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How Did You Get Where You Are Scientists and Engineers? I Need Help!

  1. Aug 2, 2014 #1
    First off, I would like to say I have read multiple, upon multiple threads on whether I should be an engineer or physicist, so I have somewhat of an idea of what to expect from both career paths (as an engineer, I would work in industry, and as a physicist, I would most likely do research at a university, and require a PhD, but it would be a little difficult to transfer into industry). I ask myself this question everyday as a senior high school student, literally! I am intrigued by both, but for some reason, I don't want a duel degree, as well as any majors or minors, but only one degree to define who I am.

    Another thing, I don't know why, but I feel like a very grand person. What I mean is that I want to do everything as a career. More specifically, I am very curious about everything, from how lawn mowers work to how the universe works. I would love to be doing physics one day and engineering another. I want to contribute to revolutionizing mechanical devices and nature by the use of mathematics and physics. People who I think reflect this concept of mine and I look up to are Leonardo da Vinci and Elon Musk. As you probably most likely know, the first famous name was not only an artist, but a scientist, engineer, and architect; the latter has worked with and owns companies related to computers, energy, and aerospace. Overall, I admire scientists, engineers, and the idea of entrepreneurship (I wish I knew more people who were these personally!).

    In terms of academics, I've had 90s all throughout Grade 9 to Grade 11. My goal is to go to Waterloo University (I live in Northern Ontario) and the programs I am the most interested in include: physicist, mathematical physicist, mechanical engineer, mechatronics engineering, and software engineering. I'll be falling on my local university if I don't make it to Waterloo. I find myself not struggling with the math and physics in high school, nor chemistry either (I love them all). I got 100% in Grade 10 math to prove I don't struggle with high school math, at least. I took it upon myself to start learning single variable calculus this summer by using a school textbook to learn advanced functions and then MIT OpenCourseWare. I would love to hear advice on learning subjects on my own time after posting this thread, because I find myself struggling to do it, with dreaming of accomplishing it at one moment, and then when I try to do it, it feels impossible to do. I hate procrastination and want to be successful in my mind, to one of these two respected fields.

    Perhaps I should take this from another angle to solve my problem; you engineers, physicists, and other technical-professioned people out there, how did you reach where you are today? What goals did you set for yourself? What hobbies did you have? This previous question means a lot to me because I don't have many hobbies related to physics and engineering as a teenager; I don't build things on my spare time, nor do I work on many physics problems on my spare time, but I am eager to start!!! I need advice on this because I don't want to waste time before university. I started going in depth with Java programming because I am taking it in Grade 12 (I am in the middle of summer vacation). However, I again struggle with doing this like calculus, because I dream of it but don't have a constant routine for it. I need your help with this for sure. How did you fight through procrastination? In the end, I would love to mess around with electronics, learn some mathematical concept, etc. every day, but I don't know where to start. I need one of you guys whose been where I have been or not to point me in the right direction and help me. Finding out which hobbies I like/dislike will further allow me to pick a program next year.


    1. What's your opinion on what I am going through?
    2. What goals should I have/ try?
    3. What hobbies do you have related to science and engineering?
    4. How do I learn subjects I want to learn without procrastinating and giving up?

    Thanks, your advice means a lot to a young curious fellow.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 2, 2014 #2


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    There are engineering jobs at universities, and most physicists don't stay at universities (the number of PhD students per year is much larger than the number of free permanent academic positions per year).

    Many positions are somewhere between "pure engineering" and "pure physics".

    Sure, but at that time it was relatively easy to become an expert in many areas, the overall knowledge was tiny compared to the 21st century.

    Find a way to make them interesting, if that is possible (based on your description, it should be easy). Otherwise: there are many methods, and everyone has to see what works on their own.
  4. Aug 2, 2014 #3

    I second making it interesting. I found fluid dynamics to be boring by itself but as a nuclear engineer I started to look at how it applies to reactor engineering and heat removal. The course almost instantaneously became more interesting and useful. So my advice is decide what you like for one. Sure you like physics and math doesn't mean you would be a good engineer or physicist. You also need to learn to manage expectations and focus. Stop trying to do everything. You need to focus on being good at something, you can't expect to get anywhere treating life like a big experiment where you can keep swapping things out and changing directions. Unfortunately we just don't live that long
  5. Aug 2, 2014 #4


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    It's extremely common in my experience. There are a lot of options open to you and it's easy to get overwhelmed with the possibilities. One thing to keep in mind is that a degree does not define who you are. A degree is the result of successfully passing a series of (often expensive) courses, many of which have a common theme. It represents a specialized education. But there are many more dimensions to a person that the field of their education.

