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Myths vs. Facts About Majoring in Physics

  1. Jun 29, 2010 #1
    I just finished my first year as an undergrad, and am currently declared as a mechanical engineering major. However, I sort of have this nagging feeling that what I'd really like to study is physics (for the record, I am also considering changing which type of engineering I'm doing). In my frustrating attempts to choose between engineering and physics, I've gotten a lot of pretty vehement anti-physics advice from peers, family, etc. Problem is I don't necessarily feel like I should trust their assertions. Could someone with more experience provide some insight into the accuracy of these claims?:

    1. Engineers make tons of money, and physicists make hardly any. If you want a good salary, and for that matter if you want better work hours, you'd better go with engineering.
    2. You might think that you don't mind making less money now, but there's a very good chance that you'll eventually regret choosing the low salary option. No matter how interested you are in something, you won't be happy unless you're earning a decent living.
    3. There's a good chance you'll have no choice but to teach high school.
    4. Physicists just aren't very employable. If you want a job at all, you'll definitely need a PhD (not a huge issue since I was planning on going to grad school either way), and even if you do go to grad school, there's a good chance you'll have difficulty finding a job. There are more students trying to become physicists than there are jobs and grad school seats for.
    5. An engineering major only needs a 3.0 GPA to be pretty sure they'll get a job or get into a good grad program. Competition is a lot more intense in physics; you can't just be good, you have to be one of the best. Since nearly all physics majors are very intelligent, you have to be one of the best of the best.
    6. Lower level physics classes are fine, but the higher level ones are awful. Physics professors basically all have huge egos, are condescending towards their students, and try to make their class unnecessarily difficult.
    7. Choosing physics when you should have chosen engineering will be a bigger mistake than choosing engineering when you should have chosen physics.
    8. You have to be a superhuman genius and a complete workaholic to get anywhere in the field of physics.

    Also, if anybody who's been in my situation before has other advice about choosing between engineering and physics, I would love to hear it. Thanks!
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 30, 2010 #2
    1. That is true in most cases, but remember if you want to become a Physicist, you aren't doing it for the money. You will almost never be a wealthy man

    2. Haha in our society, money is power and it shows. I believe in Confucius' words "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a single day"

    3. I actually fear this...I was once a high school student.

    4. That is true, at least from this article http://physicspost.com/science-article-17.html [Broken]

    5. I think 3.0GPA is only for an internship, the competition in engineering is not easier as it is in Physics. But I think you hit the point home that there will be tough competitions.

    6. I've always thought it was freshman physics that are the weeder courses. I can't say much because I haven't taken higher level physics courses (which year do you mean?)

    7. Maybe only true if I was in your situation. This might be a subjective question

    8. If you want a job, maybe. Then again, what college major doesn't have work?

    I am in the same situation as you are right now honestly.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  4. Jun 30, 2010 #3

    Pengwuino

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    Those are mainly myths to be honest. Physics majors report some of the highest average incomes in the US. The REAL question, though, is whether you feel it's worth it. If you looked at how much work you have to put in as a student, you get a lot less 'bang for your buck'. The thing to realize though is that physics majors, for the most part, really enjoy what they do because of the fact that there is this myth that physicists are poorly paid high school teachers and no one wants to sign up for that kinda life. In my opinion, whether or not you live a comfortable or even well off life depends on how much financial savvy you have and less on what your income is.

    The idea that you have to be super duper smart to get anywhere in physics is also silly. There are people who are flat out dumb who are in physics just like there are in any field. It's really not as mythical of a field as people tend to think.

    Also physicists are very employable. The thing people don't seem to realize is that it's not always as a true physicist. One of the things you tend to see if you follow where people go is that physics majors can get engineering jobs and such much easier then you'd expect. They can also get into finance and those sort of jobs fairly easily as well. So yes, physicists are very employable, but in many cases not as much as you'd expect.

    In my experience, the lower division courses are the awful ones. Ask around as well and I bet you'll hear most people say that in lower division courses, professors just don't care at many big name schools. Even the upper division courses can be hit or miss... and pretty much MOST physics courses are weed-out courses. Some departments can have coures taught by specific professors that just happen to be extremely tough but that just varies from place to place.

    The idea of physics being a mistake, don't worry about it. If you dislike the field, you'll get out before it's too late. If you like it, most these myths won't even be an issue. You'll be doing something you love and not just doing something to make money with.
     
  5. Jun 30, 2010 #4
    1. Engineers and physicists earn comparable salaries, but in general, engineers will earn a bit more than physicists. I don't have info on work hours but I would imagine engineers work slightly longer hours due to more pressing industry demands and deadlines. Ultimately, salaries and work hours will be determined by the place of employment, branch of physics/engineering, etc.

    2. Engineers and physicists earn decent livings. If making lots of money becomes a concern you may always use the skills either field provides you and switch to a more lucrative career. There's a gentleman here whom has an astrophysics Ph.D. and works for a Wall Street firm; the gentleman earns a very high salary using his quantitative skills in finance.

