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Physicist or Engineer?

  1. Apr 14, 2009 #1
    hello all, im new to these boards and have a question- i've recently stumbled across the agonizing question as to whether i want to be a physicist or an engineer. is there any help you all could give that would help me solve this awful question?

    i love physics, and if i were to be an engineer, im almost positive i wouldn't have time to do research in new developments like string theory, plasma physics, etc. And if i were to be a physicist, i would most likely end up doing grad work in plasma or astrophysics, and ending up in a university or possibly government lab.

    yet engineering has recently shown me the possibilities that would come from being in that field, and the following are the most intriguing types imo- (in order)- aerospace/nuclear, mechanical, electrical, software as a last resort.

    so i was wondering, is there any advice you can give me on deciding whether to go full into physics or go into engineering?
    *****also, if i were to go into engineering, would CAD classes be useful to take now?

    also, my credentials include- sophomore at a very good high school, in all honors classes this year and one level three(basic college prep)- biology, yet its very easy for me and im moving up to honors for chem next year, because i satisfy the 95 or so avg needed. my math grades are between a B to an A- usually, and right now we are doing trig. next year is precalc, and senior year will be AP calc AB. i read physics sometimes, such as Elegant Universe, Physics of the Impossible, Brief History of Time, etc. i also watch The Universe on the history channel whenever its on, and am a HUGE Stargate nut :)

    i know its a long post, but im stumped. thanks!
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 14, 2009 #2


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    I say wait until at least senior year first

    and get that math grade into an A :wink:
  4. Apr 14, 2009 #3
    The first couple semesters of college can give you an idea of what you want as well. There is a lot of overlap between physics and engineering.
  5. Apr 15, 2009 #4
  6. Apr 15, 2009 #5
    Be an engineer, we get all the hot women.

    DISCLAIMER: Becoming an engineer may not get you ANY women, infact it probably wont.
  7. Apr 15, 2009 #6
    lol. Although I do want to point out, for some reason, Engineer girls are hotter than physics girls in our school :P. Don't ask me how that work out.

    Well, if you are still in high school, it might be slightly too early to think about which major you want to pick. To have a general direction is a good thing, but to pick one major than the other is, IMO, slightly too ambitious =)
    I'll say after you are in college, you take classes from both departments, then decide which one you prefer.
    And even if you are at your senior year in college, you can still be "undecided," in the sense that double major both of them.
    Personally I think that physics is about exploring the nature, the universe. Whereas engineer, depends on the branches, is more about making/creating things.
    Also, I want to de-romanticize physics a bit further. Yes, it is exciting, fascinating. But most of the time (especially if you are doing experiment), it is BORING, FRUSTRATING to say the least. You do the same thing repeatedly, and to figure out why the **** your result is 10000% percent away from your expected value might drive you crazy. But for me at least, the excitement of figure things outweighed those frustration. So yea, just make sure you know what you want.
  8. Apr 15, 2009 #7
    Also, I gotta say, you'll probably find a job quicker with an engineering degree than with a straight-up physics. Unless you want to be a high school teacher or go on and get your university-teaching degree. One of the reasons that i'm thinking about looking into engineering instead of keepin' on with the physics...
  9. Apr 15, 2009 #8
    millitiz, thats true. it may be a little over-ambitious, but its because i don't want to have a wasted year or two of college that i can't get back, that may end up deciding a part of my future (cough 8th grade..).

    because i've always been a person who, after i do something or make something, or finish something, i always come up with a way to improve it right after. i wouldn't want to sit around and make the same thing everyday when there are improvements to be made or new things to design.

    also, if i were to go into nuclear physics, what exactly would i be designing? i would love to do something that would promote our planet's expansion into space, and that's why i want to do aerospace/nautical engineering, but i know that in nuclear, i could work on achieving fusion for power generations, or a new engine for our spacecraft, which is as good if not better IMHO. but would a mechanical or electrical engineer also be able to assist in that department?

