1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Engineering? Physics? What could I do?

  1. Mar 29, 2015 #1
    First, a small(ish) backstory on me. I have loved physics most of my late teen an adult life. Not just pop-science stuff, the ability to explain the workings of everyday life in math is very intriguing to me. I had pretty rough grades in my Texas high school, due to my participation. I skipped most school days to work. I had the ability to do well in school, I only passed due to my high test grades in all my classes, I just didn't do most of my work. I didn't skip class because I didn't enjoy school, I skipped because I enjoyed money more. I would make $300-$400 everyday I skipped class. I would usually end up with about $1200 a week when all the work was done. I was a money and power hungry 16 year old kid.

    After high school I looked heavily into college but ended up taking a job in oil and gas pipeline construction. At 18 I was bringing in about 70k a year. I moved up quickly and became a foreman at 19 and superintendent at 20. On my 22nd birthday I was promoted from superintendent to project manager making around 150k a year. I was 20+ years younger than most of my employees and spent plenty of time getting odd looks from across boardroom tables. I don't say any of this to brag. I am telling you all this in hopes to get across my determination by seeing what I am leaving behind.

    Fast forward to now, I'm 26 and working as an independent consultant in the oil and gas industry. Specifically in pipe manufacturing and corrosion protection. The past couple of years have been boring and empty. My career is still going great but I have found how pointless chasing money is. It doesn't excite me like it used to. But my affection for physics remains.

    I spend most of my free time sharpening my math skills or flipping through several second hand college text books I have ordered, all in an attempt to keep my mind sharp. I have a wife and one son. About 8 months ago my wife sensed my emotions towards my work and we agreed at the end of this year I would start college in hopes of starting a new more fulfilling career. My first thought was a physics degree. I would start off in a community college before transferring after two years. But it sounds like jobs you get with only an undergraduate physics degree wouldn't be very fulfilling. So I would need grad school. Would I stand any chance trying to get into a grad program as a then 30 year old with two years of community college making up my undergrad degree? Would I be able to do it with a family even if I could? My wife works and makes enough money to support us. But how much time will it take from my family? Would I put putting my family in the poor house? All of these questions are pushing me into going for an engineering degree. I just don't know if engineering will be the right answer. I really don't know what to expect from this post l. I guess I'm writing this to help me sort out the things in my head. If you have read this far, thank you. I would love to hear your opinion.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 29, 2015 #2


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    It would be very hard to get into a grad program without an undergrad degree (unless you are specialising in something as specific as oil and gas pipe corrosion technology where you would have at least some competitive edge over other candidates). I would highly recommend doing an undergrad degree (maybe ask to skip a few years if you feel it's really necessary). It's impossible to rush true understanding.

    It is very possible to do a degree with a family. A degree will take as much time from your family as you want it to. The more time you spend on your degree, the less you will spend with your family, but the better your knowledge will be. You'll have to manage your time how you want.

    From what I've read, it seems to me like you should be able to afford a degree. If you're worried about that, you might want to find a degree in which you can work part time too.

    From purely observing the engineers at Cambridge, they seem to have more work in general than the Physicists (relating that to time with family). It also depends on why you want to study Physics. If you want to be able to apply your physics to the real world, building bridges, robotics, engines etc., then engineering is for you. If, like me, you don't care about helping people and want to just learn fundamentally how the universe behaves and get a deep understanding of life and science in general, Physics would probably be more fitting. Engineers often use tools (Mathematical, Physical or otherwise) which work without knowing why, which bugs me, but not people who prefer engineering). There are other Physics/Engineering like courses that you may want to consider e.g. Materials Science. In terms of job opportunities after, Physics and Engineering are both respectable and so I wouldn't say that choosing one over the other would "Put you in the poor house".

    I would remind you however, that life is long enough to do more than one degree. You don't necessarily have to pick. You could even do an undergrad in Physics and a Grad in Engineering.

    Hope I have helped
  4. Mar 31, 2015 #3
    Thank you. I plan on doing an undergraduate degree. I am just not sure where my focus should be. I prefer physics and learning how the world works, but only slightly more than engineering. I am far more driven to understanding how and why things work they way they do than using that knowledge to build something new. But starting at 26 would I be at more of a disadvantage than most while trying to obtain a physics degree? I guess I am asking which would be a better career path at this stage in my life? Or are they both similar in pros and cons? Sorry for the vague questions.

    I have not considered getting an undergrad degree in physics and a grad in engineering. It appears I need to do more research on the subject.
  5. Apr 2, 2015 #4


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Depends what you want to do for a career and what you to receive from your career (i.e. money vs happiness etc.). If you want to go into research, Physics typically allows more choice (e.g. you can go into research with other natural sciences), whereas Engineering is more confined. If you are thinking of a job in building spacecraft or Large Hadron Colliders or microchips etc. then it really depends on what exactly you want to contribute, but both are typically fine. If you don't want to work in Physics or Engineering specifically e.g. finance, then either is good, so I would suggest Physics if you prefer it as a subject.

    Your age shouldn't necessarily give you a disadvantage if your knowledge is the same. Many people do more than one undergrad course. They might be about your age when applying for their second.

    Hope this helps
  6. Apr 2, 2015 #5


    User Avatar
    Education Advisor
    Gold Member

    My advice is to look into petrol engineering or mechanical engineering. You will expose yourself to lots of science and with your background, probably actually do very well. On top of that, you can probably attend via distance learning or online for many of your classes. Make sure you enroll in an ABET accredited program and you will be setting yourself up for obtaining a Professional Engineering license in your future.

    I kinda believe your current plans would put you on a traditional path that would likely cripple your income potential and not be as rewarding to an outdoor, hands on type such as yourself. I am sure you have rubbed elbows with a few engineers and know whether my advice applies to you or not.

    Good luck with whatever path you choose.
  7. Apr 3, 2015 #6
    I would like to work in physics or engineering specifically. I don't see my self in finance or something equivalent. I would like to make an average income doing something I love. I have made a lot of money and found that it isn't as satisfying as it sounds. Just for extra info I have been on both sides of the fence. I grew up low income and I do know what it's like. I don't want to be there again, but I would be OK with an average income.

    Thank you for your input. I am actually not much of an outdoor type. I succeeded by being an exceptional problem solver compared to the people around me. My current job I sort of fell into and excelled enough to rapidly move up the ladder. I have been around quite a few engineers. I have far more in common with them than I do with the people I work with on a day to day basis. I have been considering mechanical engineering. Seems to be a good fit for me.
  8. Apr 3, 2015 #7


    User Avatar

    Staff: Mentor

    With the other pieces of your background you listed, I'd also look into materials science/engineering. I definitely agree that you should leverage your existing expertise/experience rather than abandon it.

    Also, I know you are young and get the impression you still want to be a "doer", but don't overlook business/management. Managers may not do the work, but they can have a bigger impact by making the important decisions. You're already near the ceiling of what you can do without becoming a manager.
  9. Apr 5, 2015 #8
    Thanks. I see how leveraging my current experience is a good idea. I haven't overlooked management. I am just not sure if that's what I would like moving forward. I have been in an a position with a large impact in a company. I took over operations manager role for a few months while the company was looking for a replacement. I did well but found it to be somewhat boring. I know I shouldn't base everything of that. It was just my experience.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook