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Engineering Engineering vs. Physics PhD for Natl Lab Job

  1. Jan 27, 2012 #1
    I've read many job postings at several DoE national labs in the United States, especially those dealing with Nuclear Science and Technology. Most of the postings state that they require someone with either a Nuclear Engineering or (Nuclear) Physics degree (or equivalent...I'm guessing some kind of an Engineering degree).

    Will one candidate have an upper hand in acquiring one of these lab postings with one degree or the other? If a candidate has an undergraduate or MS degree in Engineering (Mechanical or Nuclear) and a PhD in Physics, will he/she have just as difficult of a time finding work in a lab? And, if so, will it be difficult to get an NE job in industry because of the Physics PhD?

    My reasoning is that I'm extremely interested in Nuclear Power, and if some day I wanted to do research, I thought that a Nuclear Physics PhD coupled with a BS in Mechanical Engineering and possibly an MS in Nuclear Engineering would give a candidate a wide range of knowledge and skills for many jobs. Or, it could just pigeonhole me from getting another Engineering job ever again.

    Any insight is appreciated. Thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 28, 2012 #2


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    The labs pretty much hire engineers and physicists with PhD, although it is possible for someone with an MS to be hired. The particular degree or field of interest depends on the job.

    Utilities will hire folks with BS, MS or PhD, although there are probably more with BS or MS than PhD.

    The suppliers of reactors and technology may have a higher percentage of PhDs than utilities, because they do a lot of R&D in support of their products.

    There are also smaller independent companies that specialize in particular aspects of nuclear technology. I believe they prefer to hire folks with at least MS, but an extraordinary BS would be of interest. In that case, a company might encourage as engineering BS to obtain an MS.

    The idea is that a PhD does independent research that contributes to the field, while an MS does directed research. In theory, anyone with an MS and some experience is capable of completing a PhD.
  4. Jan 28, 2012 #3

    Vanadium 50

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    Pigeonhole? No, but I think you have to be looking at the opportunity cost. Consider three candidates 6 years post MS:

    Alice spent that time gaining nuclear engineering experience in industry.
    Beth spent that time getting a PhD in nuclear engineering.
    Charlotte spent that time getting a PhD in another field.

    If someone were looking to hire an engineer, we can argue whether Alice or Beth is better qualified, but nobody is going to think Charlotte is. The one exception is if her PhD work were in something that is taught in NE departments in other places but in physics at Charlotte's university - maybe something like nuclear instrumentation.
  5. Jan 29, 2012 #4
    Thank you both for replying. I have read many of your posts and enjoy your experiences that you share on PF. I've followed a lot of your advice (Astronuc, especially) and am planning on taking as much Physics, CFD, and FEA electives courses as I can before I graduate with my BS in Mechanical Engineering next year. (School doesn't offer a BS in Nuclear Engineering - just MS and PhD in NE).

    I posted this topic because I figured that there are probably a lot more people with Physics PhD's than Nuclear Engineering PhD's that are applying for these lab jobs, and it might be an advantage to study NE for this reason. It seems, by anecdotal observation only, that there are more people with doctorates in Physics than in Nuclear Engineering. Most engineers I know/work with stopped at a BS or MS. I thought I might just be part of the "white noise" if I had a Physics degree and applied to one of these positions.

    Would you say there's no advantage of having a doctorate in one subject over the other when applying to these jobs? I was intrigued to find a job posting at Oak Ridge National Lab with the title of Physicist that required a PhD in either Physics or Nuclear Engineering...I knew that Physicists could become Engineers, but I didn't know the opposite was a possibility!

    I know that jobs are about the skills one brings to the table, but when Human Resources employees are sifting through hundreds of job applications, they tend to gravitate toward candidates with certain types of degrees, skills, or experience. I think this is the main reason why physics graduates have a harder time becoming engineers than engineering grads do...not because they don't have the skills, but just because their CV/resume says "Physics degree" instead of "EE degree". Is this as much of a factor for these researcher jobs?

    I'm glad to hear that if an NE doctorate keeps one from working in one area, that there are other opportunities to apply one's skills. I'm going to try to get at least a few years industrial experience under my belt before even considering doing a research position. I've thought about teaching one day, and there also seems to be a lot of competition for Physics professorships over engineering. I guess it would make more sense to do NE in my case (especially since Nuclear Physics programs seem to be pretty sparse).

    Thank you again for your insights.
  6. Jan 29, 2012 #5
    Having a degree in nuclear physics and working at the national labs I would suggest going for the NE PhD if your ultimate goal is to be at the DOE/NNSA labs.

    Studying nuclear physics means you study a purely academic subject like nuclear structure/reactions, neutrino/exotic particle searches, or something higher energy depending on how you define nuclear physics. This may be interesting to do but it may not necessarily make you competitive in the national lab environment since the amount of pure nuclear physics research going on at the DOE/NNSA is very small. Most nuclear physicists I know go into an applied area like nuclear instrumentation, radiation transport, safeguards, etc--subjects closer to NE.
  7. Jan 29, 2012 #6


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    A PhD in condensed matter physics or materials science might be better than nuclear physics for someone considering a career in nuclear energy if one does not obtain a PhD in nuclear engineering. Radiation effects on materials and materials behavior under operating conditions are areas of particular interest at the national labs and industry, particuarly for the advanced reactor concepts.

