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Nuclear Physics/Engineering

  1. Dec 13, 2007 #1
    Hi All !

    I am currently busy with my BSc in physics, and will be getting my degree end of next year (If all goes to plan). I would like to do my honours then in nuclear physics, and then eventually my masters degree. This is where my question comes in...Is it possible to almost switch at this point from nuclear physics to do a PhD in nuclear engineering? I have spoken to a professor and he said it was indeed possible since they are such closely related fields. However, wouldnt I be required to take some engineering courses first ? He disagreed with me on this...

    The whole reason for this question is that my interests lie in nuclear fusion and theoretical nuclear physics.

    Any insights would be MUCH appreciated!
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 13, 2007 #2
    Sure it's possible. But I'm surprised that you'd trust a random guy on the internet about that after your professor already told you as much.

    They might have you take some background courses. Grad school programs traditionally do so if there's a deficiency in your prior coursework. It depends on what the program expects you to know already. I wouldn't really worry about it too much.
  4. Dec 14, 2007 #3
    Thanks for your reply Asphodel

    I just want to clarify, that I do indeed trust my professor very much. I just wanted to find out if there was a specific someone who has gone this route and if so, hear their side!
  5. Dec 14, 2007 #4
    If fusion and theoretical nuclear physics are your bag, a quick google returns sites like this one which suggest you would be just fine with a PhD in physics!
    Last edited: Dec 14, 2007
  6. Dec 14, 2007 #5
    I have a bachelor's in physics and math and am completing a master's in nuclear engineering, so it's certainly possible. However, there are a few pitfalls to remember. In physics, entropy is a slightly different beast than in engineering when it comes to the thermal properties of a reactor. For example, in physics (we used Schroeder's text), entropy was all about partitioning and the multiplicity of the system state, along with statistical mechanics thrown in. In my reactor thermal properties class (we used Todreas and Kazimi's text) it was treated like any other property (like internal energy) and multiplicity didn't even get consideration. Plus, there's a convention I learned in engineering that wasn't used in my physics. A variable in upper case (such as U for internal energy) stood for the total internal energy, while the lower case u stood for internal energy per kilogram...no one ever told me this and it took a class or two to figure out that this was the case.

    HOWEVER, I did notice that my Hilbert space knowledge (specifically, solving the diffusion equation in PDE class, which is pretty much the same procedure as solving the PDEs equations in QM or EM) made the reactor theory class a breeze, since apparently not a lot of others in the class (all engineeering majors) never took a PDE class or had to solve them.

    So, there are strong points and there are weak points. My recommendation is to get an engineering thermodynamics text and at least read it through so you don't get caught by surprise.
  7. Dec 15, 2007 #6


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    I presume one's professor is a physicist? If so, unless he familiar with the requirements of a nuclear engineering program, his statement about not needing engineering courses may not be necessarily correct. The requirements are determined by the particular nuclear engineering department/program. On the other hand, if one pursues a degree in nuclear engineering with a concentration on fusion or nuclear physics, then one might not necessarily need engineering courses.

    If one focuses on fusion with the physics framework, then presumably one would focus on the fusion reactions and plasma physics, so hopefully one's physics program provides some coursework on plasma physics including magnetohydrodynamics (MHD). Beyond that, the two major areas for controlled thermonuclear reactor physics/engineering using magnetically confined plasma are plasma heating (and it's compatibility with the confinement scheme) and energy conversion (electrical energy and process heat). The latter is key to successful commercialization of thermonuclear energy for production of electricity.

    Some nuclear, mechanical and/or electrical engineering courses may be required. Undergraduates and graduate students in nuclear engineering programs usually take a course in power plant design/analysis, and that usually implies requirements to take courses in heat transfer and fluid mechanics (mechanical engineering) and circuits, electrical machinery and power systems, and control theory (electrical engineering).

    I moved from physics to nuclear engineering as an undergrad. In my physics program, I took courses multi-variable calculus and ordinary differential equations my first (freshman) year, and courses in PDE, Complex Analysis and Linear Analysis my second (sophomore) year.

