1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

How does a Physics class differ from an Engineering class?

  1. Jan 30, 2009 #1
    I'm not trying to ruffle anyone's feathers here, but I keep hearing that Engineering majors don't actually learn where anything comes from (plug and chug) as opposed to a Physics major which learns derivations and history. I'm still torn between EE or Physics and a Freshman, so my knowledge about the majors is very limited. So what is the difference in classes? Is any of this true? Thanks all.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 30, 2009 #2
  4. Jan 30, 2009 #3


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I've taught both engineering and physics labs. In general, especially at the first year level the differences in course content were minimal. The differences overall largely came from student attitudes. As a very broad generalization, at the first year level the engineers were more practically oriented, while many of the science students didn't care so much about the material as they did about the mark (had to make it into med school).

    I now teach graduate students who have come through each route (into medical physics) and of those who get into the program, there doesn't seem to be much of a difference in knowing where things come from. The major differences are the subjects covered in the respective majors.
  5. Jan 30, 2009 #4


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    The first year of an ugrad course is almost identical, depending on how many students your institute has you may even have be in the same lectures for maths + mechanics.
  6. Jan 30, 2009 #5
    Hmm... I dont know about that. On the surface, it would seem the engineer knows a lot more than the scientist. This is because engineers learn a lot of knowledge on the fly, without checking their steps. To top it off, they get all the applied knowledge and can tell you how a windmill or random object on the street works. A scientist takes the long and analytic road, which reduces the quantity of knowledge he can learn in a 4 year span. Of course, the knowledge he has he knows inside and out from first principles.

    In terms of difficulty, it depends on the person. Are you better at learning things without proof at a rapid & shallow pace, or taking it slow and solving impossible problem sets?
  7. Jan 31, 2009 #6
    So far in my experience (I'm a second semester Sophomore ME), I've noticed that I learn a lot of the concepts and such from my physics courses (I'm in Physics III now) without much practice, whereas in my engineering courses I'm really using any physics I've learned up to this point. For example, my Dynamics class is basically in-depth Physics I practice all the while testing my logic with how and when to apply which equations. Another example would be my Engineering Circuit Analysis class. A lot of what I learned in Physics II is applied heavily in that class.

    You could always go for EE with a Physics minor. It'd be a lot of work, but when won't it be? =P
  8. Jan 31, 2009 #7
    At my school (UMass) engineering students need about 20 more credits to graduate than any other degree - and these 20 credits are the only courses outside of science/mathematics/engineering that an engineer typically enrolls in. While Physics majors need four semesters of a foreign language, more general-education courses, and fewer electives in their major, engineering students fill these with technical courses.

    Engineers also incorporate the economic, legal, environmental, business, and human factor variables into their approach of learning and applying scientific principles.

    That said, I wouldn't say a junior level course in E&M is any less difficult than an EE's junior-year course in Fields & Waves (comparing the two texts I have). It's just that engineers must take more of these courses in the same time-frame (at least at my school anyways).
    EDIT: Engineers also specialize and narrow their focus more. While a Physics student will take multiple courses that cover mechanics, e&M, QM, etc., an EE will only have Physics I when it comes to his understanding of mechanics. But, the EE student will cover much more than a Physics student when it comes to E&M topics - and their applications of course.
    Last edited: Jan 31, 2009
  9. Jan 31, 2009 #8
    As an undergraduate in an ME curriculum, thus far my experience has been far from "plug and chug".

    As an engineer you do end up learning most of the theory (maybe not as in depth or rigorously as the honors physics or math majors do). You still get the history and theory though--it's definitely there to some extent. The only difference is you learn how to apply it too, and the implications throughout of applying it (technical reports, the human factor, comprehensibility, failure analysis..)

