Mechanical Engineering (BS) Vs. Pursuing Physics PhD

Should I stay in physics and pursue a ME degree? Or should I switch to engineering and try to get into a PhD program?In summary, an undergraduate sophomore is considering pursuing a mechanical engineering degree or a PhD in physics. After transferring from community college to University, he realized that he would need to retake many AP courses at a higher price, and chose to attend community college for two years to save money. He later changed his major to physics and is currently doing research with a solid state physicist. He is questioning whether or not to pursue a ME degree or switch to engineering to pursue a PhD.
  • #1
Hello everyone. Currently, I am an undergraduate sophomore planning to study physics and in the process of transferring from community college to University. I am seeking advice on deciding between pursuing a mechanical engineering degree (BS) or a PhD in physics. My journey so far has taken many turns. But to understand my present dilemma, I must first give some background...

NOTE: I know this post is long. I don't want that to discourage anyone from not reading/not posting, so if you desire, you can jump to the dilemma section below. I do however, suggest you read the background.

A Brief Personal Overview
1.) I went to a very competitive high school that was ranked highly in STEM. It was there that I became inspired by math, physics and chemistry. In my sophomore chemistry class, I decided to combine my love for STEM and clean energy and pursue battery science (and I chose chemistry as my major at the time).
2.) I was slated to attend UC Santa Barbara, but after learning that I would have to retake many of the college level AP courses I excelled in during high school at the cost of $3,000 per college course, I felt that this was money not well spent. Thus, I opted to attend community college for the first two years, saving me a lot of money and future student debt.
3.) At community college, my degree focus began to shift during my second semester. My physics professor at the time, who is a solid state physicist by training (closely related to batteries), turned into a sort of mentor for me. His teaching style (start with the fundamentals, imagine a system, develop the mathematical model, and so forth) has rubbed off on my own tutoring style (tutoring is my side job) and has captivated how I study and see the world. I loved his class and his approach to science so much, that I changed my major to physics. The idea that I could derive the universe from the ground up was extremely powerful to me, and is something which is not as stressed in chemistry (hence why I left). This fall (my third semester), I've actually been doing research with that very same professor, testing ferroelectric and piezoelectric properties of materials.
4.) While I will always be inspired by theory, advanced maths, etc., I have forever craved application. My entire life, I've been engineering things. Whenever I came across a new machine (computer, simple lever, literally anything) I wanted to know how it worked. Over the years, I always had side projects. For example, my second most recent project was building a replica of Eddie Van Halen's guitar, which was a complete reverse engineering job where I learned to design and solder. My most recent endeavor, inspired by the youtuber Matthias Wandel, has been to build woodworking machines from wood, some trash picked induction motors, and my imagination. I've basically taken over my parents' entire garage with a full workshop, and recently, I just finished a building a bandsaw from scratch. I have several more projects in the works, and I am about to start taking up electronics on the side as well. I can honestly say that I am the most happy when I'm in my shop. In total, I've never really been one to set-up pure science experiments, but rather, I was either building/tinkering with physical things or setting up engineering style experiments.

The Dilemma/TLDR

Since I've just began dipping my foot into the research arena, I asked myself a two simple questions. "If I want to continue researching the cutting edge science which fascinates me, I will need a PhD. Since jobs in academia are hard to come by, are there physics opportunities in the private industry? And if there are not (or not many), is the opportunity cost of a physics PhD worth it if I end up in engineering or computer science (both of which only require four year degrees)?" Further, a few weeks ago, I decided to search for "mechanical engineering" and "solid state/condensed matter physics" jobs online. The search results SHOCKED me. My physics professor has always said that the opportunities in private industry for cutting edge research are out there, you just need to get hooked up with companies early and look for co-op type programs to help guarantee careers after grad school (which is amazing advice). But, while my searches provided hundreds, even thousands of open ME jobs, there were very few physics related careers. So I am skeptical (my scientific/pragmatic brain is kicking in).
While I love both science and engineering, I'm trying to look at my situation as holistically as possible. I want to consider happiness, fulfillment, length of education, opportunity cost of not working during 20's, job opportunities, salary, challenging work/curriculum, etc. I also know that money isn't everything, but if I dedicate my 20's to a PhD, I don't think it is unreasonable to desire a "reward" at the end, namely being capable of finding a stable job, good salary, etc. Lastly, here are a few things to keep in mind/recap/final thoughts...
1.) Most of my personal experience is basically in engineering. I'm an extremely hands on person, but I still love the nitty gritty, fundamental theory and the challenges that physics presents. I've always dreamed of making discoveries and inventing new things.
2.) I really, really, really love learning. Because many of the projects/theories that I have done/studied outside of school have been self taught, I have no problem teaching myself engineering skills or physics on the side. I constantly find myself watching engineering youtube videos, searching through MIT opencoursware, etc. These sources are extremely valuable tools for me, and I will absolutely be utilizing them. In terms of school, I do find tests quite annoying, but at the end of the day, I love learning.
3.) I like the idea of research, but I'm not so fond of the physics philosophy that "once the discovery has been made, it's handed to the engineers to make something useful out of it." I want to be involved on both sides of the coin.
4.) If I stick with physics, I'll try and splice a lot of application (engineering and comp sci) into my education. For those of you who are not theorists or those that have gone from physics to engineering and/or comp sci, how did you sell yourself and your skills, despite not holding the piece of paper which "qualifies" you for employment in that field?
***5.) Since my interests are highly interdisciplinary, I know there will never be a perfect answer to my questions. In a nutshell, what is the best advice you all can offer me? Are there a lot of physics private industry jobs, or am I heading down a very long path towards a dead end? What do you think is the most appropriate path for my skill set/desires?

