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Mixing physics and engineering?

  1. Mar 5, 2006 #1
    I'm attending high school, and I'm seriously thinking about my career options. I have always loved thinking and solving problems. This year, I'm taking physics and I love it, I also do well in math. I definitely want to major in something related to physics, but what? I think I will enjoy the education that a physics undergrad receives, but I simply do not like what that education is geared towards, like teaching and research. On the other hand, I really like the kind of work engineers do. I know engineers also use and learn physics, but I think I won't be truly happy unless I study physics, but then I don't like what "physicists" generally do.
    So, what kind of an education would provide the knowledge and undderstanding of physicists, but the skills of an engineering? Is it possible and wise to do something like a BS in Physics, and then to merge into engineering? or to double major in physics and engineering? (although I'm not really considering doing that) I just can't help thinking that an all out physics degree might be fun to get, but it might get boring afterwards. Quite simply, how can one learn what a physicist does but be employed as an engineer? Any thoughts and suggestions would be appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 5, 2006 #2


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    Staff: Mentor

    Many of our physics BA graduates go to grad school and get a master's in some engineering field.
  4. Mar 5, 2006 #3
    look into an engineering physics program, or maybe dual major in some engineering field and applied physics.

    Also, many physics programs have tons of open electives, and you can fill all of those open electives with engineering classes if you wish.
  5. Mar 5, 2006 #4
    May I ask what is there you don't like and find boring in what physicists generally do? I am right now in my 1st year at university studying physics, and I'm really questioning myself what I'll be doing later.
    I on the contrary don't even consider engineering for some reason (I'm thinking to try myself in theoretical physics, but still I'm unsure). On the other hand I don't know really much about their work possibilites. What is there you like so much in engineering?
  6. Mar 5, 2006 #5
    $$$$ :biggrin:
  7. Mar 5, 2006 #6


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    I'm sorry, but I had to ask.

    What exactly do you think physicists "generally do"?

    I find that many people, especially kids your age, have a very jaundice impression of what a "physicist" is, thanks to Brian Greene and all the slanted coverage of physics.

  8. Mar 5, 2006 #7
    Thanks for the replies everybody...
    First of all, my knowledge of engineers and physicists is based primarily on "official" kind of perspectives found on websites, etc. Where a description of a physicist suggests something like... to be a physicist you must get a PhD to be even considered as a physicist, and that a physicist works on researching generally abstract concepts, as a professor in college/university while also teaching. Of course, these sources also mention that physicsts have a wide set of skills and can use their experience in a variety of jobs/careers as "hidden physicists." Personally, I like the broadness of a physics major, and I think that engineers and physicists are comparable, just that engineers are more specialized and have more technical knowledge relevant to their field.
    So, I think that physicists are more involved in research, and as I read on some website, they are concerned with shooting arrows in the air and drawing targets where they land.... whereas, engineers have targets and try to find the best way to shoot at them. I like to solve problems (ie: shoot at targets). For example, I like computer programming because you must find a way to write a program that is efficient and does whatever you want it to do, by using what you know.
    What I like about physics/physicists: broad knowledge and skillset
    What I dislike about physics/physicists: others don't generally see the applicability of physicists and prefer engineers in industrial jobs (at least thats the impression I have got from researching this topic thus far)
    What I like about engineering: They can be employed to solve problems, create, build, and APPLY their knowledge
    What I dislike about engineering: Its more specialized than a physics major, and since I love physics, I don't think I want to miss out on it
    Please correct any misconceptions I have... I would think that reality is a lot diffferent than what I can find on the internet, so your opinions will be helpful. Thanks
  9. Mar 5, 2006 #8
    Wow, I'm in the exact same position you are. I've been considering computer engineering vs. physics for almost all the same (potentially wrong) reasons. But I've applied to all my universities through the faculty of science so I'm kind of stuck.

    You should go to the website of a few companie's you can see yourself working for and check what they want physicists for. IBM and Intel are examples.
  10. Mar 5, 2006 #9
    This might interest you:

    (from the "Physics Engineering" thread)

  11. Mar 5, 2006 #10
    Can I hear the way you define what a physicists generally do? I only ask you because I would most likely fall in the age group with the 'jaundice impression' of what physicist do, and would like to correct my view now.

    Thanks in advance.
  12. Mar 5, 2006 #11
    Well, you can always do what I'm doing, which is studying a highly physics-laden area of engineering (specifically, quantum electronics). Not only do you get to study the design portion of engineering, but you also have an excuse to take a bunch of physics courses. However, you should probably know that while I have taken a bunch of QM-related courses, my knowledge of classical mechanics and relativity is sorely lacking.
  13. Mar 6, 2006 #12


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    If one were to look at the divisions under the wing of the American Physical Society (a professional organization that physicists in the US belong to), one would see that the LARGEST division is the Division of Condensed Matter Physics/Material Science. This means that close to half of the practicising physicists are in this field. But what is it?

