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Engineering How do you get an engineering job with a physics degree?

  1. Apr 30, 2012 #1
    Long story short, I flunked out of grad school for a physics PhD last year. My advisor hired me on as an employee in the lab. Basically I made a grad student salary and worked like a grad student, but it wasn't towards a degree. Now I want to find a "real" job that I can actually support myself with. I figure having a letter of recommendation from him would be great if I ever decide to go back to grad school.

    Anyway, I am looking at engineering jobs right now and... I can't see myself actually getting hired as an engineer. I know absolutely *nothing* required for any sort of engineering job. Electrical engineering is the closest discipline I can think of to physics, and not only did we not really do much with electronics... but even for something like RF engineering, they want you to know a lot about actual application and software that you'd use on the job.

    What kind of engineering should I be looking at? What should I be doing to make myself more marketable? My "grad student" job was a lot of programming. It was a lab that did research on medical CT systems, so there was a lot of simulation and programming going on. However I don't think I'd be able to pick up an actual programming job since I still lack a lot of the fundamentals that a comp. sci. student learns.

    I just feel like I know bits and pieces of *everything* and don't actually know enough to be useful to anyone. I just don't know what direction I should go in at this point...
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 30, 2012 #2
    What kind of engineering are you qualified for? None. You aren't qualified to be a degreed engineer until you get a degree in engineering.
  4. Apr 30, 2012 #3
    Yes, but often times in this very forum when people ask what you can do with a physics degree, "engineer" gets thrown around. So now I want some details. What kind of engineering? How do I approach that job?
  5. Apr 30, 2012 #4
    software engineering.

    if you worked on condensed matter i'd have suggested materials engineering, or being a chemist, but... since you worked on software, go for software. your chances are alot better for this, than for something else.

    don't tell yourself "you can't". just send resumes everywhere. the costs are minimal compared to be benefits.
  6. Apr 30, 2012 #5
    Thats because physics people generally haven't got a clue about how much material you have to master to get a degree in engineering. Especially an advanced degree; masters or PhD.

    Do physics majors all think they're smarter than engineering majors? Because they're not. Where do people get the nerve to assume that if you can't cut it as a physicist you can simply become an engineer?

    Software engineering? Please! Let's see how long it takes a washed-out physicist to properly structure an application using a particular object-oriented pattern. Or track down a nasty compiler bug for an embedded processor. Or adhere to design and testing principles he's never heard of.

    Go bake Pizzas. There's good money in it without insulting the worlds largest (not oldest) profession.

    Edit: and if that doesn't work maybe you can go into Pharmacy.
  7. Apr 30, 2012 #6
    Sounds very harsh, but I think there's much truth to it. In addition, there's a lot of "misinformation" thrown around by the academic physics community, individually from professors and organized from APS et al. "You can always do engineering", "You can still go to industry".

    I've gone from HEP-ex to game programming and now back to grad school in CS, and I often feel very outclassed compared to the average CS people. Currently I'm being slaughtered by compilers, which is one very important subject in CS, and I would say it is in no way easier than pillar courses in physics. And if you never learned it, there'll be some deficiency in your software engineering. It is simply ignorant and arrogant to think that the average physics grad can do software as well as CS grads.

    That does not mean the a physicist is hopeless, because the amount of software work you did might just be enough to get your foot in the door for some software engineering job. Mine did. Just be sure to quickly figure out what to make up. In CS, that's subjects such as data structure, algorithm, operating system, compiler. Also, be prepared to feel stupid.
  8. Apr 30, 2012 #7


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    No it is because there are many people with degrees in Physics, BS, MS and PhD working in industry at jobs with engineering titles.

    I would recomend looking at production engineering. These guys do a wide varity of things which need a wide range of knowledge.

    Don't give up, there are jobs for you out there, you just have to find it.

    Good luck.
  9. Apr 30, 2012 #8
    It's not taking the title that is so objectionable, although it is inappropriate. (as a degreed engineer I would refuse the title Physicist on ethical grounds. Why is it ok for Physicists take engineering titles?) Technical titles are not functional descriptions of your role like CEO. They're supposed to be a reflection of your accredited capabilities.

    The thing that boils my clam is the idea that if you're not good enough to work in the field you've been trained in that somehow you'll do alright in a field every bit as demanding that you *haven't* been trained in.

