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Other Need direction: Applied vs Engineering Physics vs?

  1. Nov 30, 2016 #1
    I'm having a difficult time trying to discover which academic pathway to pursue. At first, the difficulty came from having broad interests, which I narrowed to a toss-up between space, science and engineering. I found space (astronomy, astrophysics) to be too specialized, physics (pure science) is riddled with competition and ego, and engineering relegates one to cubicle life. I then discovered engineering physics, and that seemed to be the best of both worlds; I can discover AND create. But now I'm stymied with the concept of applied physics.

    So here is what I want/where I see myself. I want the freedom to solve problems of my choosing by conducting research, creating (designing and building) new technology, and contributing to the knowledge base of humanity. The problem could be anything. It could be a new material, depollution, alternative energy, food security, environmental policy, orbital colonization, etc. Emphasis on freedom.
    The problem on the back-end is where to be employed. The lust for profit arrests human advancement. I don't want to be in a position where I am a tool for company profit, or my hands are tied from budget restrictions. I'm not so naive to think this is avoidable, but I have a low tolerance for that kind of bs, and no tolerance for corporate mentality. I need an environment where people are serious about progress, but laid-back enough that it's also fun. Education also comes to mind.

    My question to you is, what is the appropriate degree to pursue?
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  3. Nov 30, 2016 #2


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    In your post I see a lot of animosity towards preconceived ideas about the world. While your concerns are not without merit, I think that's generating a lot of noise for you as you make this decision.

    How you choose to be educated will influence your future career trajectory, but it will not determine it completely.

    Often the difference between programs like "applied physics" and "engineering physics" depends on the schools and the details of the individual programs. In my experience engineering physics programs tend to be run by engineering departments and qualify as accredited engineering programs that are necessary for one to become a licenced engineer. The details vary depending on your location. Applied physics programs tend to be physics programs that stream towards more practical applications: optics, condensed matter, materials, etc. You have to go through a course calendar to see what that means at a more specific school. They don't tend to qualify as an engineering degree.
  4. Nov 30, 2016 #3


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    You are looking for something that doesn't exist, I think. Perhaps if you, or the person you marry, is independently wealthy then you can realize this dream.

    Your primary hope is to get into academia, or work at some research institution (such as a national lab) where you have some freedom to write proposals to receive grants, etc. But don't think this is easy - you will need to find grants that will fund what you are interested in, and then beat out the other proposers in order to get enough money to keep your research group afloat. My grad advisor spent about 25% of his time writing proposals, and this was after a couple decades of establishing his lab. He spent less than 25% of his time doing research when I worked for him, as teaching, university committees, and grant writing took most of his time. And in such a situation you will have budget restrictions - if you only get $200,000 in funding for a project, that is all you can spend, even if it means you could do much better work for a small additional amount of funding.

    If you want to go that route, get a degree that prepares you to study the specific areas you are interested in. What department it is from is irrelevant. As someone in industry, I see no difference between applied physics and engineering physics. Example: at Cornell, the Applied and Engineering Physics department offers a BS in Engineering Physics, and graduate level degrees in Applied Physics. Same department. If you care about "backup plans" that include getting a regular job in industry, then other considerations apply

  5. Dec 1, 2016 #4
    These are both very helpful answers. And, yes, my desires are unrealistic, but if I shoot for the moon, I might land in orbit. I want to love what I do, not just put in my eight hours and go home. To me, academia feels more romantic than practical, and the idea of begging for money does not appeal to me. In the end, I'm looking for a path that gives the most long-term flexibility/marketability in employment, while being able to contribute something new to the world. I have a mind for creative problem solving, and I need an outlet for that expression. Perhaps R&D might be more up my alley. I'm not much of a 'keep your head down and do your work' type; I want collaboration.

    Applied physics and engineering physics both seem to be the same, and the differences are in the electives; science vs engineering. I'm not opposed to industry, and I definitely agree with backup plans. I am considering adding an education degree, so I can teach in my later years. If I were to declare either applied or engineering physics (depending on the institution), do you suppose that I could further define the path later?
  6. Dec 12, 2016 #5
    I'm soon finished with my engineering physics MSc and I'd advice you to go eng phys over applied physics - the career prospects are better for engineers, even if the coursework is very similar. Sad but true. Also, this degree is very versatile - you essentially learn physics & maths for the first 2-3 years, and then you specialize into a field of engineering (or you can go on and study more physics/maths). At least this is how it works in Norway.

