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Engineering or Physics for Entrepreneurship?

  1. Dec 30, 2013 #1
    Hey guys, I'm new to this forum and joined because I really had limited options on who to ask. Just as a side note (and this is serious, not a joke), if I had the ability to, I'd learn several engineering degrees because my ultimate dream is to be a super-engineer (like Tony Stark), but since I can't, I have choices to make.

    I'm in high school (grade 12) and will be attending a Canadian University (UBC/Queens/McGill/UofT/Waterloo), but not sure what to study. My main goal is to become a successful entrepreneur like Elon Musk, who is my biggest role model and inspiration. What I don't understand is that he got a bachelors in business and PHYSICS, yet his work is almost all related to engineering. I understand he transferred from Queens to PENN for business, but stayed another year for physics. Does that mean he did physics in one year or did he do a double major? Also, is physics better to become an entrepreneur (because of the thinking skills and broad knowledge) or engineering (because of the application skills)?
    My current thoughts for degrees is Electrical Engineering, Engineering physics, and Physics. If I want to become an entrepreneur like Elon, which of these should I take?

    I don't want to be one of those engineers who works behind a desk, or does the same stuff everyday. I want to be creative and analytic like physics majors while having the ability to apply physics like an engineer. I don't want to be a machine, but a self-thinking innovator.
    Whichever degree I choose, I still plan on taking some business courses on the side or minor in business, just for basic knowledge so I know a bit about economics/entrepreneurship.

    Also, what exactly is Engineering Physics? Would job options be as good as electrical engineers, and would I gain the analytic thinking abilities of physics majors? In my scenario, which degree would you say fits me best?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 30, 2013 #2


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    Welcome to the PF :smile:

    I applaud your incentive and forward-looking goal-oriented thinking, especially at this early part of your education and career. One of the key motivational terms I learned early in my undergrad work is "goal-oriented achiever". I think that is a good theme to keep in mind as you move on through your undergrad and early career years.

    IMHO, one of the most important steps toward Entrepreneurship is very strong achievement in your schoolwork (throughout undergrad mainly), coupled with motivated exploration of practical projects. Whichever undergrad major you choose, I'd recommend building some personal projects to start to get a feel for what questions matter (learn to ask the right questions), and also to get some experience in actually making real things happen.

    For example, if you build a simple EE kit project like a signal generator or a radio receiver, you will find yourself asking lots of questions along the way, like why is this used, or why do I make this type of connection instead of this one? And when you feel comfortable moving on to more complex projects, maybe involving microcontroller (uC) kits, or CPLD kits, you will be asking even more complex questions, and learning more and more as you work on the projects. That is such an important adjunct to your schoolwork book learning, especially if you want to move on to bigger projects in the real world.

    Also, it would be pretty rare for you to come right out of school into a startup environment. Instead, my goals were to prove myself in a regular EE job first, then introduce successful new product ideas into that proven EE position next, and then go into the startup environment with a proven track record as a goal-oriented achiever and inventor. That is the track that I'd recomment that you look into (whether engineering or physics doesn't matter too much -- the proven achiever part is the more important part, IMO).

    Work hard, and have fun! :smile:
  4. Dec 30, 2013 #3


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    I agree with Berkeman that for entreprenurial ventures the specifics of the degree are not likely to matter. No program is going to give you a series of lectures that will outline specifically how to generate an idea, develop it into a viable product and make billions selling it.

    Engineering programs will give you a more practical skill set and train you for a specific profession. Physics programs will give you a more academic skill set and orient you towards graduate studies in that field. There is a lot of overlap. You have to look into engineering physics programs because they vary from school to school. In general I think they're basically a set of hybrid programs that give you the professional qualification as an engineer but with more of a focus on emerging technologies. The disadvantage is that if you're really set on pursuing physics at a graduate level, you don't have as much opportunity to explore the various sub-fields to the same extend a traditional physics major would.
  5. Dec 31, 2013 #4
    Thanks to both of you guys for responding.

    I understand Choppy that the degree won't teach me how to develop ideas, etc, but what I am hoping to learn is the skills required to make a certain product, or improve a current product.

    Let's say I want to improve battery packs for electric vehicles, I will probably need engineering/physics knowledge to do that. Also, let's say I want to create new technology like nuclear-fusion powered vehicles. For sure, I'll have to understand engineering, but since it requires so many branches of engineering, should I take physics, engineering physics, or electrical? That's my real dilemma.
    Look at Elon Musk, and I know I refer to him a lot but that's because he started out from nothing and attended Queens (my potential school). He went on to start up Tesla Motors and SpaceX, and is one of the main contributors to the engineering in those companies, yet he studied physics.
  6. Dec 31, 2013 #5


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    The issue, as I'm sure you alraedy know, is that advancements in any of those technologies come about through large collaborations rather than just the efforts of a single individual with a particular background. So really, you could end up working on those kinds of projects with either background.

    From a practical point of view, it seems like engineering is more up your alley than physics, soley because it seems you're more interested in continuing to advance current technologies rather than diving into the "why" questions. Physicists tend to go only so far academically and then end up jumping out of the academic field at some point. Sometimes that can be a good thing, if for example you get onto a PhD project that has immediate commercial applications and you start up your own company. Often we hear about people who've completed PhDs who then have to re-orient their careers in their mid-thirties because they weren't the 1 out of 10 who made it into a tenured position. Engineers on the other hand tend to remain in their respective profession.