    and also, would a CAD class be useful to take? three levels of CAD are offered at my high school, but the highest i would be able to get to now would be second year CAD. would CAD classes be worth taking?
  10. Apr 15, 2009 #9
    If you are interested in aerospace engineer, then here is a suggested path. Take Material and/or aerospace Engineer for undergrad, and take Aerospace in Grad.
    Nowaday, the barrier that pretty much limit our progress of technology is the material. Basically, if you are material science student, you can do ANYTHING afterward.
    Personally, and some of my friends, agree that Nuclear physics is pretty much a dead end. The main theory is pretty much well laid, it was more about improving some of the details. And many of the time you might not be even working on NUCLEAR stuff. But then again, notice that me and my friends are the godda** physicists :)
    EE is of course important in these fields. For instance, designing circuits, etc. Basically, nowadays, everything was collaborated in team with different backgrounds.
    Btw, I am not sure how you think about designing things. Yes, you could contribute to say designing, making the foremost advance engine in the world. But you are probably only one among many of others. Things might not go with your way in the real world (ur, am I going too far?).
    By the way, if your field is experiment related, then be expected to do the same thing again and again...
  11. Apr 15, 2009 #10
    Sorry, just one more thing. About wasting a year or two of your life. I'll say that is definitely a big nono. Some people dislike the broad requirement for the college requirement. But really it is a good thing to broaden your sight. You never really know what you;ll pick up in say, a history course that might inspire your thought in designing stuffs ;)
    Sometimes I think people nowadays are too specialized that they miss some part of the education, IMO.
  12. Apr 15, 2009 #11
    Dont worry about learning CAD, CAD does not make the engineer, it's a tool, nothing more. A lot of engineers will never use CAD in their professional careers, even if they do its only a fleeting thing. Its useful to have but its only a very small part of the job in most fields.

    You've also got to remember that most engineering work is not design work. Its problem solving and troubleshooting existing problems. A lot of nucler engineering is acutally very conservation based, its how to make nuclear reactors more green. (Green is the very trendy in thing that all engineering fields seem to be striving for atm)

    Say in automotive engineering (thats what i do so its what I know best). I know we had lots of research going on at University. There were probably 3 ongoing projects and about 7 masters projects regarding engines. Mine ws the only one that involved any design work.

    My friend worked on the use of simulation to tune an engines gas flow through the inlet and exhaust. Someone else was looking at converting an SI engine to HCCI. Another was analysing changes in lubrication to reduce piston ring wear.

    So to say that I really like engines and want to work with them, in that field there are literally hundreds of differnet fields of engineering. Only a handful will ever need CAD.
  13. Apr 15, 2009 #12


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    CAD is probably only useful if you want to go to the engineering route. It sounds like you're already are learning towards engineering =] but as everyone has already said, take your time and don't worry about it now. Explore your options.
  14. Apr 15, 2009 #13
    I cant be bothered editing my post above, it'll get to the tl;dr state soon.

    To the OP: You say that you dont want to waste a year or two of Uni on doing something that you arent going to do later on. If what you are doing helps you to decide that then its not wasting time.

    Think of it this way, two years is nothing to decide what you are going to do for the rest of your life. you are going to be working for 40 - 50 years. That two years is a drop in the ocean compared to working like.

    I originally went to university to do chemistry, basically because I was good at it and loved my techers in school. After my first year I decided I hated it and never wanted to do chemistry again in my life, after quite a long time I decided Mech Eng was what I really wanted to do. I dont consider that first year a waste, yes it cost me a year and a few thousand quid, but it helped me decide my path in life. I'm just glad I didnt finish my chemistry degree, and then decide I didnt acutally like it very much.
  15. Apr 15, 2009 #14
    Flip a coin. Seriously. But don't bother looking at how it comes up, just remember which one you were rooting for while it was in the air.
  16. Apr 18, 2009 #15
    I work in the aerospace industry, and about half of the people I work with who are titled "system engineer" have physics degrees. The pay is the same as the folks with aerospace, electrical or mechanical engineering degrees. The physicists are prized for ability to solve complex interdisciplinary problems that the engineers can't solve because their training is too narrow. And you don't need a PhD.
    Don't take CAD, focus on your math skills.
  17. Apr 18, 2009 #16
    Looks like a lot of good advice here, but I'll give my 2 cents anyways.

    When I was in high school, I got really interested in theoretical physics (yeah, I read Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, etc) but now that I'm in my junior year of a physics degree I find I'm more interested in applications (and there's probably more career opportunities down that road as well)

    In the meantime, you might consider learning programming. If you get familiar with a high-level language like C++ (my personal preference) you'll find it easy to pick up any language you need in college.
  18. Apr 19, 2009 #17
    I would strongly suggest to go to university which have strong engineering and physics program. The first couple of years the course requirement will be very similar anyway, you will need to take same basics such as chemistry, calculus, computer programming , mechanics, electricity and magnetism etc.
    Make up your choice later after you have more exposure. If you feel that you're more inclined towards understanding how nature works, then physics is for you. If you're more inclined towards applications and building things, perhaps you are better off doing engineering.
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