    I suppose the thing with applying the knowledge you gain is that it's funny--you learn all these crazy analytical ways of applying integration and differential equations, but in the end you end up just doing it numerically and qualitatively.
    That's not because you're 'less intelligent' than a physics or math major. On the contrary, physics and math majors would be nuts to try to come up with analytical solutions in terms of elementary functions for most worldly problems (or to prove that a unique solution exists, without finding the solution at all! :O)

    If you want to do theoretical research in a particular field, don't go engineering. If you want to do applied research in a particular field, engineering might be the way for you to go, or physics might. If you're not sure how much you'll like research, and want another way of going about things, it's much easier to move into industry as an engineer than it is a physicist, i.e. there's less difficulty of transition.
  10. Jan 31, 2009 #9
    I heard that an engineer believes his formulas approximate reality and a physicist believes that reality approximates his formulas.
  11. Jan 31, 2009 #10
    Ah, I love those inverted, succint and clever descriptions (can't think of the term for it). Someone needs to make a thread devoted to them.
  12. Feb 1, 2009 #11


    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    That is not necessarily true, but that depends on the student.

    I started out studying physics, but then switched to nuclear engineering. I actually recommend engineers take as many physics courses as possible, or even do a double major, and if one goes EE, then take EM courses.

    Engineering is applied physics, and in practice, a large part of engineering is empirical. However, a really good or great engineer is one who delves into the basic physics of a problem. A mediocre engineer would suffice with 'plug and chug'.

    In my curriculum, all freshman took the basic physics and mathematics courses. Then as sophomores, we would take a nuclear physics course, with exposure to relativity and QM. In terms of mathematics, by junior, one had to be proficient with partial differential equations, complicated integrals and complex analysis. By senior year, one had to be proficient mechanics (structural analysis), thermodynamics (including heat transfer), fluid mechanics, electrical engineering (ciruits, electrical systems, motors/generators), control theory, and computer programming. Thermodynamics combined with fluid mechanics in thermal hydraulics.

    We generally learned theory in addition to applications. We had to derived many formulae and understand the physical significance of each term in a PDE.
    Last edited: Feb 1, 2009
  13. Feb 1, 2009 #12
    While someone with a physics degree has a nice broad base of knowledge, I wouldn't say that having taken a couple courses in mechanics places you in a position to perform knowledgeable structural analysis work like a civil engineer, or to design complex control systems like an EE.

    For instance, a physics major who hasn't specialized in a specific area of engineering science probably hasn't done much in the lab with material science of specific building materials - analyzing concrete, steel, re-bar geometry, weld analysis, or the chemistry involved with curing, nor design techniques with this knowledge. Then factor in cost issues - minimizing material through design, regulations, meeting time-tables, etc.

    I think I would say the same for designing complex control systems with an EE.

    I liken the degrees to lawn equipment (this might be a new one!). A physics degree is the $2000 lawn tractor - it can accept the mowing deck, mini-snowblower, wagon, water-pump via PTO, etc. Engineering degrees are like specialized equipment such as the $2000 zero-turn tank-like riding lawn-mower. It may not accept the snow-blower attachment or water-pump, but it is designed to mow grass like no other - and it might be able to tow the wagon to some effect. Generalized theory vs applied specifics.

    There is certainly a place and need for both, but I wouldn't say someone with a Physics degree has the equivalent capabilities of someone who has quadruple majored in all the primary areas of engineering.
  14. Feb 1, 2009 #13
    I've found engineering classes to be more challenging overall. They put a lot of emphasis on memorization and solving lots of problems. Simply understanding the material won't get you the "A". You really have to spend a lot of time solving problems to do well on the exams.
  15. Feb 1, 2009 #14
    I started out in engineering but I've been taking a lot more physics courses lately with electrodynamics last semester and QM and stat. mech. this semester. Honestly, it seems the physics theory is much more challenging. For example, in electrodynamics, we were constantly doing double/triple integrals in all sorts of coordinate systems, whereas in engineering fluid mechanics, we basically tried to avoid that stuff as much as possible. The physics classes tend to invoke a lot more mathematics and the physics majors at my school are required to take substantially more math than engineering majors.

