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Engineering vs Physics undergrad

  1. May 14, 2010 #1
    In short, my question is: I want to keep both my options open once I finish my undergrad degree (being a physicist, or an engineer). Would it be better to go with an undergrad in engineering and a masters in physics or an undergrad in physics and a masters in engineering?

    In a bit more detail, I am choosing between mechanical engineering and mathematical physics for an undergraduate degree. I think I would enjoy being a theoretical physicist more, but the demand for theoretical physicists are low, and the chance of one getting an awesome job is minute. Right now, I'd rather have a mech. eng. degree because of the work opportunities. But if physics picks up momentum in the next 4-6 years I'd love to be right there in field. Basically, which would be more disadvantageous to me, being a theoretical physicist with an undergrad in mech. engineering or a mech. engineer with an undergrad in mathematical physics?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 14, 2010 #2
    Dude, I am in the exact same boat as you are. I know many people say you shouldn't go for a job because of $, but in the real world even if you are doing what you enjoy, if you can't find a job, you are not going to survive. For some reason, I feel like for theoretical physics, unless you get a Ph.D from a renowned university, you have no chance of survival in the real world.
  4. May 15, 2010 #3
    I actually just went through this sort of thing, as I just changed my major from MechE to Physics. One of the reasons behind my decision is that it is much much easier to get a graduate degree in engineering with a physics bachelors than a physics graduate degree with a engineering bachelors. Also, many schools only offer a doctoral physics program and only offer a masters to phd students who want the degree they've completed some of their research work. Also, most graduate physics programs expect entering students to have the equivalent of a bachelors in physics, including (in general, but not limited to) QM, E&M, thermo/stat. mech. (this is rather different than the thermo that you would take as a MechE), and advanced physics laboratories. This is not necessarily expected in engineering fields. For example, it is not uncommon for people with a mechanical engineering bachelors to end up with a masters in nuclear, civil, or even electrical engineering. I've even met someone who majored in mechanical engineering who now writes software for Kayak.com. It is also not uncommon for people with an undergraduate background in math, physics, cs, chem, etc. to end up with an engineering graduate degree.

    As far as the job market goes, it is not uncommon for someone with a physics undergrad degree to be hired as an engineer, but I've never ever heard of a theoretical physicist hiring an engineer to do physics research. Experimentalists usually hire a few to help them out with designing, building, and maintaining their experimental equipment.

    In short, my personal advice to you is to do physics due to it's flexibility, but you should make sure that you think it is in your best interest. Hopefully my opinion will help you make that decision.
  5. May 15, 2010 #4
  6. May 15, 2010 #5

    Do you guys know if not doing an undergrad in engineering, but a masters in engineering will hurt me in terms of being a licensed professional engineer? I heard that if you don't have a bachelors in engineering, it takes much longer to qualify to attain a professional license.
  7. May 15, 2010 #6
    Not to hijack this thread, but I've always been told that it's much easier to go from Engineering undergrad to Physics grad than the other way around. Is this not true?
  8. May 16, 2010 #7
    I've looked this up in the past, and it varies from state to state, but in general at best you'll have to have a few more years of experience before taking the PE exam (in my state you need 8 years rather than 4). Worst case you can't take it at all without an ABET accredited degree. See here: http://www.ncees.org/Licensing_boards.php

    I suppose it's possible since engineering undergrads probably take at least intro physics, but I'd be surprised. None of the engineering majors I know (except those also majoring in physics) could handle a physics graduate program.
  9. May 16, 2010 #8
    No, it isn't. Unless you are a very "theoretical" engineer you aren't likely to have the mathematical background (be it on pure math or on its purely computational side) and the "modern" physics insight needed to succeed right away, specially on theoretical/mathematical physics. It can be done for sure (There's a teacher in my faculty who studied electrical engineering and then got a PhD in Quantum Mechanics from Lomonosov back in the 70's) but it will take a lot of effort to catch up with a physics major. On the other hand, an engineer might have a little advantage on the experimental side, but even there a physics major usually is better prepared in physics/math.
  10. May 16, 2010 #9
    I would say the opposite is true. Physicists have a good general knowledge about the topics that underpin main engineering disciplines, and just have to add the 'real world' elements (i.e. transform away from the frictionless vacuum), whereas engineering focusses more on results and models rather than the fundamentals.

    I made the transition from physics to engineering and found it straightforward, whereas my engineeering colleagues haven't even heard of many of the topics I studied through my undergraduate. Other than that, I feel that my engineering colleagues are perhaps too much worried about detail to be able to study physics in the way it is currently performed.

    There are also things that physicists may not tackle, something like finite element analysis but if you've taken any sort of numerical computation course than it's straightforward enough to learn.

    and to the OP: read ZapperZ's physicist sticky as well as the "should I become an engineer" sticky.
  11. May 16, 2010 #10
    I got my BSc on physics, and I'm about to get a masters in math. My undergraduate theses was precisely on Gelerkin methods (finite element AND spectral collocation) for shock waves in a single dimension. My theses covered both the mathematical stuff and the actual numerical calculations. It is true that engineers use finite elements a lot, and it is much more common for them than for physicists, but it isn't that strange to find a physicist who can handle it.
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