Engineering physics or Mathematical physics

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  • #1
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Hi,

So I'm with a real dilemma and I only have a few days to make a choice. My situation is the following: I'm 18 years old and next year I'm going to start university in Canada (Montreal). I have already applied in engineering physics and got accepted. However, the problem is that I'm really A LOT more interested in mathematics (especially mathematical physics or pure mathematics, I have no interest for statistics, finance, computer science, etc.). The only reason I applied in engineering physics is because I've been told that job opportunities in mathematical physics are practically nonexistent. So I took engineering physics because it is the most "mathematical" of engineering majors. However, I made this choice months ago (the limit date to apply for both majors was March 1st) and now I see that the limit date for mathematical physics has been postponed ... and I'm kinda regretting my choice every time I compare the math classes (physics classes are practically the same in both programs) in engineering (only 7 courses in 4 years) vs. the math classes in mathematical physics (+15 classes) so I'm really tempted to change and go to MP, but I'm still discouraged by my family, friends, professors, etc. I can't picture myself not doing analysis, abstract algebra, number theory, etc. which are subjects I've always been interested in.
I would be also very interested to pursue my studies for a master and eventually a Ph.D. Concerning the jobs, any job where I would do mathematics would be perfect for me, and I'm ready to work in another city or country (outside Montreal)...

So my question is the following: should I stick to engineering physics, where I'm a little less motivated but sure to get a good job, or switch to mathematical physics which I prefer...

Thanks a lot !
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
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I don't know what to tell you in such a situation, and there's going to be people that will urge you to listen to your heart and then there's going to be others saying you should compromise and go with engineering, because it's "close enough". I also can't really compare employment prospects, though I guess viewed in general they could be better with engineering physics in a way (that doesn't mean you'd be sure to land a better position choosing the latter over mathematical physics, though). Still, I personally would go (and have gone) with what I liked, not what I thought would give me the best job prospects. Sure, you pay attention to this, as well, but it's not like one choice of studies is a dead end, and the other one a gold-paved pathway to paradise.

I just think we're in a sad state of affairs if people that are obviously itching to do something else choose another major only because they think it will give them better employment prospects. We're already going full-circle and back to the Middle Ages as far as working hours are concerned, and I would have hoped we'd at least be left with the choice of what to study.
 
  • #3
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I don't know what to tell you in such a situation, and there's going to be people that will urge you to listen to your heart and then there's going to be others saying you should compromise and go with engineering, because it's "close enough". I also can't really compare employment prospects, though I guess viewed in general they could be better with engineering physics in a way (that doesn't mean you'd be sure to land a better position choosing the latter over mathematical physics, though). Still, I personally would go (and have gone) with what I liked, not what I thought would give me the best job prospects. Sure, you pay attention to this, as well, but it's not like one choice of studies is a dead end, and the other one a gold-paved pathway to paradise.

I just think we're in a sad state of affairs if people that are obviously itching to do something else choose another major only because they think it will give them better employment prospects. We're already going full-circle and back to the Middle Ages as far as working hours are concerned, and I would have hoped we'd at least be left with the choice of what to study.

Hi Ryker and thanks a lot for your time and answer!
I totally agree with you when you say that everyone should do what he wants, and I can assure you that the money is not the problem (if I'm guaranteed to find a job in MP, even 2-3 times less paid than EP, I would take the former).

One option that came to my mind when I was trying to determine which major to take, was to go in MP, do my master and my Ph.D (that would really be my dream), and then, if I find no employment, I still can take an engineering degree, which I suppose wouldn't last more than 2 years (because I would've taken a lot of math and physics classes already, so I'd only have the "engineering" classes).

However, I've been told that it would be better for me to do the opposite: start with EP and then take independently the courses I want from MP.

The problem is I heard that in engineering, professors and students consider math to be a tool rather than something absolutely wonderful as I view it. So even in the math courses, proofs are omitted and everyone only concentrates on the applied problems...
 
  • #4
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I'm really A LOT more interested in mathematics (especially mathematical physics or pure mathematics, I have no interest for statistics, finance, computer science, etc.)

