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!

Master's Degrees: Are Physicists or Engineers more employable?

  1. Dec 20, 2012 #1
    So, I've come to the end of my undergraduate education, and am a bit stuck on the next step to take. Quick background: I'm a physics major with a math minor, and have but one semester to go until I graduate in December 2013 (will be done with physics and math by spring 2013 but due to a technicality on my degree won't be graduating till December). My grades aren't stellar, but they aren't terrible either. I have a 3.1 GPA; should be in that neighborhood, (hopefully a little higher but we'll see) when I graduate.

    After doing some research, I think going to graduate school for a master's is the track that best suits me for several reasons. One is that I really still have no clue what I want to do with my life, and this will give me a little more time to explore various options. Also, from the research I've done, it seems a Master's is required for entry into fields that interest me.

    My main question is this: Would it be advisable for me to go for a master's in physics or engineering? My advisors (physics professors from a small liberal arts college) seem to hold the view that a master's in physics is an oddball degree that limits employability in all realms (industry, academia, etc.) and that the only thing you could do with it would be teach physics at a community college (which I have no intention of doing). I really don't have any insight into a master's of engineering degree. The college I attend has a very small physics department, and most of our graduating physics majors each year are on the physics PhD track, so this is what advisement is geared towards. Our engineering majors leave after their junior year to complete their degree at a nearby famous technical school. But I've had all (and more) of the classes that our engineering transfers take, so I should be able to go into an engineering track with little catchup to do.

    Okay sorry I'm rambling, here are my interests:
    Alternative energy research (solar, hydrogen, geothermal, anything really)
    Automotive industry (design, mainly around vehicles that utilize new energy sources and making them practical)
    Aerospace industry
    Scientific support / field research (I found a position advertised for one of the antarctic bases that does physics, astronomy, and geology resarch, but of course they wanted at least a master's degree)
    And my dream job, if I could do anything in the world, would be an astronaut of course :) (something at the intersection of aviation, research, and current exploration)

    So, Physics or Engineering master's. Which do you think? (thanks in advance for all insight and suggestions!)
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 20, 2012 #2
    Engineering master's, hands down. A physics master's won't get you anywhere.
  4. Dec 20, 2012 #3
    I am not so sure that graduate school is a good option if the major reason is that one does not know what one wishes to do with one's life. Purely in my experience, one either drifts through, and does not get good grades, since they don't have a strong desire to be there for its own sake. Or one does focus and do well, but spends no time doing serious research into careers. So you end up in the same position, only with a master's that may or may not be relevant to what you still do not know you would like as a career.

    Why not take a job, if possible, related to your areas of interest, while you try to figure out what you'd like - by doing serious research, rather than just by pondering (which I am not suggesting is all you are doing; after all, you're asking on here for advice!). If you then need graduate school, so be it.

    Failing that, I would suggest engineering. Engineering is a well-respected degree across many fields. It is, like law and medicine, a profession. So part of what you will learn is how to do all those (post)graduate things needed in any professional job, and all the technical things required of engineers too, but you will learn to do them working within constraints of time, money, legal frameworks, ethical considerations, resource limitations, and client specifications. I.e. project management. In many industries, the variety, responsibility and money is at the level of project management (and above).

    I am happy to be corrected, but I am not so sure many other degrees, including physics, place such an emphasis on those professional skills, since a professional physicist's industry is academia, which has a not identical set of requirements to what we might call 'industry'.

    Good luck.
  5. Dec 20, 2012 #4
    note that engineering masters will not teach you the basics of engineering. Seems obvious but some forget that you won't be learning circuits anymore. You'll be learning upper division electives in more mathematical detail, which still won't give you the foundation knowledge you need.