    It is the field that studies, among other things, semiconductors, superconductors, magnetism, nanoscience, materials properties, magnetoresistance, etc.. etc. Condensed matter/material science is the ONLY subject area that has TWO different sections in Physical Review Letters journal. Physical Review B is the LARGEST monthly publication of any of the Physical Review series produced by the APS - and yes, it publishes condensed matter/material science papers. This is the subject area in which a direct practical application is your modern electronics.

    Yet, this field is not well-known to the general public. What most people see physicists as are those typify by Brian Greene, Richard Feynman, Albert Einstein, etc... who are all THEORISTS. There's nothing wrong with that, but a significant and large chunks of physicists are experimentalists, and we work in areas that are not esoteric, not abstract, and not without direct applications.

    I wrote this in my journal a while back about this area of physics, but since most people have no reason or inclination of reading such thing, I'll repost it here:

    There is also one other issue involved that Integral has mentioned. There are MANY physicists with PhD's in condensed matter who work in places such as Intel, Applied Materials, Xerox, Hewlet-Packard, etc. Unfortunately, their positions are titled with an "Engineer", such as process engineer, program engineer, etc.. yet, these people have Ph.D's in physics. It is why some people think these are engineering degree holders.

  14. Mar 6, 2006 #13
    Ah. I understand. Thanks for the clarification, ZapperZ. I checked out the rest of your journal which was an excellent read, by the way.
  15. Mar 6, 2006 #14
    I think it's entirely possible for someone to find physics research boring (yes, I see that condensed matter research IS applicable to electronics industry, but probably decades after the research has initially found something (if extremely lucky)), while they find physics curriculum very intellectually satisfying and thus exciting.
    Considering electrifice is a high school student, he seems to have a very well-informed idea about what might work for his own interests.
    I think most physicists in academia (if not all) will agree that physics research is reserved for those who are interested in physics for physics' sake only.
    Last edited: Mar 6, 2006
  16. Mar 6, 2006 #15
    Thank you ZapperZ for the informative reply. It provides more insight about physicists. I understand (after reading the excerpt), the application of condensed matter physics to modern electronics, but it seems that this field like other physics fields involves heavy research (which unlike some other physics research is far more applicable to electronics, etc.) However, the portion of a physics education that does not interest me IS the research. Although I don't hate "research" itself, I want to research and create and build something from existing knowledge, rather than completely conducting research in order to find new knowledge, to expand the frontiers of science or even condensed matter physics in this case.
    Nevertheless, I am considering (more heavily now), a B.S. in physics because it seems to be quite flexible and leaves many choices open for grad school (correct?) I would like to know, therefore, how useful is a B. S. degree in physics? I would like to be able to find employment in something physics/engineering related before entering grad school. Is that possible with this degree. I am not interested in the amount of pay (right out of undergrad studies, at least), just employment. Again, thanks for all your opinions, its quite helpful.
  17. Mar 6, 2006 #16


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    A BS in physics wont open many doors in terms of employment without going to grad school. You also wouldnt be able to work as an engineer after a BS in physics, since engineers need accreditation. If you go into physics, you must be ready to go for at least a masters, and most likely a phd.
  18. Mar 7, 2006 #17
    How does that compare with a degree in Applied Physics? Also, many sources mention that physics degree holders are able to work as engineers, and that many do, so do they also get the engineering accreditation? btw, I am ready to go for at least a masters, just not sure whether a masters in physics, which is why I am curious to know how one can transition from a physics degree to a masters in an engineering field.
  19. Mar 7, 2006 #18
    You don't need "engineering accreditation" to practice as an engineer in any state.

    However, to stamp engineering designs that have a safety liability, then you need to be a licensed P.E. Also, if you want to practice engineering independently (aside from a corporation) you must have a P.E. If you want to open your own private firm and you don't have a P.E., then another principal (if any) must have a P.E.

    To get a P.E. in michigan (requirements vary from state to state) you must graduate from an ABET accredited engineering program (no physics majors), take the FE exam (and pass), work 4 years as an engineering in training under a P.E., and then take the P.E. exam. the FE and PE exams are both 8 hours long. the FE is closed book (they give you a reference seet with various constants), and the PE is open book (you can pretty much bring any reference you want. Thre are people that bring an entire card of books along.)

    So people with physics degrees can work as engineers for industry, but there are certain things they cannot do that a licensed engineer can do, like open their own engineering firm.
  20. Mar 8, 2006 #19
    So, would you possibly be considered for a position (as a physicist) that asked for an EE/CE if a PE wasn't needed?
  21. Mar 8, 2006 #20
    I was also wondering about that... how does a physicist compare with an engineer for an engineering job... Its obvious that the engineer would be better suited, but how would a physics major compare, especially one with a masters in an engineering discipline?
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