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Engineering vs physics

  1. Jan 3, 2007 #1
    Im new to this forum and this may have been asked. im not sure the exact way of wording this either so work with me.

    I am currently a college student doing physics and engineering. the school i go to has a 3 year physics track and then i transfer to finish up my engineering degree. i have not taking a single engineering class and im having trouble gettin through my physics courses. i did fine in my general physics but this upper level stuff is just hard for me even with help from teachers. i would like to continue in engineering but am not sure.

    anyway i guess my question is "what is the difference between the two fields of study." My understanding is that both have high mathematic requiriments but physics is more "abstract thinking and threoy" while engineering is more "applied and concret" thought.

    Correct me if my thought of the two is wrong. Math is no problem as i have takin calc 1,2,3 and DQ and passed. I think i would do better in engineer, but i dont know.

    any thought on the subject would help
    Last edited: Jan 3, 2007
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 3, 2007 #2
    An engineer has to have an understanding of physics in order to accurately explain the motion and behavior of things in the real world. The study of physics tends to be highly theoretical and academic. The two really are worlds apart.

    At this point you are not learning physics as much as you are learning mechanics; the mathematical way of explaining the behavior of objects relative to one another.

    As an engineer myself I like to say that if you make a mistake in engineering, people could get seriously hurt.
  4. Jan 3, 2007 #3
    no i understand the risk of engineering.

    But what are the differences if u dont mind explaining.
  5. Jan 4, 2007 #4
  6. Jan 4, 2007 #5
    As an engineer working with Physisists I can say there is little difference in work just mind set.
    I consider Engineering to be Applied Physics in the same way that you have pure and applied Maths.
    If your head works better if you can picture a practical example, then your more an Engineer than a Scientist. If an example is not enough and you need to know the exquations behind, then your more of a Scientist.
    In reality we are all a little bit of both.

    A Scientist will say something will possibly work on a sample of 1000, An Engineer will say something is definately work on a sample of 1.
  7. Jan 4, 2007 #6
    IMO -- The reason I think engineers should take some higher physics is for the problem solving skills.

    In all honesty -- I found that even professors realize you are not going to remember everything or even understand everything from class -- esp the first time through. I found very generous curves in my physics classes. A good example for me was Fluid Dynamics -- I think I got about an avg of 65% on my tests, but I passed the class just fine. I started to understand that class better after taking a couple of graduate courses in Atmospheric Science.

    So don't be discouraged -- you might not use much of the info from those classes in the "real world," but I think it will make you a better engineer.
  8. Jan 4, 2007 #7


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    I think you have a decent handle on the differences, but may I ask why you have chosen this path instead of picking one or the other? It seems to me that it will require an extra year of college and when you are done, the piece of paper you get won't say anthing about the physics training you got. Or is there some special thing about this physics program you are taking?
  9. Jan 4, 2007 #8
    ""but may I ask why you have chosen this path instead of picking one or the other?""

    yea i was doing a dual degree. 5 years of school for two degrees, one in both areas. However when i was looking at college i planned on only doing engineering and this dual degree (since the school i got in didnt have an ENG program) seemed to be the only way to continue my stduies and have all my credits transfer to the school that had engineering. im hoping to transfer to a school with it b/c im just having alot of problems with upper level physics (400s- 500s college level)
  10. Jan 5, 2007 #9
    There is no difference at my school, other than that the applied physicists take courses like computer science instead of gender studies, circuits instead of literature, eng. drawing instead of history; the ancillary courses are just different. The lab I work at has physicists and applied physicists, and we all do the same thing. I would actually say that the coursework for applied physics is tougher because instead of taking some blow-off artsy class you have to take an engineering class, which is not to say there aren't any blow-off engineering courses, but not as many.
  11. Jan 5, 2007 #10


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    Are you saying that at your school, engineers don't take circuits and drawing?
  12. Jan 8, 2007 #11
    Where I went to school, the first two years were pretty much the same for the physics and engineering core subjects. The last two years were where everyone went different directions. The last two years for me focused on engineering in my chosen field with relevant courses.
  13. Jan 10, 2007 #12
    No, the regular physicists don't take circuits or engineering drawing. The physics engineers, applied physics, take those courses instead of arts and sciences crap.
  14. Jan 10, 2007 #13


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    Ahhh. I see. That had me a bit worried there.
  15. Nov 22, 2007 #14
    I can't decide...

    I can't quite decide on my future. Do I wanna be an http://www.biolexis.com/app/news.ctrl?exec=getNewsItem&id=58890" [Broken] after I finish my university classes or do I wanna start a freelance business? Anyone tried both?
    Last edited by a moderator: May 3, 2017
  16. Nov 22, 2007 #15
    Forgive me if I am blunt. If you're having difficulty in your upper level Physics courses, then you are not likely to do well in a PhD program. Without a PhD, your career options will be largely limited (depends a little on your country) to either teaching in high school or being a "pseudo-engineer". If you want to work in engineering anyway, please do the program that allows you to seek a PE license. It will likely make a huge difference in your career.