    Also you have to pay for a MS in engineering while many state universities will let you T.A. even as a MS student in physics. My undergrad school (top 50 big state) has a funded terminal MS program geared for physicists wanting to go to industry with the option of continuing for a PhD there. It is ALOT of work though; you need to teach for a year, write a publishable thesis while taking 10 required classes; typical time to graduation is 2-3 years.
  6. Dec 20, 2012 #5


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Homework Helper

    To add to that: so far, you have spent your time in college learning to think like a physicist, not like an engineer. Given a choice between a physics and engineering applicant for an industry job, that can tip the balance.

    What's the difference? A slightly tongue in cheek answer: if something isn't working, physicists want to set up a research project to find out why, and write papers about it. Engineers just want to fix it and move on to the next task in the in-box.
  7. Dec 20, 2012 #6


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I did physics undergrad, then tried electrical engineering masters for a while. I loathed it. Consistent with what Aleph is saying, I would ask questions about the nature of the phenomena that were brought up and the teacher would look a me like I was speaking in alien tongue.

    I just didn't realize how much I was trained to ask different questions than engineers cared about.

    I eventually (within one year) shifted to theoretical/computational neuroscience and have found everything I was ever looking for.
  8. Dec 21, 2012 #7
    There are post-grad engineering conversion courses meant for science graduates. There are post graduate medicine, optometry, medical imaging, teaching courses too.
  9. Dec 21, 2012 #8
    I too have a BS in Physics with a Math minor. I moved into engineering, and for what I do, a degree called engineering on my resume would have made it easier to break into the field, but my physics education has been more than sufficient to teach me everything I needed to know to get started. I learned everything else I needed to know on the job.

    Think about what you want to do. As an engineer, I've learned a lot of really interesting things, but I need to be concerned with getting things done and making money. There are interesting technical questions that I will never pursue because the payoff isn't there. I like doing this work, so I am OK with not knowing some things. Someone else may look into that. If you want to be that someone else, a career in science may be a better fit for you.
  10. Dec 21, 2012 #9
    As an aside, the choice between science and engineering isn't precisely a choice between academia and industry. I work in a high tech industry, and we employ scientists to gain a deep, fundamental knowledge of the materials we specialize in. However, these scientists are much fewer in number than the engineers that apply that knowledge to make products.
  11. Dec 21, 2012 #10


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    This is, of course, false. A physics masters can get you lots of places. An engineering masters is more likely to get you employed, by physics masters is a very diverse degree, so your domain of employment is more diverse.
  12. Dec 21, 2012 #11
    Sounds about right to me. A masters in physics is generally a failed physics PhD. People dont often go for a masters in physics in the US, for the reasons you mentioned. I have seen professional science style, applied physics terminal masters degrees at some universities. They are generally geared towards internships and employment like an engineering degree is, they are about taking a science major and getting some industry marketability.

    Otherwise, stick to engineering.
  13. Dec 21, 2012 #12
    I've never seen any evidence that a physics masters can get you anywhere a physics bachelor's or engineering master's can't. I've never seen a job listing that specifically said master's degree in physics. What exactly is this "diversity" of a physics masters? When I got my masters I was just from taking advanced mechanics, QM and E&M courses. I don't see any diversity there that would actually be useful for acquiring employment.
  14. Dec 21, 2012 #13
    They don’t.

    However, you can get some good research experience while getting the masters that can sometimes put you ahead of those with a BS. As of a few years ago, you could get a 20 month masters degree, go to work for the government, and have a higher income potential than you would have with a PhD (starting early + raises made up for the initial income difference) or a BS. Something similar (but not so cut-and-dried) was true of some corporate shops. So I don’t think a masters degree in physics is any more hopeless than any other degree in physics.

    I would agree, however, that a masters in engineering is superior in pretty much every way.
  15. Dec 21, 2012 #14
    Thank you very much for all of the responses and insight! Due to my limited exposure to engineering, and the fact that I have for the most part enjoyed my physics courses, I was simply assuming that a physics master's was the way to go. But now I think I am quickly changing my mind based on all of the research I have done into the matter. I certainly wouldn't want potential employers to simply see me as a failed PhD (unless something drastically changes I just don't want to stay in school long enough to obtain a PhD).