I seriously appreciate any responses and/or incites from everyone who posts on this feed. Any and every piece of advice will be considered and is a helpful contribution in my decision making process. Thank you!
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  • #2
Which physics courses did you and are you and will you take at the community college?
  • #3
So far I’ve taken mechanics and electromagnetism. I’m in the process of taking modern physics right now. That is all the pure physics courses that they offer
  • #4
****Decided to add a shortened version to this post, as the first one is way too long. I may just remake this into a separate post

-Very hands on, love to build and innovate
-Extremely proficient in math, physics, and chemistry. Have always been advanced/accelerated in all three subjects.
-Decent computer programming background
-Love theory
-Love the "ah ha" moments that physics provides
-Love applying theory to discover new things, create new products, etc.
-Fields that fascinate/interest me are Solid state, battery science, machines/mechanisms, clean energy, computers, electronics
-Limited jobs with physics PhD. Internet searches found that 1.) There are few industry physics jobs and 2.) Most go into comp sci or engineering
-Opportunity cost of PhD. I'll lose a great deal of money I could make and invest in my 20's.
-Could achieve the same R&D/research jobs with an engineering bachelors. OR, could find my niche in engineering and have a company pay for my masters instead of going through 10+ years of school for PhD

1.) Are my concerns valid/legitimate?
2.) What do you suggest best fits my skill set/background.
  • #5
Usually when I see these posts, I'm more optimistic for them, however these two lines: "Opportunity cost of PhD. I'll lose a great deal of money I could make and invest in my 20's.
Could achieve the same R&D/research jobs with an engineering bachelors. OR, could find my niche in engineering and have a company pay for my masters instead of going through 10+ years of school for PhD" then even in your OP, you made a wise choice going to a CC, but once again it was for money, and you disregarded the benefit of networking at a bigger university. (I'm glad it worked out though, so congratulations on making a connection at your current location!) Even here you chose money over networking. To get a good job, as your adviser said, you need to know the right people. You had the opportunity earlier, but went "Woah, this might be more expensive later on... let me go to a cheaper place..." But why didn't you just do that from the start? Obviously money means a lot to you, and you think about it enough to have switched. With that in mind, here is my advice: Don't get a physics PhD! Below is my reasoning why.

The fact that you're weighing out opportunity costs now is a bad sign. PhDs, in general, are VERY stressful depending on the lab you go into, and you already have that added baggage that you'll be missing out on money. What will happen when you reach a wall in your research, then come to the realization that you're putting in more hours than a person managing a gas station, and making less money than them after all these years of education? Will you give up and get your terminal masters? Who knows. You really have to LOVE physics to do this, and I'm saying this for us average folks (if you're a genius, then don't heed my advice).

Study the physics on your own, you know the faster route to get what you want: money. Two lines of your "worries" revolve around money, and the things you talk about loving aren't restricted to physics. Do the engineering. You'll have "ah-ha" moments, there is theory, and the opportunity for money is more immediate.

Good luck, it seems you'll be successful in whatever path you take.
  • #6
Romsofia, thank you for your reply and kind words. In response to your post...

1.) I agree that I should've possibly gone to University (or tried to transfer after one year instead of two) because there would've been more opportunities there. At the time (end of HS) I was too fixated on the cost of college and my lack of scholarships to realize that my choice to attend CC had networking costs. Oh well, hindsight is 2020.

2.) I totally agree that weighting the costs of a physics PhD as an undergrad sophomore is a really bad sign. I am glad that I'm doing it now and not my senior year of college though :) However, the tough part for me is that I love the nitty gritty complex mathematical and physical problems that physics presents. I also love failing. I know it sounds crazy, but as long as were not talking about a test I was just handed back, I thrive on making mistakes.

3.) Hopefully, after this research role with my professor I will find out if I like lab work. The issue is, my professor and I are actually building the equipment together and he wants me to take the reigns on theory and setup (to help me grow and learn) since he already understands most of the theory and setup. I don't think this is a good parallel to what I've heard about university labs...

4.) ***My main question in response to your post would be if my concern in the second line is legitimate; The second line read: "Could I achieve the same R&D/research jobs with an engineering bachelors? OR, could find my niche in engineering and have a company pay for my masters instead of going through 10+ years of school for PhD?"

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