Concerning the jobs, any job where I would do mathematics would be perfect for me

Here is the problem- you don't seem to want the majority of jobs where you do mathematics. The jobs where you do math are largely jobs where you program, work in finance or insurance, and require statistics. If you get a phd in mathematics or mathematical physics, most of your job opportunities will be things like finance or insurance. If you are ok with spending 4 years at university than 6 on your phd, and landing a nice paying job in finance or insurance, then by all means do mathematical physics. If you won't be happy with a job in finance or insurance, you need to seriously think about your decision.

With engineering physics, you have a much better chance of moving into a more technical field. The more applied you are, the easier it will be to move into a traditional technical field (doing mechanical or electrical engineering work somewhere).
 
  • #5
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Here is the problem- you don't seem to want the majority of jobs where you do mathematics. The jobs where you do math are largely jobs where you program, work in finance or insurance, and require statistics. If you get a phd in mathematics or mathematical physics, most of your job opportunities will be things like finance or insurance. If you are ok with spending 4 years at university than 6 on your phd, and landing a nice paying job in finance or insurance, then by all means do mathematical physics. If you won't be happy with a job in finance or insurance, you need to seriously think about your decision.

With engineering physics, you have a much better chance of moving into a more technical field. The more applied you are, the easier it will be to move into a traditional technical field (doing mechanical or electrical engineering work somewhere).
Hi,

Thanks for you answers, and I understand I wasn't very clear.
Actually, I don't think (I might be wrong though ...) I can work in insurance or finance with a degree in math-physics. There are majors in statistics, finance, actuarial, etc. specially designed for this kind of jobs. I think people in mathematical physics would rather be professors or researchers, or be hired in companies in technology to work with engineers for example.

Also, if I can get a job in any of these fields, I wouldn't say no. However, what I meant is that I don't want to study these courses, I'd rather study the mathematics of physics rather than the mathematics of economy.

But again, maybe I'm wrong. It's just the way I see it...
 
  • #6
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I think people in mathematical physics would rather be professors or researchers, or be hired in companies in technology to work with engineers for example.

Everyone I know with a phd would love to be a professor or researcher. Unfortunately, there aren't many of those jobs, and competition is incredibly fierce. The majority of phds won't get to work as professors. The 'normal' career path for a phd nowadays is outside academia.

If your goal is to be 'hired in companies in technology', you'll need an applied background- programming skills, some experience with bench work, etc. i.e. you need the skills developed by engineering physics.

Actually, I don't think (I might be wrong though ...) I can work in insurance or finance with a degree in math-physics.

You would be wrong. I know lots of theoretical physics and math phds who work in insurance and finance. The reason is that insurance and finance are heavily data driven, and require very good math skills as well as an ability to program. Unlike more traditional technical fields, no bench work required.
 
  • #7
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I agree with Ryker and ParticleGrl!

I would also (and I have) rather selected lectures and majors following my personal preferences and I have moved to different fields / jobs later. But at the university I had thought if I select a specific field I need to stick with this for the rest of my life. I think this was was mainly due to my impression from the career path of some professors I met - they were basically working on similar stuff that they already covered in their PhD theses 30 years earlier.

So in retrospect I would not change anything I did. But I probably would not have worried so much about the consequences of 'specialization' and I should have been aware of the fact that I will change my focus anyway every few years.

I was probably lucky since I was interested in building stuff and working in the lab. If you like pure theory most, I would consider the development of additional skills, as ParticleGrl said:

If your goal is to be 'hired in companies in technology', you'll need an applied background- programming skills, some experience with bench work, etc. i.e. you need the skills developed by engineering physics.

I think it is important to talk to people from industry and academia well before you graduate - in order to obtain realistic insights into your options.

E.g. when I graduated I was totally unaware about the options available in IT and management consulting. Years later I had turned into an IT consultant. But at the university I was so clueless that I did not realize that there was something like consulting business that may offer some interesting options that are very appealing to a natural scientist (as I learned bottom-up later). Anything outside academia was called 'industry' at the university and I associated the term 'industry' with manufacturing, engineering and R&D. I just thought that consultants were the evil guys wearing suits that tell managers in industry how to minimize costs and fire people.

