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Engineering Engineering Job with a Physics Degree

  1. Jul 12, 2012 #1
    I am an incoming high school senior in the greater Pittsburgh area who is interested in studying physics at the collegiate level. My plan is to eventually get a PhD in Physics and work at a research position at a university. That is a PLAN. I am aware that academic/research jobs are not incredibly plentiful, and I want to be employable even if graduate school does not work out or if, after getting my PhD, I am unable to secure a job at a university or a similar lab. My secondary interest has always been engineering, aero/astronautics to be specific. I have heard that Physics majors have no problem getting engineering jobs but I am nonetheless concerned. What are your experiences with such situations? Additionally, outside of academia, how is the market for physicists? And any other tips and tricks that could help me out moving forward!
    Thank you in advance for all input.

    EDIT: I plan to minor in engineering, Will that help?
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2012
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 12, 2012 #2
    I have heard of physics majors having a lot of problems getting engineering jobs. It depends. For a Ph.D. level person, if you studied compound semiconductor materials and processing you'll have engineering recruiters knocking down your door. If you studied experimental particle physics, you'll be calling them, instead.

    As far as the job market, since you're a senior in high school, anything anyone will tell you will be a guess since 10 years is a LONG, LONG time for that kind of thing.

    • The government could gut research funding, which would hurt the job market.
    • There could be a war/tension and the government could increase research funding, which would help the market.
    • There could be an economic boom based on personal comms devices, which would help the market.
    • There could be another crushing financial crisis leading to a deep recession, which would hurt the market.

    See where I'm going with this? The answer is nobody knows. The best advice is always to follow your passions while keeping your options open, and whatever you choose to do, do it bloody well.
  4. Jul 12, 2012 #3
    I am also considering a minor in computer science or engineering, will that help employ-ability?
  5. Jul 12, 2012 #4
    If you're getting a job right out of undergrad, sure. If you're getting a PhD people don't really care too much about your minor. It depends on your skill. I have a minor in statistics which has been helpful in my work, but no one cared during interviews.
  6. Jul 13, 2012 #5


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    Staff: Mentor

    I'm just about at a level where I would have input into hiring decisions at my engineering firm and I would not even consider hiring a person with a physics degree because:

    1. They don't really want to be an engineer, so their performance might suffer.
    2. They don't really want to be an engineer, so they might quit as soon as they find a physics job.
    3. They probably have a higher education level and would want more money or would be unhappy with less.
    4. The education doesn't quite fit the job, so more on the job training would be required -- despite having more education.
  7. Jul 13, 2012 #6
    To Mr. Watters,

    Would passing the FE exam (or initial PE exam, I'm unclear on the distinction between these) demonstrate a real desire to be an engineer and therefore sufficiently enhance the candidate's appearance on an application?

    In general, how CAN a physics degree-holder demonstrate that they do want to do engineering work?
  8. Jul 13, 2012 #7


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    I am new to this forum. Please somebody explain me how can i post questions?
  9. Jul 13, 2012 #8
    select "new topic", above "threads in forum"
  10. Jul 13, 2012 #9
    At the company I work at (silicon industry), there are a few physics/chemistry majors working as engineers. In general, the expected level of education is higher. A PhD in physics is somewhat expected to get a job. If you major in engineering, a bachelor's is much more acceptable. Higher degrees really are not even expected as an engineering major (though they are still appreciated).

    On a side note, the two physics majors I've encountered have been some of the best employees to work with. I don't know if this is a self-selecting effect, or if the major fosters greater understanding, but I appreciate the "physicist approach" of completely understanding the situation before attempting a solution.
  11. Jul 13, 2012 #10


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    Staff: Mentor

    Taking the FE would help, but it won't keep the interviewer from asking the obvious question: "if you really want to be an engineer, why did you get a physics degree?" I don't think there's any answer you could give that would impress the interviewer.
  12. Jul 13, 2012 #11
    I disagree with Russ Watters, but only a little. If someone came to me with a degree in physics and they had taken the FE, I might consider them.

