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From engineering to physics

  1. Jun 23, 2005 #1


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    Dear All,
    Hi I am a senior graduating soon, majoring in EE, but I am thinking of pursuing post grad in physics. The thing is, I have only taken 3 QM courses, 2 Math Method courses and an intro to SR/GR since junior. Worse still, I did rather badly on them. I have genuine interests in theoretical physics, but exam results have been discouraging. Some advices from you all on my two questions below are really appreciated.
    (1) I have been wondering: is there really a deep difference between how one approaches engineering and physics? Personally, I think I have been too "engineering" oriented when learning physics. If so, how should I approach learning physics? In other words, how would you teach an engineer physics?
    (2) I am also looking at routes to eventually pursue a PhD in physics. Obviously I can't apply directly to a PhD program. But how about a Master's program? Typically what are the entry requirements for Master's? Any engineer-turned-physicists would like to share their experiences?

    Thanks in advance!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 25, 2005 #2
    Hi there!

    You're lucky: I'm really an engineer-turned-physicist. I did a M.Sc. in Aerospace Engineering and now doing a PhD in planetary physics. The step wasn't actually that bad. Depends also on what area of physics you're going to work of course. But as long as your Maths is OK, you should be able to pick up loads of things pretty quickly I believe. It was a bit hard in the beginning, but I got used to the concepts pretty quickly. So I encourage you to do your maths, stats and numerical methods and you can pick up things up if you want to (may require hard work)
  4. Jun 25, 2005 #3


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    I quit EE after two years and transferred to finish a BS in Physics and Math.
    One reason I quit EE is that I felt that I really wanted to know the deep physics behind what was being presented to me. So, I do think there is a difference in the approach.... but, of course, the goals are different. To answer "how to teach an engineer physics", I don't know... just let your curiousity and passion-to-know be your guide. It might be helpful to study from the physics textbooks studied by your future colleagues. It shouldn't be too hard to find a list of textbooks representative of the expected preparation.

    In the US, there are many PhD programs that accept applications from a BS-only. The MS is often gotten along the way. I believe (but I may be wrong) that many PhD programs don't accept applications for a terminal masters. If [after you get accepted] you feel that you need some catching up to do, try to negotiate to take some senior-level classes during your first year.
  5. Jun 25, 2005 #4

    Tom Mattson

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    Speaking from my own experience: I was an engineer-turned physicist. I started out as a BSEE candidate, then when I realized I would switch for grad school (in my 2nd year) I switched majors to Engineering Physics. When I started grad school in physics, there were 3 engineering students: me and 2 EE's.

    The EE's flunked out.

    I also decided to pursue theoretical physics in grad school. It was extremely difficult for me, due to the engineering major. I used all my electives on physics courses, but I was up against grads in physics who used all their electives on math courses. If you're serious about graduate study in physics then you might consider either spending some time working on your mathematical kung-fu or going into experimental work, where your engineering education will be a plus.

    There is a difference in the two mindsets. And the question isn't, "How would you teach an engineer physics?" it is "How would you teach a physicist physics?" And the answer to that is that theories need to be examined inside and out, from the postulates through all the deductions used to derive the predictions, and the experimental evidence that supports them. Engineers, whose focus is design (as opposed to scientific discovery) typically are taught to neglect things that do not have great utility. A perfect case in point comes from your own discipline. Maxwell's equations are learned by every student of electrical engineering, right? But if you were to go to a graduate course in electrodynamics for physicists, you would find yourself wondering if you really ever understood the subject, because your engineering course completely left out relativity.

    You could probably do the Master's program, but you will probably still find it extremely difficult simply because the core courses of that program are typically a subset of those of the PhD program anyway. I think you should take some time to prepare yourself first, by reading some advanced undergraduate material in physics and mathematics. You said you took some quantum theory, relativity, and math methods. Did you study mechanics with Lagrangians and Hamiltonians? How about electrodynamics with relativity? It would be in your best interest to take the time to make sure that your preparation is at the level of a high-performing college graduate in physics, because that will be your competition.
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