    One that's worked for me is reading a lot.

    Actually most professional scientists I know have hobbies that on the surface have nothing to do with science or engineering. I think this is because they pour so much of themselves into their work that when they do have time for hobbies, that time is used for exercising other areas of the brain.

    I enjoy writing fiction, for example.

    The first step here is to figure out why you're procrastinating in the first place. Are you actually interested in the subject or are you simply interested in learning about the subject?

    Another question is, under what circumstances are you trying to learn? Sitting down with a textbook over the summer may seem like a good idea to get ahead, but it doesn't have a high success rate from what I've seen. I think you're a lot better off simply to spend your "free" time actually working on projects of your own choice or researching the specific material that you're interested in. The systematic approach works best when driven by the academic pressures of deadlines and grades.

    General procrastination is fought with good habits which are reinforced through constant and consistent practice.

    Another tip is to focus on completing that first step rather than the entire task. Half the battle lies in just getting yourself onto the field.
  6. Aug 3, 2014 #5
    You sound a lot like me at that age... If I could go back in time, I'd tell myself
    "Do what every makes the most money."

    You may be ridiculously bright (perfect SAT's and stuff), but all my classmates in grad school were like that.
    Every engineering and physics field is ridiculously competitive. Even the ones that don't make money.

    The chance of getting to pursue your passion and creativity (like Musk or DaVinci) is practically nil. The best way to make that happen is go to wall street, make a few million, and then retire. You can do any physics/engineering but make sure to take finance engineering courses too. Intern at a wall street firm if possible.

    Also, there are no shortage of good idea's to improve tech. But there is a shortage of money to fund them. Even if you prove yourself in academia, you'll have to spend the rest of your career making sure you get the credit.
  7. Aug 3, 2014 #6


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    rigetFrog, this begs the question of which field that the OP is interested in would make the most money. Engineers get paid well and can live a comfortable life in their field, but with a few extraordinary exceptions, do not become especially wealthy.

    And as far as Wall Street is concerned, the overwhelming majority of people who work there never "make a few millions". Certainly not the quants (although they get paid well), nor almost anyone else (again, with a few extraordinary exceptions). So the very idea working on Wall Street, "make a few millions", and then retiring is hideous advice, since this strategy is far more unrealistic than seeking to become a tenure physics professor at an Ivy League school (and from the discussion here at PF forums, seeking this goal exclusive to all others is also unrealistic).
    Last edited: Aug 3, 2014
  8. Aug 3, 2014 #7
    Engineers not in management cap out below 150k. Finance, consulting, people can get to just below 300k, but they also can get ridiculous bonuses.

    From my age group in grad school, none of us are tenured or even tenure track. It's split up between researchers in science, quants on wall st, and general consulting. If the OP is as bright as he sounds, wall st will be a good option.

    You know how Elon Musk made it big? He was a founder of PayPal.

    I don't know the SanFransisco scene, but maybe the OP could check that out. There might be good opportunities there.
  9. Aug 3, 2014 #8


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    One could argue that the last thing the world needs at the moment is to have another bright, talented individual with a background in the STEM field working on Wall Street. Depending on what area to specialize in and one's relative geographic flexibility, there are many opportunities to pursue other than Wall Street.

    At any rate, one could also ask just how many quant positions are still available on Wall Street nowadays. I have heard indications that many of the top financial firms in New York have been shedding workers by a substantial level.
    Last edited: Aug 3, 2014
  10. Aug 3, 2014 #9
    @ statGuy200: I would like to hear that argument for the "last thing the word needs".


    I went for science. My work is mostly enjoyable except for the politics and cut throatiness.

    My buddies that went for money are now entrepreneurs and can afford to do whatever they want.
  11. Aug 3, 2014 #10


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    This is getting off topic, but since you asked...

    Some people have argued that the mathematical models developed by quants (including those that employ the Black-Scholes equations to model the movements of stock prices) played a critical role in contributing to the financial crisis of 2007. For example, see the article by Scott Paterson of the Wall Street Journal.


    Now personally, I feel that the quants have been unfairly blamed for the financial crisis and the subsequent Great Recession, and that other factors, such as the highly levels of leverage (i.e. debt) of firms and the unsustainable levels of debt for consumers played a more crucial role in bringing about the volatility that led to the financial crisis. The following article by journalist Ben Hunt summarizes my views quite well.