    However, be very aware that there are certain trolls in every large company called Human Resources Specialists. These are people whose job it is to winnow down the field so that only people with the appropriate pieces of paper are qualified.

    I wish it were different, but these trolls have effectively made it nearly impossible for you to even apply to large companies, unless you have exactly the right certificates. Experience doesn't count. They don't know how to count experience. They are learned in the law and in the political limits of how to hire people without getting sued.

    So be careful how you market yourself. Don't lie, but try to put your degree and status in such a way that someone who lurks in the Halls of HR will recognize your skill set for what it really is.
  13. Jul 15, 2012 #12
    To Mr. Brodsky and Mr. Watters,

    Wow, unfortunately, you seem to be confirming something that I only realized after receiving my degree: that it does not matter what my intentions for pursuing the degree were (*), that the perspective of HR might be what is most important in being hired.

    I am curious: if I obtain a masters degree in an engineering discipline, will this rectify the situation?

    (*) I actually wanted to gain a more fundamental and rigorous understanding of what was going on in an engineering discipline (materials), and this was my intention for pursuing math and physics.

    EDIT: Of course, thank you for your insight, especially with regard to the existence of Human Resource Specialists! I am curious, what certificates can I earn that would be useful for getting a job in (Electrical) Engineering?

    I'm thinking that Computational Electromagnetics might bring my background to fruition, is the demand for professionals with this skill set strong?
  14. Jul 15, 2012 #13
    You missed something I wrote: These people used to be called personnel clerks. It used to be that they wouldn't stand in your way if you chose to hire or promoted someone without documentation. Well, that's changed.

    If you say Computational Electromagnetics, eyes will glaze over and your resume will go to the shredder. If you say Engineer in Training, after having passed the FE, then you have documentary proof that you're an engineer. Your degree may say physics, but at least they can point to something that has the key-words Certified Engineer in it.

    Take the FE. Pass it. Then you can write those magic words that even a troll in HR can understand. Trust me, they do not know that engineering is based upon physics. They couldn't care less. But they are "smart enough" to understand key-words.

    Welcome to the real world of bureaucracy and the law. If my instructions didn't nauseate you too much, you'll go far.
  15. Nov 16, 2012 #14
    I've got a masters degree in Physics and I've got an Engineering job. The trick is to sell your skills in the job interview, focus on your analytical and numerical knowledge.

    With a physics degree you have much more flexibility in your degree than the narrow focus that an engineering degree will give you. You will also find that Physics teaches you a much greater level of mathematics and gives your more insight into engineering problems.

    Unfortunately, as this thread shows, some Engineers believe in the superiority of their degree over everyone else. Really, I've found these engineers the hardest people to work with, and usually they are closed to new ideas. Remember when you go for a job interview, as well as being questioned, you need to find out about the company and the people you work for. You certainly don't want to work for someone who believes physics degrees are for lower mortals.
  16. Dec 7, 2012 #15
    Many of my physics-grad-student colleagues are employed doing some programming-related work. Of the physics majors I know who work in the private sector, nearly all do some programming. For many of them, that's almost all they do.

    That does not necessarily mean you should minor in CompSci. It's now well-known that a CS degree does not imply "I can code well." But my colleagues' experience suggests that an ability and willingness to write code greatly increases the number of possible jobs you might get.

    I learned some Python and C/C++ as a physics grad student. I didn't take any classes, but I read textbooks, practiced by myself, and got help from other grad students who are very skilled programmers. Now about 30% of my resume refers to programs I've designed. Learning to code was also super-useful for my thesis. I needed to test my theories by simulating sample paths of matrix-valued stochastic differential equations, so I wrote my own custom software. It took a lot of time, but learning the nuts and bolts of numerical methods gave me a much better understanding of fancy math topics like Stratonovich integrals, perturbation theory, and Lie groups.
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