But indeed there is a broad range of technical consulting jobs that require in my point of view both hands-on and/or theoretical knowledge very similar to the academic skillset.
 
  • #8
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Hi and thanks again to elkement and ParticleGirl for your precious answers !

I indeed know that you don't specifically have to work in the domain you've majored in (I talked with a physics professor, and he told me that one of his students did his Ph.D in astrophysics, and is yet working in Exchange market). However, I thought that this kind of things don't happen often and that you must likely will have to continue in your field...

But I still can't imagine how industries would hire a mathematician who studied physics over a mathematician who studied finance, economy or computer science ...

Thanks for everything!
 
  • #9
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I indeed know that you don't specifically have to work in the domain you've majored in (I talked with a physics professor, and he told me that one of his students did his Ph.D in astrophysics, and is yet working in Exchange market). However, I thought that this kind of things don't happen often and that you must likely will have to continue in your field...

Not the way things work. There just aren't enough in-field jobs. How many industries need astrophysicists to do astrophysics? How many need particle physicists to do particle physics? None, and none. In fields that aren't very applied (with little industry demand), most people (something like 9 out of 10) won't get a job in the field.

If your end goal is to get a job doing traditional technical work (R&D, engineering) you are much better off studying something more applied.
 
  • #10
323
1
Hi,

So I'm with a real dilemma and I only have a few days to make a choice. My situation is the following: I'm 18 years old and next year I'm going to start university in Canada (Montreal). I have already applied in engineering physics and got accepted. However, the problem is that I'm really A LOT more interested in mathematics (especially mathematical physics or pure mathematics, I have no interest for statistics, finance, computer science, etc.). The only reason I applied in engineering physics is because I've been told that job opportunities in mathematical physics are practically nonexistent. So I took engineering physics because it is the most "mathematical" of engineering majors. However, I made this choice months ago (the limit date to apply for both majors was March 1st) and now I see that the limit date for mathematical physics has been postponed ... and I'm kinda regretting my choice every time I compare the math classes (physics classes are practically the same in both programs) in engineering (only 7 courses in 4 years) vs. the math classes in mathematical physics (+15 classes) so I'm really tempted to change and go to MP, but I'm still discouraged by my family, friends, professors, etc. I can't picture myself not doing analysis, abstract algebra, number theory, etc. which are subjects I've always been interested in.
I would be also very interested to pursue my studies for a master and eventually a Ph.D. Concerning the jobs, any job where I would do mathematics would be perfect for me, and I'm ready to work in another city or country (outside Montreal)...

So my question is the following: should I stick to engineering physics, where I'm a little less motivated but sure to get a good job, or switch to mathematical physics which I prefer...

Thanks a lot !

Some of the advice people have given you is insightful, but just from reading this post I can tell you like physics/math better than engineering. I can only recommend you go for what you like. There's plenty of people that land jobs in engineering, or land big mon.ey making jobs, but wish they had done what the originally wanted(usually physics) versus being so concerned about the job market.

My personal views are that you are really only guaranteed one shot at life, so why not do what you enjoy? You aren't going to be a bum with a physics degree. I hate how that seems to pervade these forums.

One alternative though....have you considered a double major? You could double major in engineering physics and math or something. Sounds quite challenging, but that way you could make everyone else happy, and satisfy your own interests as well, without any "loss" in job opportunities.

And for the love of god, dont get a PhD in physics with the intent on working in finance or something of the like. Leave that to the business and finance majors.
 
  • #11
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Not the way things work. There just aren't enough in-field jobs. How many industries need astrophysicists to do astrophysics? How many need particle physicists to do particle physics? None, and none. In fields that aren't very applied (with little industry demand), most people (something like 9 out of 10) won't get a job in the field.

If your end goal is to get a job doing traditional technical work (R&D, engineering) you are much better off studying something more applied.

Well, the way I see things is that I'm really more interested in the "learning" rather than the "working". So I would just like to study physics and mathematics and have a good understanding of the universe. That's what really fascinates me. However, once I get my degree, I wouldn't mind working in insurance or finance as you said (although I must say I would prefer something R&D), because I would've already accomplished what I wanted. I would nevertheless like to have a job involving mathematics (not completely outside the field...).