    A significant issue I see in undergraduate university programs is that students enter with wide range of experience. Some students have not had calculus (having only trig, algebra, geometry, and some linear analysis), while others have had calculus (differential/integral) and perhaps some exposure to differential equations. Some are well prepared to take on the reactor physics which involves solving the diffusion equation (usually up to 2-D with 2 energy groups).
    Last edited: Dec 15, 2007
  8. Dec 17, 2007 #7
    I believe nuclear engineering and nuclear physics are not close fields (or any pure physics verus engineering for that matter). I've seen many different books on subfields of nuclear physics (for example collisions) and I have a hard time believing a nuclear engineer has mastery or even substantial knowledge of these areas. Engineers and physicists have different objectives. If you have a university library near you check out some books from a nuclear physics class (taught by physics faculty) and nuclear engineering class (taught by engineering faculty) and contrast them.
  9. Dec 17, 2007 #8


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    My nuclear engineering department has a faculty member who was a physicist. He taught the required course in modern/nuclear physics which included special relativity, particle physics and various aspects of radiation. Now the course did not go into QFT or QED, although it did cover somewhat superficially some aspects QM.

    It is certainly easier for a physics major to go into nuclear engineering than the reverse.
  10. Dec 17, 2007 #9


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    A colleague described the people taking Nuclear eng. as the most boring/nerdy anoraks he had ever met - after a moments thought we both decided:
    GOOD - the last you want is wild/creative/unorthodox Nuclear engineers!

    (apologies to Astronuc)
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2007
  11. Dec 18, 2007 #10
    Wel, I'm not in nuclear physics, but I have to say this is true to some extent. In my expeience at Ohio State, most of the nuclear engineering classes do not have rigorous physics content. Here is a breakdown of core classes at Ohio.

    Introduction to Nuclear Engineering: Introduction to nuclear energy and to nuclear radiation. A little physics, though not nuclear physics (other than cross sections).

    Radiological Safety: General principles of radiation, radioactivity, and protection methodology with emphasis on approved operating, handling and waste disposal procedures, regulations and biological interactions. Not a lot of physics here.

    Reactor Theory: Introduction to the concepts of radioactive decay, crosssections,
    the multiplication constant, neutron flux and slowing-down theory, diffusion theory, Fermi age theory, reactor kinetics and reactor shielding. This had the most physics in it.

    Nuclear Power Plants: A study of thermal and mechanical design aspects and economics of nuclear power plants and processes. The thermodynamics of operating nuclear power plants (BWR and PWR) are emphasized. This is applied rather than theoretical.

    Nuclear Engineering Design: Practice in the analysis and design of nuclear systems and the use of nuclear engineering principles. This is a team design course requiring a comprehensive final report. Mostly uses modeling software.

    Nuclear Radiations and their Measurements: A theoretical and experimental study of nuclear radiation, interactions with matter, and detection. I have this course this quarter so can't speak of how much physics is involved, though it uses Knolls' book and appears to have a decent amount of physics (solid state based).

    Nuclear Radiations and Their Shielding: A theoretical and experimental study of nuclear radiation, interactions with matter, and shielding. This was the transport equation and Monte Carlo simulations/other methods (path scoring, etc.), so not a lot of physics but definitely a lot of math.

    Nuclear Reactor Laboratory: An experimental study of nuclear reactor operating characteristics and fundamental concepts of reactor design. All students will complete a standard set of experiments which includes reactor instrumentation, approach to critical, control rod calibration, delayed neutron parameters estimation, measurement of temperature reactivity feedback, and measurement of the reactor transfer function using both deterministic and non-deterministic methods. A second experiment will be developed by the student in consultation with his advisor, and will be related to the student's area of interest. I haven't taken this class yet either, so can't speak to its content.
  12. Dec 18, 2007 #11
    Your curriculum covers "how to build a nuclear reactor", not "nuclear physics". Check out books on nuclear physics and you'll see how much physics is left out in your curriculum. I'm not talking about rigor, but material. Again, go to a university library and look at books on nuclear physics and you'll see that nuclear engineers just learn the tip of the iceberg.
  13. Dec 18, 2007 #12


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    :rofl: No apology necessary. One obviously never set foot in our department. :biggrin:

    I was never one to go by the book. I prefer to make my own rules.
  14. Dec 18, 2007 #13


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    There are OLD nuclear engineers,
    there are BOLD nuclear engineers,
    and there are smoking craters ......
  15. Dec 18, 2007 #14
    And the sheep in the surrounding countryside have a healthy green glow :biggrin:
  16. Dec 19, 2007 #15
    That was my point...that there is a difference between nuclear engineering and nuclear physics.
  17. Jun 4, 2010 #16
    seems to me that theres much less theory involved than even the grad-level courses in Aerospace and Mechanical engineering. If I'm interested far more in numerical/computational work than experimental work, would I like a job as a nuclear engineer?
  18. Jun 4, 2010 #17
    Application, practical application to just get the job done.
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