    You are quite right, the engineering students and the physics students don't think the same way or see eye to eye on most issues. I can not classify myself as totally in one camp or the other though, so I suppose this is where some of the difficulty lies. Like the physicists, I enjoy seeing the broader picture of why things work or how to explain certain phenomena. But then like the engineers, I get bugged when we never actually do anything with the material. I wish there was a meeting point halfway between engineering and physics.

    I understand that if I choose an engineering masters, there will be a little catchup to do, but I don't think it will be too bad and I'm motivated enough to go through it.

    Ben Epsen, thank you especially for your comments since you have a very similar situation to mine. How hard was it for you to directly break into an engineering position with the physics major and math minor? How did the high tech industry see you as an applicant?

    Again, thank you all for your help!
  16. Dec 22, 2012 #15


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Employment isn't really about waiting around for someone to ask for your degree, especially if you go education route. Education makes you your own product that you have to market yourself. Master's (Even a BS) in Physics is highly marketable for many quantitative occupations (including engineering).

    Now I know some engineers are offended by this, but it's not like a physicist can just casually stroll into any engineering job. Different domains of engineering overlap with physics in different ways and the general quantitative training that exists in both are applicable to each other. But a physicist is definitely equipped to go down many different engineering routes, if they put in the time to learn about the specific branch.

    Here are the employment statistics for Masters:


    Notice only about 10% of them go to work outside of STEM-type jobs.

    When looking for diversity, you're thinking too literally. It's the way of thinking, the quantitative approach. Having taken those classes, you should have a fairly directed idea of how to mathematically model just about any process you have sufficient data for or perform quantitative analysis on sets of data. Most physicists nowadays should know how to utilize scientific programming software too.

    This is all helpful in a wide variety of jobs, from marketing and business analysis, to selling tech products, to actually doing research in a STEM field.
  17. Dec 22, 2012 #16
    Weirdly, if we are to believe the APS, substantially more phds leave STEM than masters. I don't know why engineering companies would be reluctant to hire phds but would take in masters.

    I personally found after my phd that it was very, very difficult to get engineering companies to even interview me, and most of my cohort felt similarly. As a group, most of us couldn't find decent employment until we gave up on STEM.

    EDIT: Wait, they've broken the data down funny. That graph is only the 49% of masters that got labeled as working in 'the private sector'. Also, if you read the methodology section, you'll see that their survey only accounts for 39% of degree recipients, and another 40% of that information didn't come from the students themselves so there are pretty big reporting problems.
    Last edited: Dec 22, 2012
  18. Dec 22, 2012 #17


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    Well, presumably the other 51% (of the 61%) are in government or academia, right? So they didn't leave STEM.

    As for the reporting method, that is kind of strange, but really my only task was to refute that the MS was "worthless".

    As for PhDs, don't they tend to be overqualified for ship jumping? You can pay an MS less and still probably takes just as much training for the new kind of work (of course this will vary from position to position).
  19. Dec 22, 2012 #18
    I haven't checked the graph, but they could well be unemployed, back in school or flipping burgers. If not, then 51% of *MS* grads in academia or government is pretty awesome.

    I don't know about "overqualified."

    Can people not just offer jobs to people they think can do it, and then the person can decide if they'd want to work for that much? I understand how colleges reject people they can't offer financial aid to (happens to many international students at need-aware colleges), and the main reason - other than they don't have the money to spare - is to protect their yield.

    While I am no authority on the subject, I reckon engineering jobs pay more than post-docs. For a fresh PhD, the "I have to pay this guy more because he has a PhD" argument doesn't really fly, as just paying slightly more than a postdoc (is the average salary of postdocs not 35k-ish?), as people with engineering BS degrees start with that much, if not more.
  20. Dec 22, 2012 #19


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    "Flipping burgers" would be private sector, non-stem, don't you think?
  21. Dec 22, 2012 #20


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    And yes, engineering is better for employment, I never disputed that! I think I even explicitly said it. I was replying to a post that called physics MS worthless.
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook