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Is an experimental physicist the same as an engineer?

  1. Dec 25, 2015 #1
    Lately i have been searching for what to do in university and i decided to go for physics because i am passionate about it. Then i visited the campus of the university i am planning to go into and had a talk with the physics department chairman , he told me that if i had a PhD in experimental physics i will have the same knowledge as an engineer in the same field. I mostly like research and development in physics so any advices on what to do would be great. Thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 25, 2015 #2


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    Not sure about that. Engineering is Applied Physics, not just experimentation. For instance, managing the construction of a tunnel and designing a mobile network are examples of engineering. Engineering is to Physics as Medicine is to Biology.
  4. Dec 25, 2015 #3
    I fully understand that. But medicine can research with biology as engineers can research with physicists. But my question is about the knowledge. Do they have the same or do physicists have a better grasp on the subject?
  5. Dec 25, 2015 #4

    Vanadium 50

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    Physics is not engineering and vice versa. I don't see how you can even be in the same field, much less compare knowledge.
  6. Dec 25, 2015 #5
    Looks like i am lacking a lot of information. But now if i like physics and research physics is the way to go right?
  7. Dec 25, 2015 #6
    Sure. But there are other factors to consider. Do you really like physics and research? You might think you, but you might be wrong. And what if you fail to get into research? It happens very often. I would not think it won't happen to you, because the chances are big. Have a Plan B ready for when physics research doesn't work out for you. This can go from engineering to programming.

    Yes, engineers can do research with physicists. But the two will very likely have different tasks and perspectives. They will not have the same knowledge at all, they will not have the same perspective and methodology at all. There is a big difference between a physicist and an engineer. One is not necessarily better than the other though. It depends on what you like.
    A (probably bad) example would be the LHC in Switzerland. The engineers there would build the tunnel and the machinery. The physicists might care more for the outcome of the experiment. It might be nice if somebody who knows more about this would make the difference clear.
  8. Dec 25, 2015 #7
    Depends maybe where you are. In Sweden, engineering degrees have a high status, and a degree of civilingenj├Âr Teknisk Fysik has the highest status of them all. Many of these go on to a PhD in areas like solid state physics, surface science, etcetera.
  9. Dec 25, 2015 #8
    Yeah it's like this in my country too but i love physics
  10. Dec 25, 2015 #9
    Thanks for the advice helped a lot
  11. Dec 25, 2015 #10
    Research is doing something that has never been done before. Engineering is doing something that has been done before. The distinction is a bit blurred because research always has elements that have been done before, and engineering always has elements that have never been done before, so it is a question of emphasis.

    As far as practicalities go, there is a great deal of money to be earned by selling variations on things that have been done before. There is usually very little money to be earned by selling things that have never been done before. But there are some exceptions, like building a quantum computer. It is quite possible that the patents on that would be worth a lot of money.

    Some (most?) physics PhDs go into engineering. They would be inclined to be in the more speculative end of engineering, like working with superconductors. Such "gee-whiz" "cutting edge" things may be funded by venture capitalists who will fund twenty ventures and hope one works out bigtime. That's what I did as a programmer. My boss was an ex-professor from a hotshot university. The system was a scaled-up, commercial version of his experimental systems at Carnegie-Mellon.

    There are things like the Google search engine, a pretty simple idea but it had yet to be done. So in a way it was research, but once you had the idea then the whole shebang that followed it was engineering. Google does things like design their own switches to handle vast amounts of data. That's cutting-edge engineering.

    It is hoped that something like the LHC will spin off technology that may be profitably exploited. So work experience there could translate into getting hired for these new ventures.

    As a physics PhD you usually commit to a technology. If it makes it big, you might make it big too. If not, not.
  12. Jan 4, 2016 #11


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    That is not hope, that is reality. Both space (radiation-hard electronics) and medical (particle detectors in various types) industries are happy to get research results from particle detector development, for example. Engineers and physicists often work together there, sometimes with a slighly different focus (e. g. the engineer cares about the mechanical properties of a material, the physicist investigates the electrical properties), sometimes with the same work. There are many tasks for a physicist where you won't see engineers, and tasks for engineers where you will rarely see a physicist, but there is also some overlap.
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