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My Dilemma With Physics (Engineers please read too!)

  1. Dec 7, 2009 #1
    Hi all, I am currently going through some difficult times with respect to my academic career. This might be a lengthy post, but I would really appreciate any feedback, experiences, and suggestions.

    I always achieved good grades in high school (90%+) without trying too hard. I decided to take physics in university, since I couldn't decide on something more specific (engineering), I felt that physics would give me a good background, and an additional 4 years to figure out what exactly I wanted to do. My first year went well, getting an average well over 80%, and second year I maintained above 80%. In my second year, I almost made the switch to electrical or mechanical engineering. I simply couldn't decide what I wanted, and had I switched, my degree would have taken a total of 5 years (receiving a BEng and minor in physics). So I decided to stick it out with physics.

    Now I am in third year and having second thoughts about physics. The whole reason I went into physics in the first place was to satisfy my curiosity, I wanted a fundamental understanding of how things work, and be able to extend this to practical applications. I now feel, as a third year student, that the material I am learning is way to abstract. I feel as if I am being trained to be a string theorist, and I fear that next year, it will only be worse. My motivation to study physics has declined. I probably studied harder in first year than I do in third year. Theories of quantum mechanics and relativity, for example, drive me insane. I hate how they do not agree with each other, yet they are both widely accepted. Something major is obviously wrong with these (or one of them), but that is not for me to figure out.

    I am more of a hands on type of person, with a passion for understanding the nature of the physical universe. I want to work with real models. For example, I want to make cars safer in crashes, design a high efficient wing for the next supersonic airliner, or build a craft to take humans to Mars.

    So here is my dilemma:

    Should I stick it out the next 1.5 years of physics, forcing myself to accept what I am told, with the end goal of graduate school in engineering. It will be difficult to maintain the 80% required for graduate school, especially if my motivation continues to decline.

    Or should I call it quits after this year, receiving a 3 year BSc Major in Physics. I am under the impression from reading around that this degree will be pretty useless. If I choose this path, I would start a degree in mechanical engineering next year. Hopefully I could find a school that would accept some of my physics credits, and get my BEng in 3 years. I need to know though, is an engineering degree going to be more hands on, applicable to real world problems? For example when I went to some engineering information sessions, I see the students showing off something they designed and built that accomplishes a specific task. Whereas when I go to a physics information session, I get some posters explaining some phenomenon, and if I'm lucky, a flying magnetic ring demonstration or something like that. While that is very interesting, it seems pretty useless until applied to a real world problem.

    I hope that I don't come across as bashing physics too hard. I have a great respect for the subject, and am very grateful for what I have learned. Over the past 3 years I have become much more aware of the world around me. Studying physics really has made me a better human being.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I look forward to your replies.
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 7, 2009 #2
    My university offers a "physics engineering" degree which acts as a kind of hybrid between science and engineering. Perhaps your college offers something like this. The best bet is to talk to an academic adviser. I hope everything works out for you.
  4. Dec 7, 2009 #3
    It's pretty clear what you wanted was engineering. I don't know why you chose physics in the first place.

    good luck. I don't really which is a better choice. Maybe you should talk to your academic adviser.
  5. Dec 7, 2009 #4
    This tells me you would prefer engineering. Engineering will be a more hands on that physics.
    If I was you I would talk to you advisors and some grad schools about the possibility of finishing up your physics degree and then going to grad school for mechanical engineering. See how long it will take to get your masters. Doing this might take the same amount of time, maybe a little more, than if you were to drop physics now and switch to engineering.
    If you are sure you don't want to go to grad school then I would switch now to engineering rather than waiting and wasting more time.
  6. Dec 7, 2009 #5


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    Staff: Mentor

    Finishing your physics degree and then going on to a master's in engineering is definitely a viable route, at least in the USA. Many of the physics majors at the college where I teach, do this. I suspect you're in Canada, and the situation may be different there, in terms of admission to engineering grad school, so if this idea appeals to you, you need to find out whether it's workable.

    If you switch to engineering right now, you'll probably have to spend at least an extra year in school to finish a bachelor's. If you think there's a good chance you'll want to go on to a master's after that, for professional reasons, then it would save time overall to do the physics bachelor's / engineering master's combination. And a mixed background like that might make you more attractive to some employers.
    Last edited: Dec 7, 2009
  7. Dec 7, 2009 #6
    Or has an applied physics track, which is what my school does. Still counts for a physics major, but it's less about string theory and more real world stuff. Another option is doing applied research with someone and seeing if you can pick up some credits that way, at least enough to get out of a few classes you don't want to do. Also, see if course substitutions are an option (engineers in my school can sometimes swap in science courses for some of the required engineering courses, maybe your department can let you do it the other way around.) Basically, go talk to an advisor and see if you can hack out a way to make that last year more doable.

    Depends on the school and the field. At my school, 2/3rds of the major is a bunch of a theory and math courses where we learn all the fundamental's we've gotta then apply to the real world. The other 1/3rd is labs, project courses, and senior design (where it all gets put together.) All the cool stuff we build tends to be for competitions (usually run by student clubs or for a design course) and clubs, so it's often an extra-curricular project. Some schools are better than others at connecting the theory to the practical.
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