    All that said, you should try an engineering course or two. You're at a disadvantage in not having taken any lower level engineering courses and you should get busy doing that.

    Do you enjoy building things like telescopes, radar jammers, potato guns, trailer hitches, homebrew computers, etc? That's the best sign of a budding engineer.
  17. Nov 22, 2007 #16
    Don't listen to this ridiculous paragraph. An engineer doesn't have to get a PhD in order to be a successful engineer. You also have some nerve calling an engineer that does not have a PhD a fake engineer.

    Judging from this paragraph, this guy has no idea what an engineer is or even does. With the statement of, "please do the program that allows you to seek a PE license" shows his ignorance.
  18. Nov 22, 2007 #17
    If you are in the US and want to do electronic engineering or computer programming then a physics degree will work as well as a EE degree. If you want to build bridges or do electrical power stuff then you need a PE which requires a engineering degree.
  19. Nov 22, 2007 #18


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    My cousin earned a 2-year associate's degree in electronics from a technical school in central Maine back in the early 70s. Soon after, he quickly rose from a programmer (GE-contract microwave OTH backscatter radar system) to chief programmer to project manager, and has run MANY defense contract programs here in the US and overseas. Once you get into the real world, your abilities and work ethic will take you places that your credentials cannot.

    I started out studying chemical engineering at UMO, lost interest and pursued a double-major in English lit and philosophy. When I applied for an entry-level laborer's job at a local pulp mill after a stint in construction, the HR manager noticed "CE studies" on my resume and arranged for me to interview for an open job as a process chemist. During my final interview of the day (with the manager of the tech department), his chief environmental engineer interrupted us with a concern over the the timing of the flush of an acid-wash of the Kraft digester. I asked the manager if I could stick in my 2 cents and he said OK. Since I had worked as a soils tester during the construction of the waste treatment facility, I was aware of all the valving/piping options out there and I suggested that the environmental engineer pump all the effluent from the aeration basins that he could to the sludge ponds (full of very hungry bugs) before the acid wash was dumped, and then when the pH in the aeration basins had moderated a bit so that the good bugs could survive, pump all the contents of the two sludge ponds into one aeration basin, and run the secondary clarifiers and aeration basins in series (not parallel) to give the bugs time to do their job before the effluent was sent to the polishing pond (final settling). The environmental engineer acted a bit surprised, but the manager had his poker face on. By the time I got back home from the interview, my wife said "Your physical is Monday, you start the next Monday." I beat out several applicants, including guys with CE degrees from the University of Maine, which is one of the premier pulp-and-paper training grounds in the country. One of CE's was hired for the next vacancy, and we became good friends, though he was still baffled by how I managed to edge him out even when I explained the circumstances. The degree doesn't mean as much as you think it might, especially when the person doing the hiring is a fair judge of your capabilities and potential.
    Last edited: Nov 23, 2007
  20. Nov 22, 2007 #19


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    I think you may have misunderstood - I got the impression the post was saying that a physicist is a "fake engineer" and that a physicist without a phd can't do much real physics work.
  21. Nov 22, 2007 #20
    Forgive me. I was not clear in my language. All my comments are specific to the US.

    What I meant to say is that the qualifying degree for a Physicist is usually a PhD, or possibly an ABT. Sometimes an MS is qualifying in industry.

    The qualifying degree for an Engineer is the BS from an ABET accredited school. Physical Science majors may be able to qualify for the EIT test through on-the-job training, but they have to first get that job.

    A Professional Engineering license is required to offer engineering services to the public or, in most jurisdictions, to use the title engineer outside the boundary of factory/business employment. Engineering is a profession similar to Medicine, Law, Pharmacy, or Law. Without the license, you may not sign off on a truss design for a building, a stormwater abatement, or a transformer spec for a new building. This does not mean you don't know how to do this, only that you are legally barred from doing so without a license.

    Factories and businesses do employ people in positions identified as "engineering". These employees may practice only while employed and only on company projects. If services are provided to the general public, there will be a PE responsible for all these employee engineers.

    As Wildman pointed out, certain fields of engineering do not generally require licensure and thus are open to more disciplines. This is particularly true in computer engineering. My comments clearly do not hold in those instances.

    These opinions are not just my own. I include a link to the US Bureau of Labor Occupational Handbook which substantially verifies my statements.


    If the OP wants to be an Engineer, then he (or she) should obtain an Engineering degree, not a Physics degree. If you find this blunt, better to hear it now instead of when you're 45 and driving a taxi because your factory job was eliminated.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 23, 2017
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