  12. Aug 4, 2014 #11
    Hi OmashRavash,

    I can totally relate as I have been - and still am - interested in diverse areas in science and engineering.
    Trying to answer your questions:

    1. What's your opinion on what I am going through?

    As I said - very familiar.
    Referring to the title of your post: I changed fields several times, so I pursued different things in a serial fashion. It worked out fine but I am not sure if I can recommend this - I graduated at a time when it was easier to do that. If you switch fields you will always have to "compete" with people that have X more years of experience in that field.

    2. What goals should I have/ try?
    I am wary of goals and planning when it comes to personal life and career decisions. Goals often don't even work on a grander scale of carefully planned projects (google "Planning fallacy" or read something by Nassim Taleb or Daniel Kahneman).
    I would rather try to keep as many options as possible open - in the way entrepreneur Randy Komisar puts it. Komisar addresses students "passionate about everything" here - this video is really 5 minutes well spent.

    3. What hobbies do you have related to science and engineering?
    As Choppy I rather do something complementary to science and eng.: I enjoy blogging about science / eng. and creative writing in general, in addition to down-to-earth things as gardening. Then I simply like playing with technology in order to "hack" it - see next item.

    4. How do I learn subjects I want to learn without procrastinating and giving up?
    Again I have to second Choppy: Self-studying works best if you work on projects that intrigue you. I found that self-paced learning (that actually did not feel like learning) works best when I try to solve a problem I really really want to. I am very much influenced by the "hacker community" of self-educated IT experts who learned by reverse engineering how stuff really works.
    I was good at traditional learning, too, and it is a necessity to meet deadlines set by others - but I would not impose that on myself on top of the deadlines set by others you have to meet anyway.
  13. Aug 4, 2014 #12
    Hey elkement,

    I did watch that video you hyperlinked and I thought it was great; it opened me to a new perspective of what I am going through. I feel I already know which opportunities (or university programs) are closest to me, it's just being confident of picking one (opening the first door of many). It's really between physics, mechanical engineering, and software engineering. I love physics for many reasons and I feel I have to be doing it in my job or else I won't be happy. If I got a physics degree, I would most likely get a PhD and want to do research at a university in the particle physics spectrum. Mechanical engineering is a new passion of mine (I work with someone whose is taking it in university and they are doing quite a bit of physics). I think I like mechanical engineering because of how general it is like physics (physics applies to all of engineering); that is, it applies to basically every other engineering field and it has good job security like some other engineering fields. But I also feel I don't "love" it, just "admire" it. I don't know why, but why would anyone (myself) look up to a field if it has good job security, not the of work involved in it?... I don't know why I think like that! All I know is that I find it interesting and perhaps I should do more research on it and projects I could do involving it, then determine if I like it or not. Then there's software engineering. I took introductory computer science in Grade 11 and loved it (introductory Java). I like programming, I'm just not hyped about the little amount of physics in software engineering. I feel programming would be a good hobby on my spare time. So maybe its between physics and mechanical engineering... Even if I regret some decision in some particular way, there are more opportunities present because of the one I chose. Thanks for the video!

    Second, in terms of hobbies, I always assumed scientists and engineers had hobbies related to their specific fields. I too have hobbies that aren't related to science or engineering. I play guitar, and I also enjoy writing like you and Choppy. Recently, I got two books from the library to read: "The Singularity Is Near" by Ray Kurzweil and "Physics For Future Presidents" by Richard A. Muller. They sound like great reads from what I have heard. I would even love to get into art. Art is something I think I would enjoy so I might as well try it out.

    Anyways, both you and Choppy suggested working on projects that intrigue me, and Choppy mentioned researching topics that intrigue me. I've lately been thinking about buying an Arduino Starting Kit and doing projects with it; electronics intrigue me. Is that something along the lines of what you are advising me? Similarly, I am impressed by hackers in IT. And you mentioned working on problems you really want to. Are these problems completely original or are they ones you've heard of but wanted to figure out on your own? With researching topics, I don't know where to start because I don't want to get too ahead of myself on anything.

    So my overall questions (specifically for elkement, but I would love to hear what others have to think) at this point are:

    1. Why would I look up to the job security side of a career, as opposed to the work involved in it (me in terms of mechanical engineering)?

