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How do you specify your intererests in physics when you're a freshman

  1. Jun 17, 2013 #1

    I'm interested in research and development of either fusion power generation or graphene based nanoelectronics. One of the things I like about these areas is that they are in the imminent stages of development and I will probably see them developed in my lifetime.

    My issue is that I need to declare a major in college and also I need to describe to scholarship committees what my career interests are.

    For the areas mentioned above, I have found lots of information on the different types of scientists that are currently working for a living (killing?) in those areas.

    Some are physicists, chemists, electrical engineers...some started out as electrical engineers and got their post doctoral degrees in Physics.

    I can't simply read about these people and understand what path I want to take. I haven't even had my first physics class. Even if I had several physics courses out of the way and was currently studying an introduction to quantum physics...how would I know weather I wanted to be a nuclear engineer...or be an electrical engineer working with microwave energy or something?

    Can you suggest how I could learn enough or where I should look that might allow me, for the moment, to declare a major or also describe to a scholarship committee what my career/academic interests are...

    Can I just say physicist? Should I say I want to get a post doc in electrical engineering? How could I bring all this into focus?

  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 17, 2013 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    That is personal to you - how do you know anything?
    It's a bit like being asked "what do you want to be when you grow up?" when you are a kid - how does a kid know what they want to be?

    But they do, because that is a question for the present, not the future - you are not being asked what you are going to want to be or what major to pick that will best suit where you are at five years down the track. You just have to say what you want now.

    What you wrote at the start should be fine.
    ... so that would be physics or engineering. Does the school have a post-doc program in these areas? That's what you declare for.
  4. Jun 18, 2013 #3
    Thanks. Believe it or not I really was confused with the details and thank you for helping me put things into perspective. You see, I have not even had my first physics course period. I have no frame of reference to grasp the career choices of others. Realizing which of my ideas were important, ie the statements about desiring either a career in fusion power generation or graphene based electronics, was a big help. Then finding out what general area they fall under, ie engineering or physics was even more helpful as I couldn't have seen, on my own, how my career interests fit into those areas. This was even after considerable time being lost in recent news about the industries.

    I was wondering something: It seems like physicists can only be theoreticians. What then is a Post Doc in electrical engineering? Isn't the person with that designation a physicist? Yet their credentials are in engineering.

    Can you help describe weather it would be possible to get a post doctoral degree in Quantum Physics and then go to work as an engineer...I think that it would be invaluable to get considerable background in the theoretical side, ie to get a post doctoral degree in quantum physics, before becoming an engineer. Do some people get their credentials in quantum physics and then go on to be engineers? Would such a person miss out on engineering courses and then have to make up for not having had training in engineering?

    For the sake of completion, so you can see what I'm asking, let me explain this from the other side: Is this why some people become engineers...because there is way too much theory going on with getting credentials in quantum physics? They don't like theory, they want to be engineers, so they get degrees in engineering.

    Thanks for clearing this up...I'm definitely interested in gaining a solid theoretical background...even if it is overkill...just to have a good base of knowledge while working as an engineer.
  5. Jun 18, 2013 #4

    Simon Bridge

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    Oh no - it all depends where you end up. There are engineering theoreticians and practical physicists. It's not like there's workplace demarcation: if you are in a position to do it, you want to, and you can get funding, then that's what you do. The training is different so the approach to problems is different.

    A post doc in electrical engineering is an academic conducting original research in electrical engineering. A physicist would follow electronic physics - which would most likely be something in the study of the electrical properties of some solid state material like a novel semi-conductor.

    It can be done - there are lots of people who follow a physics track through college and then do their major work in engineering - and the other way of course. It depends on the school, and on you.

    Such people usually end up working closely with engineers in order to realise the engineering part of what they want to do.

    However, you probably won't benefit much from thinking about post-doc oportunities in this kind of detail ... get your freshman classes under your belt first.

    Nope - engineering and pure science tracks start out exactly the same in most colleges World-wide. People mostly seem to go into engineering because they've heard there's no money in pure science ... which would be about right.

    I knew a guy who enrolled in the engineering track because he could get paid to do it, fell in love during his freshman year and his grades dropped through the floor ... flunked chemistry big time but was able to repeat math and physics so he became a physicist and went on to do doctoral work at CERN.

    There's three-five years ahead of you and I can be pretty confident in saying right now that what you end up doing will be nothing like what you thought you'd be doing.
  6. Jun 18, 2013 #5
    Thanks. I'll be sure to mention your knowledgeable advice when I write my scholarship essays. Mentioning what you have explained to me here in an essay can go a long way to illustrate where I am at now, an ambition so strong that I am talking to others about it in attempts to come to terms with it. The info you are giving me will define and bring into focus my experiences and make my writing clear and meaningful.
  7. Jun 25, 2013 #6
    Just an update

    Hi all,

    Just wanted to update this thread with information that I feel could help readers of this thread who are trying to answer questions about which major they should choose.

    I started with the following two dictionary definitions:

    Engineering - The branch of science and technology concerned with the design, building, and use of engines, machines, and structures.

    Physics - The branch of science concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy.

    I took particular notice of how with engineering the focus is science and technology; while with physics the focus is science.

    I read some popular discussions that I found by Googling the terms "Physics vs. Engineering". Although the discussions compared the two disciplines in terms of job outlook and academic success rates; I took notice that many proponents of Physics espoused the idea that physics underlies engineering...it is the basis of engineering. While on the other hand engineers typically focus more on using research done by physicists to create things.

    I realized that for myself I am interested in the development side of things but at the same time I want a solid basis in scientific theory for inventions developed.

    I decided to compare both undergraduate and graduate academic programs in physics and electrical engineering. I noticed that names of courses in electrical engineering from the bottom all the way up to post graduate studies have names that emphasize the fact that in electrical engineering, the subject matter encompasses both science and technology. For example, Optical Materials, Microwave Circuit Design I, or Linear Integrated Electronics. But with physics the naming suggests the *basis* of technological devices. For example, Classical Dynamics, Quantum Theory I, or Fourier Optics.

    The problem with taking engineering courses as I see it is that I wouldn't getting into the theoretical basis of engineering. My interests were hard to define because it is possible to be an engineer but to have a background in physics. One example is Walter Brattain, the 'hands-on' electronics engineer of the semi-conductor transistor. He worked for IBM in the late 40's on a team at IBM. Although Brattain had a PhD in Physics, he was actually acting as the engineer on the team at IBM that built the first semi-conductor transistor.

    So, I might look into the semiconductor industry, where it doesn't take long to come across big names such as IBM, Global Foundries, or Intel. But I will keep in mind that some of the physicists working at those companies may be doing theoretical research while others may be doing engineering.

    I definitely don't want to get the type of training that focuses away from theory and on to technology (engineering). But this doesn't mean I don't want to be an engineer. I want to get my PhD as soon as I can and if I were to dual major in physics and electrical engineering I would wind up taking a bunch of engineering classes that have nothing to do with my particular approach to the problem of engineering.
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