So I guess my question is the following: are people from math-physics really needed in the industry outside their domain (let's say in insurance), even if they don't master it as well as an actuary for example?

Some of the advice people have given you is insightful, but just from reading this post I can tell you like physics/math better than engineering. I can only recommend you go for what you like. There's plenty of people that land jobs in engineering, or land big mon.ey making jobs, but wish they had done what the originally wanted(usually physics) versus being so concerned about the job market.

My personal views are that you are really only guaranteed one shot at life, so why not do what you enjoy? You aren't going to be a bum with a physics degree. I hate how that seems to pervade these forums.

One alternative though....have you considered a double major? You could double major in engineering physics and math or something. Sounds quite challenging, but that way you could make everyone else happy, and satisfy your own interests as well, without any "loss" in job opportunities.

And for the love of god, dont get a PhD in physics with the intent on working in finance or something of the like. Leave that to the business and finance majors.

Hi and thanks for your answers!
As you said, I like math/physics a lot more than engineering. And I would really prefer to go in MP, and if it were just for me, that's what I would do. If I don't find any job, I can still take engineering classes and work as an engineer. But I would at least have done what I wanted first ...

Problem is, I'm kinda pushed by entourage to do something where I can find a good paying job quickly, without staying at the university for an eventual master of Ph.D (a major that can guarantee me a job with only a B.S.)

Concerning the double math/engineering major, that would be a good idea but I don't think this kind of major exists here, I'll nevertheless do some research and see! thanks a lot for the idea!

Finally, I don't intend to work in finance with a Ph.D in physics or mathematics, but if that's all I can find as a job, I wouldn't say no! As I said above, I'm more interested in the "learning" rather than the "job"
 
  • #12
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Not the way things work. There just aren't enough in-field jobs. How many industries need astrophysicists to do astrophysics? How many need particle physicists to do particle physics? None, and none. In fields that aren't very applied (with little industry demand), most people (something like 9 out of 10) won't get a job in the field.


If your end goal is to get a job doing traditional technical work (R&D, engineering) you are much better off studying something more applied.

Seriously? Two theoretical astrophysicists were hired as full time professors at my uni last year. Just because some people can't get a job in theoretical physics, doesn't mean others can't. Its fine to make people aware of what they may be getting into, but attempting to discourage this person from following his "dream" because he might have to end up working in finance 10 years from now is somewhat sickening.

His goal isn't to do technical work, he likes theory and mathematics.
 
  • #13
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Its fine to make people aware of what they may be getting into, but attempting to discourage this person from following his "dream" because he might have to end up working in finance 10 years from now is somewhat sickening.

His goal isn't to do technical work, he likes theory and mathematics.

Relax- no one has suggested he drop his dream. You are acting like engineering physics and mathematical physics are radically different things, which simply isn't the case. The core physics classes will be pretty much identical. The differences will be small things around the edges. More math courses in mathematical physics (maybe a required real analysis or abstract algebra course), more engineering oriented courses in engineering physics (maybe some design oriented courses, probably more programming courses, etc). This isn't a question of whether to study physics, its a question of what sort of electives (more or less).

Also, its much easier to learn mathematical physics as a hobby. Pick up a text book and read, play around with some problems. Its very difficult to pick up experimental skills. Learning those experimental skills and having some engineering/design experience can open the door to a lot more traditionally technical jobs. Most people I know who studied physics hoped to do physics for a living, and having that bench work helps.
 
  • #14
AlephZero
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His goal isn't to do technical work, he likes theory and mathematics.

I think the root cause of the problem is that the OP doesn't have any goal at all, beyond studying something interesting university for a few years.

Wake up to the fact that this is the start of the rest of your life. You are making decisions that will affect you for 60 years or more, given average life expectancy.

It 18 is too young for you personally to take on that sort of decision, you might be better taking a year out from education (ideally, somewhere very different from your home and school environment) rather than "sleepwalking" into a default option.

Your statement
However, once I get my degree, ... I would've already accomplished what I wanted.
sounds hair-raising IMO. You really mean you are imagining living for more than 3 times as long as your whole life so far, without any ambition or motivation???
 
