How could someone work as both an engineer and physicist?

  • #1
Atlas618
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So I am in high school and really considering my career in the future. So half of me wants to become an Electrical/Mechanical engineer because I really like to find out how things work, make things, and build robots! Another part of me wants to become a theoretical physicist or Astrophysicist, because I am super interested in physics and have experience with it. Thanks!
 
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  • #2
The good news is that there is a lot of overlap between these fields. Sometimes people who do their undergraduate degrees in engineering take enough physics courses to qualify themselves for graduate school in physics. Sometimes physicists end up "engineering" some pretty cool stuff.

When you start looking at university programs, you could consider schools that offer an engineering physics major.
 
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  • #3
It happens. There is or was an astrophysicist in California working as one or both. There must be others too. Advanced degree (PhD) without a doubt!
 
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  • #4
Most colleges with good engineering programs have good physics programs. (The reverse is not always true) So pick a college with a good engineering program and you won't have to make up your mind for some years to come.
 
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  • #5
OP: If you like to build things, and don't mind getting your hands dirty, you can readily combine your engineering and physics interests by working on cool stuff such as probes to the moon or interplanetary probes.
 
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  • #6
Many undergraduate students change their field of study once they get more exposure to both in depth knowledge of the subject as well as the many alternatives. There are lots of choices available. So I wouldn't worry too much at this point. As others said, go to a school that supports both interests.

I worked at a company that made cutting edge lasers (literally for some products). They hired several "real" physicists. A couple taught at Stanford, another few now run the X-ray "laser" at SLAC. I would guess about 75% of the engineering staff had PhDs in the physical sciences. So there are opportunities. CERN, National Labs, Semiconductor Fab, etc. However, there isn't a lot of overlap with theoretical physics, cosmology, etc.

Keep your options open by really learning the fundamentals, then you'll figure out what you want as you go.
 
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  • #7
For those who like to make stuff and use it to explain stuff, there is experimental physics. I find it interesting that we get few inquiries about experimental physics compared to theoretical physics.
 
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  • #8
gleem said:
For those who like to make stuff and use it to explain stuff, there is experimental physics. I find it interesting that we get few inquiries about experimental physics compared to theoretical physics.
I think people just don't know it exists. Or they do know and are likely to ask a specific question. My freshman class in the late 1970s nearly all said they wanted to study physics or math. That was all we knew based on high school work. Most changed to a related field: Applied Physics, ME, EE, ChE, etc. My freshman roommate spend ALL of his time studying Particle Physics, and was really smart. He's a professor of Material Science and Chemistry at a prestigious university now.
 
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  • #9
CrysPhys said:
OP: If you like to build things, and don't mind getting your hands dirty, you can readily combine your engineering and physics interests by working on cool stuff such as probes to the moon or interplanetary probes.
Oh that sounds amazing! what kind of engineer would that be classified as?
 
  • #10
Atlas618 said:
Oh that sounds amazing! what kind of engineer would that be classified as?
They need all kinds of engineers to build that stuff. The title doesn't matter that much, they'll hire you based on what you know, what you're good at. You will work on a specific piece of the project with other engineers that know things that you don't. There is a lot of overlapping skills and no one can know everything in each category. Everyone ends up specializing for the best jobs.
 
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  • #11
Atlas618 said:
Oh that sounds amazing! what kind of engineer would that be classified as?
Take your pick: electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, aerospace engineer, control systems engineer, systems engineer, computer engineer, .... And I agree with other respondents: lean towards experimental physics, rather than theoretical physics.

Your profile says US. At most US universities, you have great flexibility in choosing free electives. So, e.g., if you choose to major in physics, you can take engineering electives of your choice. You'll have a better handle on options after your freshman or even sophomore year. If you want to leave your options open for grad school programs, you can choose to double major as an undergrad. I personally see no advantage in getting a minor, however, over choosing free electives.

When I was an undergrad, I majored in physics, with my free electives in materials science and engineering (including undergrad research in both physics and materials science and engineering). In my PhD program, my major was in physics, again with free electives in materials science and engineering. This combo served me well since my research was in experimental solid-state physics, and my advisor held joint appointments in physics and materials science and engineering.
 
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  • #12
OK, another undergrad roommate story. This guy, also super smart, studied astronomy right up until the last minute before he graduated, when he changed his major to physics. He did this because he thought it would look better on his resume, it had no effect on what he studied. He then went to grad school and got an EE PhD doing Planetary Science / Earth Observation things. He worked as an EE consultant for startup consumer products HW and then spent the rest of his career (a few decades) working as a high level EE for a surgical robot company, mostly on vision system HW.

It's often a long and winding road. You don't have to choose now. You'll probably change your mind, set yourself up for that in your studies. Learn foundational knowledge first, the stuff that is generally applicable, you'll end up specializing later with more choices than with a purely vocational route.
 
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  • #13
Atlas618 said:
So I am in high school and really considering my career in the future. So half of me wants to become an Electrical/Mechanical engineer because I really like to find out how things work, make things, and build robots! Another part of me wants to become a theoretical physicist or Astrophysicist, because I am super interested in physics and have experience with it. Thanks!
I'd go with robots. Physicists tend to wind up working for the weapons industry or as stock trade programmers on Wall Street. Robots have all sorts of peaceful practical uses and are a rapidly growing field that should be around your whole life. I expect you will not need quantum physics in such a career.

Theoretical physicist or Astrophysicist are both a very long shot if you aren't one of the Julian Schwingers or Brian Mays of this world. It's worth looking at the recent thread about Julian. Do you want to compete with people like him. But go ahead and take college courses in these just for the fun of it all. You only live once, eh?
 
  • #14
Hornbein said:
Physicists tend to wind up working for the weapons industry or as stock trade programmers on Wall Street.
Care to cite data to support this, eh?
 
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  • #15
Hornbein said:
Physicists tend to wind up working for the weapons industry or as stock trade programmers on Wall Street.
Don't tell my good friend from grad school who got a PhD in theoretical astrophysics. Frank has started a number of companies, one of which made him very wealthy. No bombs. He is a good scientist and engineer, a very good businessman, and a fine and caring human being. So do what you want to do and do it well.
 
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  • #16
Hornbein said:
Physicists tend to wind up working for the weapons industry
CrysPhys said:
Care to cite data to support this, eh?
Let me help you. The US graduates ~2000 PhD physicists per year. Los Alamos has 1000 scientists of all stripes. Total. Figure a 30 or 40 year career, and you are in the low single digits.

Of course, there are dual-use technologies. Even in robotics. The Roomba vacuum cleaner began life as a mine-sweeping robot.
 
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  • #17
CrysPhys said:
OP: If you like to build things, and don't mind getting your hands dirty, you can readily combine your engineering and physics interests by working on cool stuff such as probes to the moon or interplanetary probes.
I think I fall in this category.
 
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  • #18
Vanadium 50 said:
Of course, there are dual-use technologies. Even in robotics. The Roomba vacuum cleaner began life as a mine-sweeping robot.
As an aside, I was just checking into the history of iRobot (the company that produces the Roomba vacuum cleaner); the company was founded by legendary roboticists Rodney Brooks and Helen Greiner (and their colleague Colin Angle) as part of MIT's AI lab, focusing on both space exploration and military defense. This included both mine-sweeping robots and search & rescue robots (as was used during 9/11).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IRobot#History
 
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  • #19
I'll have to mention to my Physicist son who is vehemently opposed to working in the defence industry that "Fred" who vacuums his room everyday started off as a defence industry project.
 
  • #20
DeBangis21 said:
I think I fall in this category.
Why not start a bit smaller with something like an Arduino?
 
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