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I could use some help deciding to major in Electrical Engineering or Physics.

  1. Oct 13, 2006 #1
    I'm currently a sophomore electrical engineer in college, and I'm trying to decide if I should stick with the major or switch to physics. More importantly, I'm concerned with what the decision would mean for my long term future.

    Executive Summary
    Right now, I'm not too far into the electrical engineering curriculum, but I do like the course work so far. What I'm not crazy is about is the general engineering courses my school requires. They make up about 1/3 to 1/2 of the required classes from here on out, and I really hate them. I'm completely uninterested in the projects so far. The projects have no electrical engineering components, and are generally so guided that the only freedom you get is how well you do the documentation and procedure. Now I understand that those are likely to be critical elements of being an engineer...but I hate the rigor. I hate having to detail every decision that was made and why, I hate that the classes are really nothing more than forced groupwork on projects that are not complex enough to require it and grade us more on if we put the staple in the correct location on the report than the actual technical merit of the work we did. Maybe it'll get better as classes go on, but I can't see myself enjoying the working environment if that's representative of how a real engineering job would be.

    Statement of Design Problem
    Now on the other hand, if I look at the Physics curriculum at my school, I'd say I'd enjoy nearly all the classes in it, instead of despising 1/3 to a 1/2 like engineering. Still, ultimately I can't imagine a job in some physics related career having any less red tape than engineering does. Not to mention it could potentially make job prospects much worse (or at least very few people have the title physicist).

    There are a few more reasons I'm considering switching as well. Every semester so far, my school has administered a test to determine your suitability for engineering. It ranks your personality traits and interests in certain areas, and generally I score exactly opposite of how an engineer is supposendly supposed to score. While I do extremely well in classes, I do not like to break problems down into small steps before solving them, apparently I have what I believe they termed destructive thinking, where I can stare at a problem for a while and make no progress and then suddenly understand it completely and thoroughly as opposed to slowly building my knowledge bit by bit, and prefer to figure things out on my own rather than recieve directions. While those are probably fairly meaningless (at least matter equally for physics), I don't seem to fit in all that well with my fellow engineers and tend to have much more in common with the physics majors at my school. Perfectly fine working relationship, but the engineers are generally more interested in tuning up their cars or strengthening their skateboards than discussing quantum theory.

    As for what I'd like to do in the future, well I'd preferrably like to do research and probably pursue a doctorate. I know that doctorates aren't easily earned, so I'm not saying it's a definite. I can't see myself really working on an individual product design, but would prefer to work on the general architecture or concept behind something. I'm pretty sure I do want to work in the computer industry, which makes the idea of switching majors to physics seem fairly dubious to me. It doesn't seem related enough that I could get into the field without dual majoring.

    Anyhow, I'm having trouble deciding. If it was just about enjoyment of classes, I'd switch to physics in a heart beat, but I'm not sure if I'd be happier in the long run. My ego won't let me switch without thinking that maybe I did it because the engineering was too hard, but honestly I feel like I'm wasting my time in many of the engineering classes, and would much rather be learning theory. In general, I much prefer the theoretical side of things and wouldn't mind being a theorist, if I could find a job doing it.

    Audience Participation
    So, can anyone offer some ideas of the types of jobs a physicist and an electrical engineer could have, and what choosing one path over the other would offer?
    Last edited: Oct 13, 2006
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 14, 2006 #2
    At my company (aerospace), the jobs that physics majors and EEs obtain are simular in nature. if anything, the physics majors get the more math oriented type of work while the EEs more practical work. If you were to just get a BS then I would tend to go with the engineering. If you want to get a graduate degree, I would go with what you find most interesting. Basically, engineering is watered down physics anyway.

    By the way, most of the IEEE gold medal winners have graduate physics degrees....
  4. Oct 14, 2006 #3
    Thank you for the reply. So a physicist and an electrical engineer can still be involved in the same fields? I'm more interested in the math type of work anyway, but I wasn't sure how much demand there was for people who stick mostly to number crunching.
  5. Oct 14, 2006 #4
    Judging by how you wrote out your post, I'd say go with engineering. I've never met anyone involved in physics who would go through the trouble of something like that. ;)
  6. Oct 15, 2006 #5
    That's what I thought too.
  7. Oct 18, 2006 #6
    As an aside... there are bridge graduate programs between EE and physics (applied physics, electro-optics, etc) that mean grad school is not "out" could open your option to do "both" regardless of what you choose now. As a physics undergrad... I later was employed as a "research engineer" with the air force (while oddly enough another air-force friend fought to get the title "research physicist" when his PhD was in ME), then I got a master's in engineering while doing that, then later went for the physics Ph.D. (as evidenced by my oh so frickin modest screen name... pardon -- I'm just getting over the defending, and this is a screen name on a non-physics blog and forum, can't change too much) So you're just at the beginning... you have options regardless of what you choose now.

    Other than that -- I'd look at three things -- the prestige of the department (future programs/employers look at this), the professors (your academic progress will be mentored by these people and they will be your references), and the older students (these will be friends, mentors, and show a bit of what you'll become...).
  8. Nov 5, 2006 #7
    Heh, sorry about the format I wrote the original post in, the 'proper' way to write a technical report was getting drilled into our heads at the time so I found it somewhat humorous to extend the format to my post.

    Anyhow, I've since switched to a dual major in comp sci and physics. I'm already much more familiar with the physics students and faculty than I was with engineering. Additionally, my laid back behavior towards course work seems to be practically expected in the physics department, whereas my follow engineering students and the engineering faculty were generally shocked that I could get A's in most of my classes without a carefully defined day to day schedule and a systematic approach to my work. I have a somewhat haphazard work method, but manage to pull things together incredibly well in the end. Generally, I work when and where I find 'inspiration', 3 in the morning, in the middle of lunch, on a bus, just wherever things 'hit' me.

    Anyhow, I almost immediately received a research position with a physics professor doing computer analysis of astronomical data. Apparently, I had some renown with the head of the CS department for a sophomore/junior level CS class I took last year (my freshman year) and he promptly shot off a recommendation for me. I don't think astronomy is related to where I'd like to go with a career path, but it's interesting and I think will be a good test of my analytical and programming skills.

    The physics program at my school has a reputation at least on par with the engineering program. It has as many students as two of the engineering disciplines combined, and I think it's one of the largest physics programs in the area. Additionally, it has surprisingly advanced research labs for a school without a graduate program in physics, and frequently graduate students and professors from nearby colleges (University of Maryland and Drexel off the top of my head), as well as those from our own engineering school, perform research in our labs.

    I'm happy with my choice, regardless of job opportunities it's much closer to my interests and I don't think I'll feel like I'm wasting my time like I was in many of my engineering classes.

    Thanks for the advice everybody, even if my verbose nature my be more fitting of an engineer.
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