  • #15
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Seriously? Two theoretical astrophysicists were hired as full time professors at my uni last year. Just because some people can't get a job in theoretical physics, doesn't mean others can't. Its fine to make people aware of what they may be getting into, but attempting to discourage this person from following his "dream" because he might have to end up working in finance 10 years from now is somewhat sickening.

His goal isn't to do technical work, he likes theory and mathematics.

Hi nlsherrill,

you replied to ParticleGrl, but I want to respond to your reply as well. I do not want to discourage any student interested in theory and mathematics. As I said, I also studied what I was most interested in (I might have been lucky to like experiments).

The less applied your studies are, the more I would try to acquire some additional skills that might be needed in industry (like programming etc.) There are numerous discussions in this forum on how small the chances are to 'make it' in acedemia no matter how hard you work - I will not comment on this, there are more qualified insiders here.

But I think with any dream or goal you might follow in life I would give the following advice: Never ever bet on THE one and only option. Probably the university (<= PhD) and school are the only systems where you can 'make it' (that is: get good grades), if you are talented and work hard. As soon as you enter the arena of any job-related 'system' that offers a limited number of 'slots' there are simply factors you cannot control, like the economic situation at the time you graduate or the number of equally talented competitors.

I believe the best strategy here is to research different options as early as possible. It will not make you less focussed or goal-oriented in my point of view, just a bit more relaxed.

I do not know anything about the details of 'finance jobs for physics PhDs', but I could imagine the situation is similar than with 'IT jobs or consulting jobs for physics PhDs'. If you do some research or talk to people that actually work in these jobs, you might discover that this is not a consolation prize for people who did not manage to realize their academic dreams, but that these are options of equal value. These jobs might be able to meet another goal or requirement that you have - but that you are probably not aware of yet.

I am really speaking of experience here. I also wanted to go for 'pure science', but I discovered later that I also need to work with customers - with clients who immediately need what I build right now. I found it so much more rewarding to deliver probably trivial engineering and software stuff to somebody who would give feedback right now - than being payed by the taxpayer or some agency to 'solve the universe' (no judgement intended - just my preferences).

What I am trying to say: At the university it was not at all clear to me that I had this desire to directly interact with clients. Probably I would have discovered earlier if I would have done more research on what different jobs are really about.
 
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  • #16
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Also, its much easier to learn mathematical physics as a hobby. Pick up a text book and read, play around with some problems. Its very difficult to pick up experimental skills. Learning those experimental skills and having some engineering/design experience can open the door to a lot more traditionally technical jobs. Most people I know who studied physics hoped to do physics for a living, and having that bench work helps.

This is excellent advice - I fully agree! I am also still learning mathematical physics as a hobby today.
 
  • #17
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@ParticleGirl: I guess you're right, engineering seems the right path to follow and as you said I could always learn theory on my own!
@AlephZero: I can see your point of view, but I'm not worried about my future job for one reason. Not because I won't have any ambition or motivation as you said, but on the contrary, because I am and have always been the kind of student that likes and enjoys every class (except social sciences, i.e. economics, history, etc.)
Mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, statistics, probability, etc. are all classes I have loved and are topics I continue to study on my own when I have the time.
However, I prefer mathematics and physics and that's why I want to study them more. But I wouldn't mind working (or studying) in any of the fields I mentioned above!
@elkement: I know I should speak with people in the different fields, but I don't have contacts and the only thing I could do (and have done) is to speak with professors. The problem is when I speak with professors of engineering, they tell me I should major in engineering (and give me arguments such as job prospectives, money, and that I wouldn't be too far from what I like...) When I speak with math and physics professors, they tell me I should pursue my dream and go into MP or else I'll "be sad and unhappy for the rest of my life"...
That's why I posted here, to get a more objective point of view!
PS. One of the main reasons that got me thinking of switching to math physics, apart from the math classes I won't have in engineering, is that I spoke to a girl who went from mechanical engineering to mathematical physics because she HATED the ME after one year of studying it (like me, it was because of the lack of mathematics...). That's why I'm worried to do the same mistake!

Thanks to everyone who takes the time to help me, it's REALLY appreciated!
 