    2. Is getting an Arduino and playing around with that a good start of working on projects?

    3. Are your problems original or ones you've heard of and want to solve independently?

    Another question:

    4. Good mechanical engineering- related projects for high school students.
    (I looked online and found stuff involving some big costs)

    Thanks everyone for the advice, it's helping me out a lot!
  14. Aug 4, 2014 #13
    I am reluctant to give any general advice here as I think you have to try out different things and only you know about your financial necessities and other constraints. I have been running my own small business now for a long time and I am very happy with it - but it took me quite a time until I knew that myself and until I found fields / niches that allowed me to work the way I was happy with and that made sense business-wise.

    But I believe it helps a lot if you have gathered some - or probably a lot - experience as an exployee before you start your own business. It is not only about technical know-how but also about knowing the culture in certain industry sectors and, above all, knowing people and having built some connections.

    In case the question was more about academia (and short term contracts as a post-doc) versus industry (and long-term employment): I picked industry as I did not want to relocate several times as a post-doc. But your mileage may vary.

    Yes, I think so...but I am biased - I love my Raspberry Pi :-)

    No problem I ever worked on - including those with results finally published in peer-reviewed journal - was overly leading edge. Problably it was my lack of creativity but I think the internet makes it much easier to uncover that your problem / business idea whatever has already been tackled in some way by somebody else.

    Later (after academia) I always picked a more mundane problem if I felt this is what real clients would need right now - in contrast to, say, doing more fundamental research that requires to write an application to get your grant funded. Again - just my personal choice, no general advice.

    I am more intrigued by "immadiate demand" than by "originality".

    Electronics / IT is easier - difficult question. The closest I got to a "hobbyist" mechanical engineering project was the work on our heat pump system (that turned into something more professional later) but I was also most interested in systems control, monitoring, and simulation - I haven't build by own compressor or the like ... although I found DIY websites of people who did.
  15. Aug 4, 2014 #14


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    How does a lawn mower work? Great question.

    Typically two types of gas motors........2 strokes (small engines and dirt bikes mostly) and 4 stroke engines.

    Look up "how does the 4 stroke engine work". Learn that first, then look up how the 2 stroke engine works.

    The 2 stroker actually makes more power for it's displacement and is lighter, but it gives up reliablity and pollutes a lot more than a 4 stroke.

    Hence almost everything is 4 stroke except couple items mentioned above. And even lawn mowers and dirt bikes are going to mostly 4 strokes these days.

    Knowing how the gas motor works should be the "basics" for any person involved in physics, science, engineering or the like.
  16. Aug 4, 2014 #15


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    If you're interested in mechatronics and are curious about electronics, I would recommend getting an ardunio.

    Go to radioshack and spend 10 dollars each on a servo and a dc motor. Then write or download programs that allow you to control the motors/servos. Then work on a robotic system of your choice.

    I find that exploring applications such as these will make studying similar subjects much more fun. I worked with ardunios for a few years, then when I took my first controls course I loved it, because I could apply what I learned in class to my ardunio projects.
  17. Aug 4, 2014 #16

    jim hardy

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    I second that. At about age 13(~1959) i brought home a bushel basket of outboard motor parts i'd bought for six bucks at a junkshop.
    From them i was able to assemble and get running a 1951 Johnson 10 horsepower outboard.
    The only part i had to get help with was the magnetos- fortunately a neighbor was an airplane guy who explained to me how they work. I figured out how to get the point gap exactly right by 'feel' - holding the plug wire with two fingers while rotating the flywheel slowly and adjusting points that last 0.0001" for maximum effect. That "digital voltmeter" was admittedly primitive, but visceral and effective.
    Dad and i built a small plywood boat which i enjoyed for years.
    A small boat is so much fun for a kid that i had no trouble maintaining interest. I still keep several 1950's outboards around for fun.

    Point being - do some things that will reward you beyond just the accomplishment.

    That's why old cars is such a popular hobby, car buffs enjoy envying one another's creations and showing off their own.
    For me fixing old cars was an economic necessity - in college i had my '53 Ford overdrive transmission apart on my desk for a week. I enjoyed learning every washer and needle bearing in it but aesthetically - meh, see one planetary gear and you've seen 'em all..

    I took electrical engineering because i liked audio (tubes in my day)
    and went to work in a power plant keeping the electronic controls in repair.
    Now that place was fun - where else can an individual tinker around a million horsepower steam engine?

    I too suffer from procrastination. That's why i have to be interested in something in order to do it.

    If you figure out how to train yourself for willpower and discipline, please advise. Had i acquired those two traits at your age,
    "I coulda been a contender".
    Last edited by a moderator: Sep 25, 2014
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