    3. Not necessarily. If you don't want (or need) to teach in high school, you don't have to.

    4. According to the physicists that frequent these forums, if you want a research position, you must obtain a Ph.D. and, yes, the jobs in academia seem to be hyper-competitive just like seats at the highest ranked/U] graduate schools. However, your chances of landing a graduate school spot increase the lower you go down the ranks; also, many industries would be more than happy to hire a physics Ph.D. for their quantitative skills.

    5. Competition in both fields is very intense, especially for the top spots. The good news is that one doesn't have to be freakishly intelligent to succeed in either field, at least from what I can tell.

    6. I'm sure one may be able to find professors that meet those criteria in any field but what you describe is probably an incorrect generalization.

    7. Highly subjective.

    8. That applies to any human field where people strive to be the best of the best.
     
  6. Jun 30, 2010 #5

    phyzguy

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    Since you are planning on going to grad school anyway, one possibility is to delay the decision by getting a BS in physics and then deciding to go to grad school in either physics or engineering. I think with a BS in physics it is fairly easy to go to grad school in engineering, but going the other way is more difficult. In a few more years you may have a clearer idea what you want to do. This is what I did, getting a BS in physics, and an MSEE. Then, after working in industry for a while, I am now working on a PhD in physics.

    I think that while it is true that you can make good money in physics, you can start making a good salary a lot sooner in engineering, if money is your goal. I was making a good salary in engineering after my MS, while my friends were still in grad school and doing post docs at pretty low salaries for many years. It all depends how important the money is to you compared to the intellectual rewards in pure science.
     
  7. Jun 30, 2010 #6

    Pyrrhus

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    If you want to make money, get a BS in Physics or Math and then go do a PhD in economics. The high salary is guaranteed.
     
  8. Jun 30, 2010 #7
    I was in your position when I began recently, wanted to be go for aerospace. I realized my true passion was in pure physics and haven't looked back. The assertions about which you are concerned are mostly all myths, especially the one about the only position you will be able to secure is one as a highschool teacher. It is true that the competition for post doc and research positions are incredibly difficult, but that should not scare you, instead it ought to motivate you. It motivates me to know the integrity of a physics degree is solid and only the ones who truely wanted it got it. Of course landing those positions is difficult, but one can always have the back up plan to become an instructor at a lower tier uni and develop a research program. That's my plan b anyway. I say if you're already considering the switch this early in your degree, then go for it because you will end up wasting credits with classes like engineering economics and so on. Also as someone metioned, your salary is not the only way to generate income; with the quantitative and analytical skills developed from your degree, I would argue that with that backround one could be just as successful as the leading economists. Hope that helps.

    Joe
     
  9. Jun 30, 2010 #8
    1. Engineers make tons of money, and physicists make hardly any. If you want a good salary, and for that matter if you want better work hours, you'd better go with engineering.

    I don't think engineers make ALL that much more money than physicists. From what I understand, once you have a PhD in Physics, it's common to go work in industry, and the type of job opportunities there are much the same as the ones that engineers get hired for. Salaries in these cases are probably comparable for the two.

    2. You might think that you don't mind making less money now, but there's a very good chance that you'll eventually regret choosing the low salary option. No matter how interested you are in something, you won't be happy unless you're earning a decent living.
    It's not like physicists get paid peanuts! I doubt you'd find yourself in a situation where you're paid so badly that you'd start to think it's the biggest mistake you've ever made.
    We're not looking at Wall street money here, but salaries for physicists are nothing to raise one's nose at either.

    3. There's a good chance you'll have no choice but to teach high school.
    I have never even heard of teaching high school as an option for someone with a PhD in physics. At least where I'm from, you need to be qualified in education for that.

    4. Physicists just aren't very employable. If you want a job at all, you'll definitely need a PhD (not a huge issue since I was planning on going to grad school either way), and even if you do go to grad school, there's a good chance you'll have difficulty finding a job. There are more students trying to become physicists than there are jobs and grad school seats for.
    They definatly aren't very employable with just a B.Sc. Once you have a PhD it's a different story. One thing that IS true though is that, many employers just don't seem to know what it is that a physicist can do. They aren't all that common so that kind of issue raises its head a lot.

    5. An engineering major only needs a 3.0 GPA to be pretty sure they'll get a job or get into a good grad program. Competition is a lot more intense in physics; you can't just be good, you have to be one of the best. Since nearly all physics majors are very intelligent, you have to be one of the best of the best.

    Ahhh..kind of true. But it also depends on you ambitious you are. If you want to get into a top grad school, well either work for a 3.7+ GPA or prepare to be disappointed. Otherwise, if you set you're sights lower (average school) as long as you're smart, you shouldn't have any problems. Physics is a field with some of the smartest people I've ever met, and you have to have tough skin to not let it intimidate you too much, and simply work hard, believe in yourself and what YOU can accomplish.

    6. Lower level physics classes are fine, but the higher level ones are awful. Physics professors basically all have huge egos, are condescending towards their students, and try to make their class unnecessarily difficult.