  • #18
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@elkement: I know I should speak with people in the different fields, but I don't have contacts and the only thing I could do (and have done) is to speak with professors. The problem is when I speak with professors of engineering, they tell me I should major in engineering (and give me arguments such as job prospectives, money, and that I wouldn't be too far from what I like...) When I speak with math and physics professors, they tell me I should pursue my dream and go into MP or else I'll "be sad and unhappy for the rest of my life"...

I understand - but aren't there any options for career consulting or the like at your university? I am from middle Europe and my fomer university is e.g. organizing events where graduates share their experience in industry and answer students' questions. I also had been invited twice to talk about my career at such events.
 
  • #19
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Now that I think about your situation again, I would recommend you stay in engineering physics for the time being. The EP and MP courses will probably be very similar, if not nearly identical for the first two years, so this is easily enough time for you to decide whether you want to switch to MP or stick with EP. If after two years you switch, you probably won't be behind by much if at all either, so you can still finish in four years.

It is important though, that you learn how to program. This will probably be more emphasized in EP, but if you end up going with MP then I highly recommend you learn at least 2 programming languages on your own, or in a class that is offered. In my physics and math courses we've had more programming assignments more often than I thought, and at first I hated it, but now I see this is actually what real researchers do, and it makes computation easier once you get used to it.

Enjoy the journey whichever path you take.
 
  • #20
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Now that I think about your situation again, I would recommend you stay in engineering physics for the time being. The EP and MP courses will probably be very similar, if not nearly identical for the first two years, so this is easily enough time for you to decide whether you want to switch to MP or stick with EP. If after two years you switch, you probably won't be behind by much if at all either, so you can still finish in four years.

This is an important point. Check with your school to see how much overlap there is between the different programs. Most universities in Canada are pretty good about letting you switch major part way through. I would suggest getting the basics done and then revisiting this question again in a year.
 
  • #21
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@elkement: Well actually, the only talk that has been given is the one I mentioned: the girl who went from ME to MP. According to what she said, physicists are needed in the industry, but less than engineers. However, she said that it compensates given that more than 200 engineers graduate every year while only 30-40 physicists graduate... (I should mention that I'm more interested by mathematics than physics... I mean, if I had to pursue for a master or Ph.D, I would pick mathematics!)
@nlsherrill & Sankaku: I had already thought about this and after asking the universities, I've been informed that the physics classes in both programs are the same, so I won't have to retake them. However, the math classes in engineering physics are NOT recognized in mathematical physics, while the math classes from mathematical physics are recognized in engineering physics (and that is because MP has math classes of 4-6 credits while in engineering math is generally 2-4 credits)
 
  • #22
AlephZero
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@AlephZero: I can see your point of view, but I'm not worried about my future job for one reason. Not because I won't have any ambition or motivation as you said, but on the contrary, because I am and have always been the kind of student that likes and enjoys every class (except social sciences, i.e. economics, history, etc.)
Mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, computer science, statistics, probability, etc. are all classes I have loved and are topics I continue to study on my own when I have the time.
However, I prefer mathematics and physics and that's why I want to study them more. But I wouldn't mind working (or studying) in any of the fields I mentioned above!
So far, I guess your life experience has mostly been of "school", where as a general rule you get rewarded to doing what other people tell you to do, and if you also enjoy doing it that is a bonus.

At "university", and even more so at "work", the rules are very different. My concern is that you haven't yet realized that fact. Nobody would expect you (or anybody else about to start university) to have fully figured out all the implications of the difference, but it's a good idea to understand there is a difference, otherwise it might come as a big surprise.
 
  • #23
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So far, I guess your life experience has mostly been of "school", where as a general rule you get rewarded to doing what other people tell you to do, and if you also enjoy doing it that is a bonus.

At "university", and even more so at "work", the rules are very different. My concern is that you haven't yet realized that fact. Nobody would expect you (or anybody else about to start university) to have fully figured out all the implications of the difference, but it's a good idea to understand there is a difference, otherwise it might come as a big surprise.

Thanks for the heads up! I'll pay attention to this next year ;)

Thanks to all of you who helped me, it's really appreciated. I think I'll stay with engineering physics for a year, and then switch to mathematical physics if I really don't like it... I'll nevertheless register for the analysis class in the math department !
 

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