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I'm at a crossroads. Engineers/physicists share your exp!

  1. Jun 10, 2008 #1
    I've just finished my first year of undergraduate engineering at Boston University (originally intent on becoming a mechanical engineer with aerospace concentration for electives) with a respectable low A or high B GPA. I can grasp the material, and have understood the lectures but tend to choke on tests and do stupid things like do wrong problems on homework since my eyes are so terrible.

    Regardless, I have a deep and profound interest in physics and mathematics, and enjoy the problem solving that comes with engineering--the overall feeling of proactively getting things done, managing time, etc, but I've recently come to the realization that I'm not entirely sure what a mechanical engineer's job on a day to day basis consists of. I've begun to have slight doubts about engineering after a physics professor of mine saw some potential for me to pursue physics because of my ability to grasp concepts in regards to some issues in modern physics. Also, the idea of advancing physics and the overall wealth of knowledge available to humanity as a whole is incredibly appealing.

    I realize the programs are much different, but I'm still only transitioning into a sophomore position, and could make the switch without too much difficulty. I'll most likely stick with my engineering program and just try to learn and keep up with modern physics, but I would love advice if anyone has been in a similar situation. Mostly though, I would be greatly appreciative if some engineers (mechanical, if you're out there) and physicists could give me a little glimpse into what their daily routine is like--so to speak.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 10, 2008 #2


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    First the practicalities - transfering from 1st year engineerign to 1st year physics shouldn't be a big deal. They are so similair you probably only missed an intro E+M or waves course.

    A couple of other random points.
    You aren't going to push back the frontiers of knowledge as a physics prof. YOu are going to be either working on an small area that only you and your grad student care about, or you are going to be one of 500 people working on a high energy physics experiment. And this is if you are a success, get a PhD from a top10 uni and 'make it'.
    If you want to save the world become a civil engineer and lay sewers.

    If you want to enjoy your job and work on cool stuff then engineering is great, wether you come to it as an engineer or physicist might not matter that much.
    My advice has always been to do a pure/general ugrad degree and then specialise, so do physics then an engineering masters for instance.
    One exception to this might be if there is a particular industry you are interested in such as aerospace, in which case a ugradeng deg in that speciality and then straight to a company could be good.
    Another exception is if you are in a country where engineers are licenced. Then it might be important to have a recognised eng degree to avoid a glass ceiling where you might be the smartest guy in the company with a double physics/maths PhD but can't sign off on a drawing and so can't be in charge of anything.
  4. Jun 10, 2008 #3
    The following assumes you want to be a career physicist/engineer and that you won't use your degree to go into law, medicine, high school teaching, etc (all respectable decisions in their own right).

    Some questions:

    1) Do you want to work in industry in a manufacturing/development setting or do you want to do cutting-edge research?
    If it is the former, then you should stay in engineering. If it is the latter, you will probably have to go to grad school (engineering or physics).

    2) Do you want to only be involved in other peoples' research or do you want to "lead" research?
    If it is the former, an MS will suffice. If it the latter, you will need a PhD. (Still physics or engineering).

    Now, some my disagree with me, but an MS in physics is not much sought after in the science/engineering-related fields. You don't have enough practical training to be an engineer but you do not have the advanced qualification to be an expert physicist. So with the assumption I made up top, the suggestion is to stay in engineering.

    If you want to go the PhD route, then we have some more talking to do.....

    Physics is a broad field: atomic, condensed matter, elementary particles, astro, cosmology - just to name a few.
    MechE, although concentrating on the mechanical aspect of technology can be just as broad: solid mechanics, fluids, nonlinear phenomena, materials science, heat transfer, etc.

    So, the question now is: what do you see yourself doing? Do you see yourself working on a project to identify some fundamental aspect of nature or on a project to improve some aspect of technology?

    There is also the fact that many physicists end up doing doing "applied physics." I use the term in the general sense that their research has direct application to technology and may even have that "engineering smell." These guys are mostly in condensed matter but I'm sure there are others.
  5. Jun 10, 2008 #4


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    My two bits: see about getting glasses :smile: !
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