    Only someone ignorant of the rigors of Engineering or arrogant about the rigors of Physics would say something like that.
  10. Apr 30, 2012 #9
    If you are an engineer working as a physicist, that makes you a physicist. It's a job title, not a brief summary of your educational history. In some states you don't even need to have a degree to take the PE/EIT/FE and become an "engineer".

    Mistake, what type of work did you do in the lab?
  11. May 1, 2012 #10
    That's the title the company they work for gave them. You seem to think that they go to work and declare "I AM NOW AN ENGINEER!". They apply for the job, and the person hiring them decides they can do the job of an engineer. When they don't get fired after a few months, it means they were correct in their assumption. Look at any university physics page for a list of what alumni are up to now. You'll see a lot of the PhD grads go on to be engineers.

    One of my physics professors never actually had a physics degree. She got an engineering degree and managed to get into the physics department and is doing great work now as a physicist.

    I also had a chemistry professor that actually has a physics PhD. Again, nobody even cares.

    It's just a title, dude.

    A lot of programming and algorithm work. Some electronics work. A lot of data taking and analysis. I asked this question before and was told that I probably can't cut it as a programmer because like mayonaise said, a comp sci student just learns so much that I can't ever hope to compete. I was hoping my electromagnetism, electronics, and quantum mechanics background might help me get a position as an RF engineer or something, but this seems unlikely.

    It's starting to look like I have to go back to school... but I don't have the money to spend on a Master's...
  12. May 1, 2012 #11
    Think about Chemistry programs. They might offer you a chance to do similar work you were doing before, with more admission slots and less stressful coursework. I doubt your research is bad, otherwise the professor wouldn't hire you; it seems like your coursework got in your way.

    There's programming that CompSci majors can't do, that physics majors can do. Like image processing.
  13. May 1, 2012 #12
    Well if it's just a title, I'll start going by Dr even though I don't have a PhD.

    All you PhD's out there are totally fine with this, right?
  14. May 2, 2012 #13
    You have made a category error. Engineer and physicist are job titles. Dr/phd are educational titles.

    Most people use 'engineer' to mean someone who WORKS as an engineer not someone EDUCATED as an engineer. While I was bartending, I worked with someone who had a bachelors and masters in mechanical engineering. He didn't call himself an engineer (and I didn't call myself a physicist). He called himself a bartender. I now work doing statistical analysis- I'm not a physicist, I'm a statistician with a phd in physics.

    Mistake- you don't have to go back to school to learn new skills, especially programming/numerical ones. Find an open source tool relevant to the field you want to get into, and start figuring out how you can add to the project. You'll learn along the way. Also, consider applying for statistical work.
  15. May 2, 2012 #14
    I am. Most people will just think you're an arrogant jerk if you do this, PhD or no. And people with PhD's don't usually call each other Dr, anyway. The only place this matters is on a job application, and if you lie there, well you will probably end up getting what you deserve.
  16. May 2, 2012 #15
    I can only speak from my 30+ yrs in mechanical engineering. I've had many coworkers with physics degrees. Only a few were in design. Most were very successful in analysis: stress, thermo, heat transfer, fluid flow, aero sub & super sonic. Get familiar with the software and start filling out applications.
  17. May 2, 2012 #16
    You don't become an engineer when you graduate college. You can have an engineering degree and go to work for McDonalds. You would not be a Fry Engineer. Engineering is a profession. Hence why young engineers are called Engineers in Training.

    If you get out of school and get a job in physics, you are now a physicist. Really, the only "engineering" title you get comes when you obtain your PE license and you can add that Joe Schmoe, P.E. (or P.Eng for all you Canadians out there).

    A Ph.D is a similar title. These titles reflect a level of competency and understanding of the chosen field. You can't put a Ph.D after your name, just as you can't put a P.E. after it unless you've completed the necessary qualifications.
  18. May 2, 2012 #17
    Honestly, I think a lot of physics and math majors do think they're smarter than engineering majors. I don't think like that, but I did see (and still see) a quiet arrogance about physicists/mathematicians. Some of the brightest people I've ever met have been technicians or when I was in software, non-degree programmers. These people were mostly self taught and flat out brilliant within their respected fields.

    Talk to the physics professors that go around telling the physics kids that if you major in physics you can still get a job in engineering. While I think there is some truth to that, it's mostly because of the quantity of engineering jobs available. Regardless of your degree you can get hired as really anything if there's enough demand.

    Like I said earlier, the best people I've seen in software are self taught and non-degreed. The kids from good schools usually are threatened by people like that because they've spent a lot of money learning the exact same things but aren't nearly as good. If you're in software I'm sure you know what I'm talking about.