    That being said, some of my applied engineering courses like propulsion and structural dynamics were extremely difficult. In propulsion, the math was never really that sophisticated, but algebraically you might have to work through 20-30 equations (in a nontrivial manner) in order to get to your answer; say, the cycle analysis on a turbojet engine. So both subjects I think can be extremely tough, but at the undegraduate level, I think the physics kind of requires a more fundamental, broad expertise in advanced mathematics.
  16. Feb 3, 2009 #15
    In my experience, I have an undergrad in physics and have never taken an undergrad engineering course, I am now doing graduate studies and have taken a couple graduate courses in the physics department and am taking one in the engineering department, the expectations in an engineering course, (and thesis from the ones I have watched defended) are pretty much a joke if you are used to pure physics courses. Also, I know in my undergrad, I had many pure physics classes that engineers took as an elective, and 100% of them dropped out by a week after the midterm as they couldn't hack it.
  17. Feb 5, 2009 #16
    At my school, engineering classes have a lot of plug and chug's on homework and exam problems well physics classes have a lot more mathematical questions that require derivations.
  18. Feb 8, 2009 #17
    That is why I am taking Engineering Physics. Once I finish a master's degree in EE, I'm hoping that I will know the "why", along with the "how".

    You still go over theory in engineering classes though. Very few things are just plug and chug, since the professor usually derives where they get formulas from (at least where I'm at).
  19. Feb 8, 2009 #18
    It probably depends on the major and the department. I'm taking advanced undergraduate and graduate level courses in aerospace engineering, and they are as challenging as any physics class out there. You definitely have to understand the concepts and know where the equations come from. It isn't "plug and chug" at all.
  20. Mar 17, 2009 #19
    wow American college is really odd.
    it seems a lot simplier in Ireland!
  21. May 11, 2009 #20
    physics is the subject of nature it is the study of universal matters.............
    it is different from engineering..in engineering ,we uses the theories of physics.. engineering is application of physics not physics.in engineering formulas are approximaated.
  22. May 11, 2009 #21
    Having seen both Physics and Engineering work at my university, here's what I think...

    Neither subject is harder than the other. They're just different. They require about the same amount of work (effort + time).

    The engineering work I've seen is, by comparison, the following things:
    - Straightforward (you can figure out how to do most of it)
    - Plentiful (you can know how to do everything and there just aren't enough hours in the day to do it all)
    - Unforgiving (if you do poorly on an assignment, you do poorly...)
    - Problem oriented (no thought experiments, derivations, or random math fun facts)

    The physics work I've been exposed to is, by comparison:
    - Complicated (sometimes, professors assign problems that, bless you, you are not going to figure out)
    - Scarce (spend more than two hours a week doing homework problems? and projects?!?!?)
    - Forgiving (did poorly on a test? well, everybody else did, too, so why don't we all just give you As and call it a day)
    - Theory oriented (derivations and thought experiments... proofs and orders of magnitude... I've never been given two problems that asked essentially the same question)

    Engineers are trained to know the facts, to have the knowledge, and to apply it to produce useful artifacts. With notable exceptions, I think most engineers don't come up with new ideas, unless you're talking about ideas for a product or process.

    Scientists (physicists included) are trained to know how people come up with this stuff, and to use that (and a smattering of domain knowledge) to come up with new ideas. With notable exceptions, scientists don't usually make products, unless as sort of a proof of concept or testing model.
  23. May 13, 2009 #22
    Can you expand on Scarce? I've haven't taken an Engineering class yet (just core Physics/Math classes), in my Physics classes we've had quite a bit of problems. Does this change in upper-level classes?
  24. May 13, 2009 #23
    "Can you expand on Scarce? I've haven't taken an Engineering class yet (just core Physics/Math classes), in my Physics classes we've had quite a bit of problems. Does this change in upper-level classes?"

    Scarce, as in, compared to the mountain of problems/projects/designs you'll be doing for your engineering classes. If you think that 15 physics problems a week is bad, wait until you have 3 engineering projects coming due at the same time.
  25. May 15, 2009 #24
    Scare in number but not work. I'm taking 3 physics courses right now and I had 3 assignments due in one day. It was only 20 problems total but came out to 48 pages front and back worked out and I didn't solve a few of them.
  26. May 15, 2009 #25
    Trust me, I know how that goes. If you think that's bad, wait until you have 3 engineerinr projects due on the same day. The phrase "not enough hours in the day" takes on a whole new meaning.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook