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Mind says Engineering, heart says Physics Don't know what to do

  1. Nov 4, 2014 #1
    To keep it short, I am an Engineering undergrad. As the days go by, I keep coming closer to accepting the fact that I enjoy - and am passionate about - physics more than I am about Engineering. I know it would probably be easier to get a job with an Engineering degree(assumption?), and that would be the wiser decision, but I can't help but think that I would rather take the chance and switch my major to Physics (which I can, easily). With physics, I can rely on fundamentals, rather than relying on creating from methods used by others. Engineering is a collection of knowledge of the STANDARD ways to do things, while physics is full of fundamental concepts. My career goals/dreams are overly optimistic and laughable so I won't share them, but I can say that I don't fully know what I want to do yet, career wise.

    Is there a huge difference between the two? Do I follow the road less traveled, or do I take the beaten path? Sure, Engineering isn't a common major anyway, but physics is even more rare. I feel like this is a crisis that everyone goes through at some point... passion vs. the "reasonable" thing to do.

    PS. I am highly interested in both (specifically Aerospace for the engineering part) I just feel like I personally would enjoy learning physics more, because of the broadness. Also, sorry If I make things seem so cut and dry, I'm sure there are exceptions to everything, but I'm trying my best to make sense of the world with my inexperienced mind.
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  3. Nov 4, 2014 #2
    I disagree that engineering is a collection of knowledge of standard ways of doing things. There are engineers who copy what's been done before, but there are other engineers who are innovators.

    If you are not good at networking and that sort of thing, that should be a concern. Right now, new college graduates are having a really hard time with jobs. Look at the job postings for generic quantitative type back-up plans jobs. They are scary as hell. It's not a good time in the job market for people who don't fit into a specific industry slot.

    I had a situation like that and switched from engineering to math, but it turned out horribly in the long run. From an outsider's point of view, it might have seemed like a big gamble at the time, since it was based on a few weeks of real analysis class, essentially. For a while, it looked like I had made the best decision, ever. I was very happy for a while. Until one day I had to write a dissertation and study research level stuff, and then it sort of blew up in my face and ruined my life, unless I can recover from it (been tutoring for a year now, making a few hundred dollars a month). I also had a lot of trouble teaching, which turned out to be way harder than I thought.

    I think it has to be a little bit of a gamble that it will turn out that way for you because there's no real way to know what you're getting yourself into. A significant number of people don't even finish grad school, let alone get through postdoc purgatory. With an engineering job, you can just start up your life and make money right away. You'd be so much further ahead in life.

    The complexity that people have to deal with in grad school is horrendous. It's not really broad. These days, I think most scientists tend to be hyper-specialized, especially earlier in their career.
  4. Nov 4, 2014 #3


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    To the OP:

    homeomorphic has provided a cautionary tale based on his own experiences pursuing a PhD program in mathematics, but keep in mind that this is just one data point among many. I personally know a number of people who have ended up finishing a doctorate in math or physics who have ended up doing quite well, finding careers in areas that mesh well with the expertise they have gained.

    At the same time, there are a couple of factors you need to consider on whether you should pursue either engineering or physics. An engineering degree is first of all a vocational degree (much like accounting, law, medicine, dentistry, nursing, etc.), which specifically trains and educates their students (at least to a certain extent) to be able to apply the skills they have gained to specific problems found in industry. Therefore, an engineering degree is more often than not a more marketable degree than most "pure science" fields. A physics degree, on the other hand, is a degree program that teaches the fundamental theoretical bases of the physical world, but isn't especially tailored to a specific job per se.

    A physics degree can be employable or marketable under the right circumstances, but the burden is on you the student to be able to gain marketable skills (e.g. data analytical skills, programming skills, etc.) One way you can do this is to minor in or double major with another field, like computer science. The other is to finish a BS in physics, and then pursue either a graduate degree in another program (e.g. statistics, engineering, computer science), a graduate degree in specific physics disciplines that are employable (e.g. medical physics, geophysics), a professional program (e.g. medicine, law), or a post-degree certification program offered in community college (e.g. medical technologist).

    One thing I would advise you to do once you're in college/university (whether in engineering or physics) is to actively seek out and pursue internships while you are in school. Many companies, non-profits, and other organizations often hire students in internship programs, and these internships can provide you with valuable work experience and networking opportunities that can be valuable for you in terms of the job market once you graduate.

    Sorry for the long post, but I hope I've provided you with some additional information to think about.
  5. Nov 4, 2014 #4
    you can consider double major: engineering plus physics :)
  6. Nov 4, 2014 #5


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    I don't know where you got the idea that engineering isn't a common major. I can assure you that there are more than a handful of students enrolled as engineering majors and schools devoted exclusively to the study of various branches of engineering.

    This study by the American Soc. of Eng. Education shows that almost 90,000 undergrad engineering degrees were awarded in 2012, and that almost 50,000 graduate degrees were awarded.

    http://www.asee.org/papers-and-publications/publications/11-47.pdf [Broken]

    This survey done by the American Institute of Physics shows that the total number of enrolled physics students at all levels is but a fraction of the number of engineering students:


    If you want to study physics, be prepared to study it at the graduate level if you want to improve your chances of getting a good job.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  7. Nov 4, 2014 #6
    The department I am currently at is very applied, and I myself am doing applied physics (computational biophysics). The job opportunities seem to be good for recent graduates (PhD's), all of them have gotten great jobs.

    It's not the most efficient route, however. The only reason to pursue a PhD in computational biophysics (insert applied physics discipline here) is because you'd like to spend 5 years doing science; it would be much more efficient to just get a masters in engineering. It seems like the best of both worlds for me since I'd like to do science.

    If you pursue a pure discipline, such as pure math or theoretical high energy particle physics, life might be more challenging for you.
  8. Nov 4, 2014 #7
    your description of engineering means that either your school is bad, or you don't understand what it is yet (which is possible as e.g. until the third year I didn't have those moments where you see what kind of brains and thought being a good engineer requires).
    If engineering was just a bunch of standard ways of doing stuff, computers would do it, analog IC designers wouldn't exist.

    Engineering isn't rare at all, it's pretty popular.

    If I wanted to do physics, I would do engineering physics/applied physics or whatever it's called in your country. In Europe it's the physics that you study if you go to the technical universities. It's applied so there's higher chances of getting a job. The same goes for maths, they do lots of stuff like financial engineering, quantitative stuff, or scientific computation, instead of just pure maths. Which is quite unlike physics or maths at university.
  9. Nov 4, 2014 #8
    It's fair to say some people do well, but there is an element of chance involved, and as I said, people who are great at networking and selling themselves and stuff like that will be in better shape. And I'm not the only bad data point. Also, I think any story before 2008 doesn't count. The economy and job market got really bad around then, with the double whammy of the rise of computer screening systems that make it very hard to just apply to anything anymore, if you don't fit the exact specifications they want. Networking was important in the past, but these days, it's almost impossible to break in if you don't fit exactly into the job pigeon holes or have the right contacts and know how to use them. A sizable majority of jobs come from personal contacts, and in terms of the few people who get jobs by applying to them straight up, I would bet that the vast majority of them have tons of experience, so that they can fit, hand in glove, into many positions that are advertised.

    That being said, you can pursue more marketable paths than I did, and you can also prepare yourself for the job search jungle. One of my problems was that I wasn't aware of how much of a jungle it has become, so I wasn't very prepared. There are still risks, though, and it may not be the most efficient route, even if you end up doing okay. That's one of the key advantages of engineering. If I had just finished my BS EE, I would have been ready go at age 22. Even if I check my e-mail in 10 minutes and find out I finally am getting a job and getting my foot in the door, I'll still be years and years behind where I would have been.
  10. Nov 4, 2014 #9
    That's not necessarily true, I'll be the first to say I'm an outlier and I got really lucky; but in school I double majored in physics and EE and did ugrad research on nuclear fusion and space systems respectively, graduated in May 2014. Now (in the most general way I could define what I do) I work as an EE researcher on electrochemical instrumentation systems, I've been doing self-study but I didn't know any chemistry going in and what keeps me afloat is my past electronics experience and data analysis skills, no pigeon holing. I agree that students should learn more about networking and how to do it effectively (it sure as hell helped me get my ugrad research experiences), but sometimes your background can just stand out enough to do that work for you.
  11. Nov 4, 2014 #10
    I got really lucky, so many people say that. Don't be modest: brilliant and engaged people attract opportunities.
    You embarked on something difficult and got ugrad experience thanks to your networking and outstanding background. After that, if you just keep on doing your thing you'll be fine.
    The key issue is that your thing is something that only a small % of people achieve.

    It is not the same thing as going through the whole process and ending with a standard piece of paper in your hand, but no strong CV builders to go along with it. Once you're there, it's too late.
    At that point, the chances are lower. Even as an engineer in a good sector, you may have problems, if not finding a job, then finding a job that allows you to rapidly develop professionally.
  12. Nov 4, 2014 #11
    Thanks, and yeah I agree and try to let that fact be known that even an engineering degree can be a kiss of death for jobs if one doesn't have resume/CV builders to go along with it.
  13. Nov 4, 2014 #12
    Physics and EE. That's engineering. Double major with something marketable is a totally different story. EE is pretty hot. My dad is an EE professor at a not very prestigious school and is always saying all their graduates get jobs. Also, you didn't mention how you got the job. Networking or just applying for it. If you do networking, you have more of a chance for open-minded hiring.
  14. Nov 4, 2014 #13


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    If you major in physics make sure you do research. Paid undergraduate-assistantship level research if possible. It doesn't have to be in the physics department even. If you see an opening with any group in any department that looks like it would give you the skills you're looking for, do it. Make sure it's something that will result in a publication. Optimally the group will have multiple projects you can contribute to that could potentially result in multiple co-authorships. Once you have your foot in the door, ask around the group to see if anyone might want to work with you on an independent project that could get you some undergrad research grants/awards. Give presentations on your projects whenever undergrads are supposed to do them. These things all look magnificent on a resume/cv.
  15. Nov 4, 2014 #14
    I generally don’t like making specific suggestions for questions like this, however I was in a situation that sounds like it was roughly similar to your current one. In case it’s useful for you, I can tell you what my experience was and how I look back on the decisions I made. Just to let you know, one of my personality drawbacks is I’m fairly introverted and am terrible at networking (although I've improved) and selling myself. So being in the job market with a physics degree was harder for me than it would be for a lot of people.

    I didn’t know anything about academics when I started attending a university. I was good at math, so people suggested I major in engineering. Physics was obviously required (I hadn’t taken any physics or chemistry in high school), so I took it and really liked it. I liked it so much I decided to take the second year classes as electives while I was taking general engineering college classes, in other words classes not associated with a particular department in the college of engineering. I took a lot of the general engineering classes the college offered and was pretty much at the point where I had to decide on a specific engineering department. Trouble was I felt compelled to do physics, the more I learned about physics the more unanswered questions I had, which lead me to want to learn more physics. So I changed my major. The desire to learn more didn’t stop and I eventually ended up with a PhD (high energy theory) and then ended up writing software as a career (in my physics work I only used computers for writing papers, this was a complete shift).

    I don’t regret my decisions for a couple of reasons. One is, I’m not sure it was really a decision, if I hadn’t pursued physics as long as I did, I believe I would have felt a void for the rest of my life. The other is I went to a great grad school. It was a great experience, the best of my life (this is sort of a yin/yang thing, that also has a downside). However, the opportunity cost was quite high. I also had to start a new career from scratch after I left school. To repeat, being somewhat introverted likely made this transition more difficult for me than it would be for a lot of other people.

    Obviously I don’t know how things would have worked out if I had followed a different path like engineering or stopping physics after a BS (I do doubt this would have “gotten it out of my system”) and then doing something else or even skipping university studies completely. Since I can’t change anything and there are clearly a lot of variables, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.

    The thing you said that stands out to me is: “I am highly interested in both (specifically Aerospace for the engineering part)”. In this case I would be biased towards engineering. If I had felt that way I’d almost certainly be kicking myself for not doing engineering. If I had been on the fence and somebody had pushed me to the physics side, I would be pretty unhappy about it at this point.

    Best of luck to you, I know it's a tough call, but based on what you said, it sounds like either would be good.
  16. Nov 4, 2014 #15
    I agree with neyzentanburi

    Keep up exploring both directions, they will support one another. Do not treat the choices as exclusive options, take both :)

    This is my opinion and I hope hope it helps.
  17. Nov 4, 2014 #16


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    homeomorphic, let me make several points to what you mentioned above:

    (1) The examples I made include those who specifically graduated and entered the job market in 2009-2010.

    (2) Computer screening systems in HR have been in place for a lot longer than you think -- my sister worked in HR and they have been in place since at least as far back as 2002.

    (3) You are correct that networking was important in the past (and was the primary way for people to break into various job positions), and they are more important in the current job market in the US.

    (4) You are making a fundamental assumption that the job market and economy in the US when the OP graduates will be fundamentally the same or similar to what it is as of today. History has given plenty of counter-examples to disprove this assumption. It could well be the case that the economy and job market may well be significantly better by, say, 2016-2018 (there are indications that both employment prospects and overall economic growth have been picking up in the US over the past several months). So whatever advice you give now about engineering vs physics may not be applicable by the time the OP graduates.

    (5) Furthermore, engineering is not some panacea that guarantees solid employment. Certainly during 2008 it was not unheard of to hear of unemployed engineers, and there are graduates from engineering programs who have struggled to find meaningful employment.
  18. Nov 4, 2014 #17
    Actually, you are making an assumption that I'm making that assumption. I think it will be like that for a bit longer, but in the long term, I don't know how it will be. But it's a matter of luck, again, which is precisely my point. That it involves a gamble. Not that it is guaranteed to turn out badly.

    The rest of your points are fair, although some are a little nit-picky, but I don't think it's worth getting into.
  19. Nov 4, 2014 #18
    There are lots of unemployed EE's, nonetheless I just applied on Monster.
  20. Nov 5, 2014 #19
    Well, you still have to be afraid of the job market, no matter what your major is and be prepared. It seems like a miracle that anyone could ever get a job off Monster. One time, I got a call about an unpaid internship from indeed. I was pretty impressed that I even got that phone call. I really should have taken it, but I thought I had better prospects, and they didn't pan out.

    Even if I got my BS EE at age 22, and didn't get a job back then, it still would be a lot better than what I am going through now, for two reasons, the obvious one being getting more established at a younger age. The other reason is that it would have been a lot easier to see where I fit in. It would just be a matter of convincing someone to put me in a role that I fit into at least approximately. I wouldn't have to make a career change, just a career continuation. At least I would have a clear direction to take. I guess that might not be such a big advantage if I ended up having to pursue a non-engineering job, though.
  21. Nov 8, 2014 #20
    The answer seems blatantly simple to me. BS in engineering. MS and PhD in physics. Best of both worlds. Move on.

    I will say that physics and mathematics fields almost always require higher degrees (if I were hiring a physicist or mathematician, it would be a PhD).
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