    As for your dreams: just start at uni and get some life experience. I'd wager that idealism will get washed out pretty quick, but if you really want it, maybe it'll happen. You just need to be sure to take the appropriate courses in your senior years.
  7. Dec 13, 2016 #6
    I should probably mention that I am 45, and have been a telecommunications technician for 20 years.
    I've seen literally hundreds of different industries and cube farms and cool jobs and crappy jobs. So some of where I'm coming from is knowing what i don't want. Wherever i end up at the end of this, i want it to be more focused on utilization of skill for human progress, and less focused on profit.
    Yeah, I know about the idealism. I just want to fall somewhere between optimism and realism, instead of just getting a job.
  8. Dec 14, 2016 #7
    Aha, I see. In that case, are you sure telecom engineering isn't the best bet? You of course know the industry much better than me, but are you sure you can't end up with a cool job, doing something that matters and that isn't in a cubicle farm?

    I mean, I don't want to disparage you, but it's going to be really hard to do a complete career 180 and switch to physics, and then get a job. You should leverage your practical experience and knowledge you've already built up by combining it with an engineering discipline that'll give you a competitive advantage when hunting for jobs. Honestly I can't emphasize this last part enough: after you graduate you'll be 50 years old and 15-20 max years away from retirement. Getting a job that's unrelated to your previous experience is gonna be practically impossible.
  9. Dec 18, 2016 #8
    And this is the hard truth.
    I have considered these scenarios, and I am left feeling frustrated every time. Age shouldn't matter, but generation gaps have a way of putting the other person in a different world that is somewhat imaginary. And there is so much focus on profit and 'what can you do for me?' in this world. No wonder it takes twenty years for novel ideas to blossom, assuming they can survive a budgetary review.

    I am bored and burnt-out with this industry. And I've topped out in pay, which isn't enough. My love has always been in science and engineering, and I felt it would be a good move, even at this age, considering that entry-level salaries in STEM fields pretty much match where I'm at now. So I'm not too worried about having to work my way up. But I have to work my way in first. I am certainly looking at using my current experience and skill-set to help me with that. I am also hoping that a good work ethic will be a boon versus the perceived Millennial's attitude, but it's all in the eyes of the interviewer. The flip side is that, regardless of how youthful I feel now, I'm quite likely to want to slow down, and I think younger employers are clued in to this.

    I have been wading through my likes and dislikes, trying to weed out the wants and examine what my real motivations are with this career change. I'm not finished yet, but a change is definitely going to happen, and I will continue gathering credits until I figure this out; it's very difficult with so many interests. I just aced Chemistry, and now I want (not need) the second half of the course. I wake up in the middle of the night and practice Calculus, because I think finding derivatives is a blast! I need a creative outlet for this.

    The definitions for "Engineering Physics" and "Research and Development" most closely coincide with my desires; I get excited when I read them. EP because I want the knowledge of both How and Why. R&D because of the diversity of fields, and creative freedom. I recently read about 'contract research', and that felt exciting as well. Hopefully my technical experience can help me here. I want to be able to say, "How awesome it is that I get paid to do this!" Being a college professor (not university) or a high-school STEM teacher also holds great interest for me.

    I have a sharp mind, a no-nonsense work ethic, an incredible skill-set, and a drive to do great things. These are the tools I have to work with, and I hope it counts for something when the time comes. I really appreciate this conversation. It helps me to talk it out, and I am gaining new insights from it. :)
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2016
  10. Dec 19, 2016 #9
    Yep, I agree with you on the greed. Honestly, from what I've seen, US society is about to tear itself apart with the "what can you do for me" attitude being so dominant. I honestly find it disgusting, but I guess I'll have to play the game if I end up working in the US. There's no other choice really if you don't want to fall behind.

    Anyway, if you're keen on being a STEM teacher, this shouldn't be a problem. One of my science & maths teachers back in HS was a former farmer, and he was very respected. Honestly I think you'd make a good teacher, considering your life-experience, strong morals and intellectual mind. But then again I live in Norway, I don't know how easy/hard it's to become a teacher in the US.

    I'd contact a career advisor at the university you're considering to do your degree in.

    At any rate, Good luck!
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