    On another note, my background is from physics and math with several classes in software. I worked in software and I was very successful before I left industry for grad school in physics. My first job was titled "Software Engineer" but I was really debugging nasty numerical simulations for physics. I'm positive that a trained CS kid couldn't hash that job because the math got pretty nasty, lots of PDE's. They were specifically looking for someone that knew math and physics well with some knowledge of software. Of course, if you get into specific software jobs then those are reserved for software trained workers but not every software job is what you described. Please save the loose straw-man arguments for the bar.

    You completely missed the point of credentials and job titles.
  19. May 2, 2012 #18
    I think you're right that many mathematicians and physicists believe they are more intelligent. There are a few reasons I think this is true:

    1) at my university, there were many physics majors that got to sophomore/junior E&M + statistical mechanics and failed the course. These same people, often switched to some engineering major, did the coursework in that, then returned their senior year to retake those final required physics courses, and did fine. To their former physics classmates (who often TA'd the classes that the ex-physics / engineers were re-taking), it seemed as if they "couldn't cut it in physics, so they fell back on engineering".

    2) again, this is just an observation from my university days: upper level physics and chemistry labs were working with "cool stuff" while their classmates who were taking engineering were building basic amps, alarm clocks, and "playing" with k'nex building bridges during their labs ... in a very ignorant comparison, it makes the engineers seem "juvenile".

    3) this is again, simply my observations: there were quite a bit of engineers who realized they wanted to be in engineering only after having failed their first upper level math class. They had always been great at math, straight As from kindergarten until differential equations, but when they took abstract algebra or analysis, they just didn't like the subject anymore, and often failed the course. Their fellow mathematics students often saw their realization simply (and incorrectly) as "they're stupid and just can't cut it as a mathematician".

    4) while you're in academia, there is this magical quality about things that are "pure" ... as if it's more desirable and noble among academic disciplines. Like if you're studying math or physics, you're drive is to uncover the mysteries of the universe or something ... same with philosophy. Not sure why, maybe because these views are being passed down by subtle comments made by professors ... based on similar things to the scenarios I've just described.

    My best friend from college was a Jazz Trumpet major. He is a design engineer for a large A/V - communications company and has been for over 7 years now. He has a minor in EE, but other than that, by educational accreditation, he is all musician. His engineering training involved taking 1 calculus class, 1 class in C programming, and 4 EE classes ... hardly the rigors of what you'd describe as a "degreed engineer" but I doubt anybody at his workplace nor most anywhere else in the world would not consider him an engineer ... considering that's what he does 40 hours a week.

    Maybe you could consider him a "jazz musician", but I certainly do not considering he earns his salary via being employed as an engineer, not gigging as a musician. It would almost be the same as describing Bill Clinton as a "lawyer" just because he got his J.D. from Yale ... granted that may not be the best example, since I'm pretty sure he did work as a lawyer a few times during his career, but never for very long ... but you get my general idea.

    as for the actual thread:

    my advice would be to go for programming gigs. I'm sure there's entry level stuff out there for people with moderate programming experience + great math skills. General business is also an option. Many manufacturing companies hire entry level management with the only requirement being a bachelors in anything, then with computer and problem solving skills to boot, the odds are a bit better.
    Last edited: May 2, 2012
  20. May 2, 2012 #19
    In my case I switched from EE to physics and I found physics much easier than EE. Does it mean I'm just too stupid to do EE and physics is easier than EE? Oh and pure math was much harder for me than same math used in physics so does it mean that pure math is hardest? But then why math majors are clueless and don't understand math used in physics and they even fail hard in mathematical physics classes?

    I think the reason that many ppl switch from physics to engineering and do well/better in last one is simple - engineering requires DIFFERENT skillset than physics. Ofc skillset is similar but NOT identical so it's possible that someone is just more suited to do engineering rather than physics which has nth to do with physics being harder than engineering.

    And ofc it's possible for physics major to work as engineer but it's not unusual for engineer to do research in physics because those two disciplines overlap each other.

    Luv this one

    And now please tell me that being classical literature specialist is much easier than being physics major :D
  21. May 2, 2012 #20
    There definitely is both an arrogance and a curiosity with physicists. No offense, but I feel that many physicists do not have good communication skills.

    I had the same experience. Engineering requires a different sort of mindset to get through the classes. I don't think this means physicists cannot design things as well as engineers though. The STM for example was invented by physicists.
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