    In nuclear engineering, there are several key sub-disciplines such as neutron physics, which deals with the neutron transport and interactions in the reactor core and fuel, and control systems; thermal-hydraulics and computational fluid dynamics, which deals with the heat transfer between the fuel (heat source) and coolant; and materials behavior, which deals with the behavior of structural materials under irradiation and at high temperature. Then there is the various aspects of structural analysis, thermal-hydraulics, and materials behavior of the pressure vessel, heat exchangers, turbines, pumps, and finally the containment structures.

    There's plenty of work in structural engineering dealing with the integrity of the structures in the case of seismic events and severe accidents.
  8. Jan 29, 2012 #7
    Thank you for your replies, Sheets and Astronuc. it makes sense that the government would prefer applied scientists when developing new technologies. Although I'm just a meager undergraduate, I thoroughly enjoy my fluid mechanics, ODE and PDE maths, thermodynamics, and materials science courses. I'd be ecstatic to work on any of the fields you just mentioned, Astronuc :D

    I have one last question: does working as a researcher in a research lab allow one to qualify to take and pass the Professional Engineer (PE) license examination? I know that it typically requires 1) a 4-year ABET-accredited engineering/science degree, 2) having passed the Fundamentals of Engineering (FE) exam, 3) 3 to 4 years working as an EIT (Engineer-in-Training).

    I don't know if this is definitely what I'd want to do, but I'd like to keep it in mind as a possibility.

    Thank you.
  9. Jan 29, 2012 #8


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    My school encouraged engineering students to take the FE (EIT) during the senior year, or shortly after graduation. I seem to remember taking my senior year, but that was about 30 years ago. The PE exam is given by state. It is possible that working at a lab would help in doing so. Usually, one obtains a PE after some years of practice and working under a PE.

    A PE is not necessary for doing research.
  10. Jan 30, 2012 #9
    That makes sense. A PhD would seem more valuable for doing research. i was just curious as I know a distinguished professor (his actual title) at my university who has maintained his PE over the years in addition to having earned a PhD so that he could do some consulting work on the side. I imagine that he probably gets paid more for his consulting work than he does for teaching college (considering all the big companies that have asked for his help...his CV is longer than the US Declaration of Independence).

    I asked about the PE not because I'm obsessed with money...maybe in case money comes short and I need to do a little consulting to pay the bills or something. Just to keep my options open. You never know when the government might cut research funding.


    Edit: At the university I attend, it is actually required to take and pass the FE exam before graduating with a BS in engineering. This is not the case for all the universities in my state with engineering programs.
  11. Jan 30, 2012 #10


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    also, a bit of advice if your goal will be to end up at a national lab: hiring at these labs is notoriously inbred - some 80% of job postings are internally filled (i.e., by those who already work there, or those who have previously had a professional relationship there). working diligently to get a summer internship(s) at your lab of choice may drastically increase your odds of finding a position, perhaps moreso than your degree discipline.
  12. Mar 14, 2012 #11
    Sorry to bring this thread up again. Thank you to everyone who replied.

    Will a student have to attend an incredibly prestigious university in NE to get a lab job? I know many TA's and RA's at my university that can't even apply because they aren't US citizens, so I figure there may be many from top universities in the same boat.

    Thanks for the help.
  13. Mar 14, 2012 #12
    Having a degree from a more prestigious university will always help you. Period. You might not end up at a national lab (you are aware lanl is shedding 10 percent of its workforce right now?) and HR people will probably be more impressed with MIT over KSU.

    That said, many 2nd tier schools have strong groups in some area that doesnt exist at more prestigious schools and overlaps with the labs interest.
  14. Mar 14, 2012 #13
    Sheets, when you say Los Alamos is "shedding" 10 percent of its workforce, do you mean they're downsizing, or is it that 10 percent of their employees are approaching retirement?

    - Matt
  15. Mar 14, 2012 #14
  16. Mar 14, 2012 #15
  17. Mar 19, 2012 #16
    That's too bad. I was interested to know what working for a lab would be like since, from what little I've heard of utilities, most nuclear engineers don't do a whole lot. They might take a few pressure readings here and there, but each plant has so many backup systems that it only requires that the engineers ensure that the monitoring software is working okay.

    I already have a job that, although I enjoy the associations I have with my coworkers and the working environment, I don't use much of my engineering knowledge I've learned in school (I'm currently an engineering Co-Op working alongside many engineers with 4-year degrees). I want a job where I can use that knowledge instead of losing it. Since there are not many plants that have been commissioned for building (I think only one has recently been commissioned), I probably wouldn't be doing much design work, unless if it were for technologies made to enhance/support the plants/design reactors that are already built.

    However, this is probably for another topic of discussion. Thank you to all those who have contributed.
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