2015 #10


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    In the aerospace industry there are always many very difficult problems to solve . Once a week regularly , and sometimes more often , a meeting was held where i worked to progress some of the more stubborn , urgent or long outstanding problems . Always a very senior engineer in charge and attended by engineers with interests in the particular problems , some regular specialists and a good collection of odd bods .

    To have experienced the sparkling interchanges between the people there is something I will never forget . Complex problems were bounced around and solutions found in minutes - sometimes in seconds .

    That's how team work functions at the higher levels of engineering .

    I also had some similar experiences in more informal meetings around a drawing board . Problems didn't just get solved - they got thrashed .

    Team work between knowledgeable people in industry or scientific research has almost no commonality with 'teamwork' in a classroom environment
    Last edited: Aug 21, 2015
  12. Aug 21, 2015 #11
    A job is a job. A passion is a passion. For most people it isn't the same thing ,which also has it's advantages.
  13. Aug 23, 2015 #12


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    One will find professional teams quite different from student teams, since members of professional teams are (hopefully) highly motivated to solve a problem, and each will have some experience to bring to bear on a given problem.

    Engineering, and physics for that matter, is a broad area that encompasses many disciplines. Even the discipline of mechanical engineering has many facets (Aerospace & Defense, Automotive, Construction & Building, Energy, Environmental Engineering, Bioengineering, Manufacturing & Processing, Transportation, as well as many hybrid disciplines or sub-disciplines). One may find oneself doing chemical engineering or materials engineering in conjunction with mechanical engineering, and one can specialize or generalize according to one's interests.

    One does not practice engineering or science in isolation.

    Besides engineering or physics, there are programs that off applied physics or engineering physics. I would encourage any engineer to take as much mathematics and physics courses, in addition to various electives in other engineering disciplines, which is what I did.

    Furthermore -
    One projects a rather distorted perspective of engineering, perhaps because of a lack of experience.

    Engineering is afterall applied physics/science, and there is a lot of physics and mathematics in engienering. Design is only one aspect of engineering, which is as much an art as an applied science. There is the aspect of manufacturing whatever one designs, including material selection, and designing the manufacturing processes involved in realizing the design. There is also design analysis, i.e., how does the design perform in it's intended environment, and this involves a lot of computational engineering/physics and numerical analysis. Then there is failure analysis, which is a forensic science.

    These days, there is a lot of science/physics in engineering one many scales from the atomic level to km scales, and everthing in between.

    Consider the career of Thomas Jaeger (excerpted from a biography by Dr.-Ing. Klaus Brandes) - "In 1979, Thomas Jaeger was awared the Distinguished Service Medal of the Federal Republic of Germany at the instigation of the Senate in Berlin." He had become a "Civil Engineer because he was prevented from studying physics in the former GDR" (he was born in Wroclaw, Lower Silesian Voivodeship, Poland, and eventually studied at TU Dresden). Although "he did not go on to build great bridges or towers, he had been able to combine his fascination with physics, particularly nuclear technology, with a knowledge of structural engineering in such a way as to achieve remarkable accomplishments in a brand-new field." He established an international conference (SMiRT) that continues these days, as well as a journal, Nuclear Engineering and Design, with North-Holland Publishing, now under Elsevier. Jaeger died prematurely at age of 51, but achieve phenomenal success.



    I've worked with a number of engineers over the years, and many of them have had some background in physics, as well as engineering, particularly those in nuclear engineering. I've worked with some who were among the generation that developed the foundations for FEA and CFD.
    Last edited: Aug 23, 2015
  14. Aug 24, 2015 #13
    Perhaps you should look at some of the fusion energy projects, They likely all need
    someone who is both interested in Physics, and has mechanical Engineering capabilities.
    As part of such a team, you would be a resource, and also have the opportunity to continue
    your education.
  15. Aug 25, 2015 #14
    Thank you for sharing this! I am keen to hear what you end up doing. I am in a similar situation except i am only two years into my robotic/mechatronic engineering degree (double of computer science), and it wasn't until about last year that i really started to want to pursue math more.

    Anyway, i could go on about various things i have in common with this post but i just thought i would let you know your post and these replies are helpful to my decision making.
  16. Aug 26, 2015 #15
    Same situation...damn... mechanical design bores me to death...
  17. Sep 2, 2015 #16
    If you did a very good BSc, you may be able to get a PhD research position for 4 years - and that necessarily includes scientific work. :smile:
    Moreover, quite some people get married while doing their PhD; that does not need to be a relevant factor to consider.
  18. Sep 13, 2015 #17
    I'll add my point of view as I believe it is different from what's already been stated, it may also be somewhat controversial.

    In the end, most of advanced (post-university level) physics uses very similar skills to advanced engineering. You have, in general, a highly complex problem to solve (the probability a 'flash of insight', a la relativity, will solve the problem is vanishingly small). This problem is sufficiently complex you do not even know the best way to solve it and most commonly other people will be required as well. Modern engineering is pretty much geared up to solve these sorts of problems. Thus if you do not like engineering you won't like most of advanced physics. As a concrete example, getting a scientific paper published involves many of the detail-orientated aspects of an engineering design and is the basis for your continued employment in academia.

    From your description you actually liked mathematics, due to its elegant insights. Perhaps it is mathematics that you are interested in? However I feel I should point out that even advanced mathematics is a messy, often computer aided, topic. It is important to remember those elegant insights you like are usually gained by copious amounts of dead ends, blind guesses and fortuitous conversations. This is not the narrative usually described in reports of the work!

    To summarise my advice, any area will have aspects you wont like, you need to learn how to deal with them. I suspect you will run into the same issues if you change area.
  19. Dec 29, 2015 #18
    I have the same exact problem and all your feelings towards mechanical engineering and physics represent me completely ...the main difference is I'm in my 1st year in ME...I'm very confused and don't know what to do.
  20. Dec 29, 2015 #19
    Why do you say computer aided like it's a bad thing? Is it not known that just about all jobs today use computer aid in one way or another, and that STEM jobs especially use them heavily?

    And though you're correct that math is very messy high up, I feel like just about any area of research/inquiry including solving engineering problems gets messy higher up. So while you're right, the way I understand it the messiness will already be similar to what the OP is experiencing/has experienced in engineering beforehand.

    I myself do not have experience in any sort of advanced field, so correct me if I'm wrong about these things.
  21. Dec 29, 2015 #20
    If you're a high school student, you probably shouldn't be responding to threads like these. Thanks.
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