    I might recommend a book for you called "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell. He doesn't specifically talk about Elon Musk, but he does talk about others like him (Bill Gates for example) and how some people can accomplish such extraordinary things.
  7. Dec 31, 2013 #6


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    If you want to look at him (or anybody) as a role model, look at the whole story.

    His first recorded business venture was at age 12, selling the source code for a computer game for $500.

    His first big-time business venture was nothing to do with physics or engineering, but finance. Most of his personal attempts to direct the way the company was run were overruled by the rest of the management team, but the end result was that he pocketed about $150m when EBay bought PayPal.

    Once you have that much money in the bank, if doesn't matter what you personally know about physics or engineering. if you want some physics or engineering expertise for your next venture, just hire it at $100,000 a year plus the promise of stock options.

    Judge his personal level of engineering and physics expertise and realism for yourself, by reading his proposals for the hyperloop system.
  8. Dec 31, 2013 #7
    I don't think your degree specialization matters that much. I'm in sort of a similar situation as you, mikey123555. I'm a senior at a Canadian school (Guelph) studying Nanoscience/Physics and currently running a tech startup. I think the most important thing is just to find something interesting and pursue it. Any technical discipline will probably give you a good mindset for solving problems (whether those problems are technical or business problems). Feel free to PM me if you have questions.
  9. Dec 31, 2013 #8
    Yes I actually have that book being sent to my library on hold for me haha! Thanks though for the recommendation.
  10. Dec 31, 2013 #9
    AlephZero, your reply makes a lot of sense and I never really looked at Elon's early projects with that point-of-view. It opened my eyes up quite a bit! I also understand that Elon's first ventures included setting up an arcade with his brother, which also was finance not engineering/physics. Thanks!
  11. Dec 31, 2013 #10
    mikey123555, I'm actually trying to accomplish a similar goal as yours. Except in reverse. You want to go to school and become an entrepreneur. I'm an entrepreneur who wants to (possibly) go back to school. I dropped out of highschool, taught myself programming and eventually ended up founding a couple of my own startups. And now I'm currently working on my own incubator to foster tech startups. It's cool but not Tony Stark cool :P. I definitely understand your drive to be the inventor/entrepreneur wrapped up into one. Its an intoxicating notion. Conduct your own research in grad school and turn it into something that has an immediate impact on the world. Just keep in mind that research can take years, it can demand a huge collaborative effort to even execute, it can ultimately lead to fruitless results, and also the market may not be right or ready for the end result anyway. You have to ask yourself what you really want in the end? Would you like to actually become an engineer, or is it really an entrepreneur you want to become, a CTO, or a CEO?

    Entrepreneurship is about finding problems you're passionate about, and using whatever limited resources you have, and your own ingenuity to transform that problem into an opportunity. The bigger the problem is, the bigger the opportunity. Your role as an entrepreneur is to develop the overall vision and strategy for your company. You choose which product or product lines to produce, which markets to enter in, which partners to align with, your company's culture, its hiring practices, the allocation of its finances, and your team. While it's always a plus to know the technologies of your industry it isn't always necessarily a requirement. So you see, it has a lot to do with managing the human resources around you to solve a particular problem. You find the problem, you find the right people to help solve that problem, and then you champion its solution to other people.

    What does Richard Branson know about the engineering required to build commercial spacecrafts? Well, probably a lot to be honest, but nothing compared to your average engineer. Could he come up with the innovative engineering it requires to accomplish commercial space flight? Probably not. Does it matter? Nope.

    I founded my very first business (A web agency), while knowing very little html, css, php or other very necessary things you need to know to develop websites. I was good at sales though. Sales acumen is an often overlooked skill by aspiring entrepreneurs, but it'll be among the top 3 most important skills you'll possess. You need to be able to sell yourself to your first few hires or partners. You need to be able to not only sell your product or vision to potential customers, but also sell them to prospective investors, partners, co-founders, etc.

    I'm not saying learning technical skills isn't important, in fact most entrepreneurs not only hold BAs or advanced degrees related to their industry but also have significant experience when starting their companies. What I am saying is your most valuable assets as an entrepreneur are your ideas, how well you execute them and how well you use your immediate resources to their best. You will always have access to specialists (who are better at their jobs than you are) around you who will help you execute your ideas better than you could have done alone.

    There IS NO set path that entrepreneurs follow. Some have PHDs in physics, some want to commercialize a technology they developed in the lab, some come from the fortune 500 world with finance backgrounds, while others drop out of school early on. The key is to find the sorts of problems your passionate about and to approach them way an entrepreneur would (i.e. being inventive about it or using a lean business framework). You also have to find other entrepreneurs to learn from.

    Whichever school you go to, or whichever degree/major you pursue, I urge you to check out the Toronto startup scene. Check out SproutUPTO, or Toronto NewTech. Immerse yourself in the reading material, culture and ideas within the startup scene as soon as you can. Compete in hackathons and startup competitions as often as you can (Especially the latter) and you'll get a taste of what it actually means to be an entrepreneur.

    Lastly, your job early on is to validate your business model with the market as soon as possible. Before even thinking about the other things I mentioned. And to see how modern startups do that, please pick up a book called, "The Lean Startup" by Eric Reiss. That will push you in the right direction.
    Last edited: Jan 1, 2014
  12. Jan 1, 2014 #11


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    Very nice post sushifiend.
  13. Apr 13, 2014 #12


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    And the rest? Two bachelor degrees from U. Penn, physics and economics. Accepted to Stanford PhD program (did not ~attend). Tesla Motors? SpaceX? Solar City?

    Why should the engineering accomplishments be credited to subordinates, and that which you believe to be below par be credited to Musk alone?
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