    I'd say it's definitely the other way around. Classes only get more interesting with increasing level. Even senior year classes in undergrad are just...ok compared to the stuff that's offered at the graduate level, that's when things really start to get interesting!

    7. Choosing physics when you should have chosen engineering will be a bigger mistake than choosing engineering when you should have chosen physics.

    It's not difficult at all to go from an undergrad in Physics to graduate school in Engineering. Lots of people do that, I know many people who graduated with me and have gone on to do that (myself included). I actually regret it and want to go back to physics, but that's a different story.
    However, I've never heard of the opposite being done. I'm sure it's possible, I'm just saying I don't know anyone in Physics grad school who has an undergrad in Engineering.

    8. You have to be a superhuman genius and a complete workaholic to get anywhere in the field of physics.

    I'm not superhuman or a complete workaholic by ANY means. BUT, I do work hard and I'm smart. Just not superhuman!
    If you like something, you work hard at it, end of story.
     
  10. Jun 30, 2010 #9
    Wait why economics though? If i do a BS in math and some minor in economics, what will i be able to do with it?
     
  11. Jun 30, 2010 #10
    Read some of Twofish_quant's posts. He will give you excellent information about people who've majored in physics, but have careers that are not traditionally seen as physics major options.
     
  12. Jun 30, 2010 #11
    How do i find Twofish_quant's posts? How do i look up a user's info?
     
  13. Jun 30, 2010 #12
    1.) At my university all of the salaries are public knowledge. The department chair and a few of the distinguished professors make around $130k, but mind you that's at the end of their careers. My advisor is tenured and is about 50 years old, he makes $100k. Not bad. But the postdocs only make $40k or so. Becoming a professor is really hard since there are so few positions available, and the majority of physics PhDs don't get professorships. I guess you could do a PhD in condensed matter physics and go into industry. But you could probably also have an MS in engineering (I'm not really sure on this, just guessing). I don't really know how to compare physics PhDs and engineering BS.

    2.) Well I'm in my fourth year of a physics PhD program, and I definitely regret majoring in physics. If I could do it all over I'd probably have found the most employable engineering degree and done that. Physics is cool and all, and I don't mind the lower salary. But I want to have some sort of dependable salary, and I'm not sure what kind of job I can get with an astrophysics PhD after grad school. Personally I feel like my PhD will be not too many steps above an English major.

    3.) I know of only one physics PhD who teaches middle school, and that's because he geniunely likes it. I know of no physics BS people who are doing this. I think "you'll have no choice but to teach high school" is an exaggeration. But I've never seen statistics, so maybe I'm wrong.

    4.) I tried looking for a job before I graduated college. I was able to apply to quite a few, but only because of my math degree. Most employers said they weren't looking for physics people. I guess it's because if you're applying to an engineering job with a physics degree, the engineering majors will have an advantage. Even my job prospects with a PhD don't look all that great. Yeah I know, most people will offer a platitude like "you need to convince employers that they need a physicist" or "if you're good you'll find a job." But as far as I can tell, there's basically nothing I can do with my physics PhD except go from postdoc to postdoc and eventually become a computer programmer (which sucks because I don't enjoy working with computers). But hey, this is just my experience, and I'm not saying that this is representative of all physicists.

    5.) Can't tell you what kind of GPA is considered "good" in engineering. But a 3.0 is on the low side for physics grad school. I've rarely heard of people getting into grad school with below a 3.0.

    6.) Nah, I don't think physics professors are condescending or have egos. Some do, but this is true of all fields. Actually my best grades were in my upper level physics classes. I don't think that advanced physics is the beast that some people make it out to be. It's hard, but that's how everything is in college (I think).

    7.) Well like I said, I wish I had done engineering. Take that for what it's worth.

    8.) Workaholic maybe. But most people in physics aren't geniuses, from what I've seen.
     
  14. Jun 30, 2010 #13

    Pyrrhus

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    Look for jobs for people with PhD in economics. You'll see why.
     
  15. Jun 30, 2010 #14
  16. Jun 30, 2010 #15
    Engineers are usually limited people who only know how to repeat the procedure that they were taught. They are like accountants and office clerks in the technical professions. If you visit any lab, the top positions are usually held by scientists, not engineers.
     
  17. Jun 30, 2010 #16

    Pyrrhus

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    Really? are you sure you are not confusing technicians with engineers?.

    Engineers also do fundamental research, and in many cases the line between engineer and scientist is blurred.
     
  18. Jun 30, 2010 #17
    at the undergrad level I think his description is spot on in a lot of cases, but you're probably correct at the professional research level
     
  19. Jun 30, 2010 #18
    Click search on the top right, then advanced search. I may have misplaced the '_' in his name.
     
  20. Jun 30, 2010 #19
    Yes, I am sure. Even if they are involved in fundamental research, it is highly improbable it is Physics.
     
  21. Jul 1, 2010 #20

    Pyrrhus

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    Then the question becomes, what is your definition of physics? as my experience as a professional is different.
     
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