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Physics Major with Engineering Envy Advice?

  1. Nov 16, 2008 #1
    Currently, I'm a freshman in physics at a top 5 physics university. I absolutely love the department, so there's no issues with the professors or administration (they are incredibly helpful and love their students) and I love the subject. Physics itself is fascinating and I like that it's so flexible and encompasses almost everything. However, whenever I look at physics careers, I can't say I'm very happy. Most physicists seem to work in research or at universities or government positions. I like research and projects (to an extent, like a summer position or part-time thing), but the idea of having such a narrow area of focus (carbon nanotubes, for instance) is distressing. I don't like the minute theory-finding as much as I like applying it and using physics as a tool to solve problems. My advisor suggested I think about switching to engineering but I really don't want to let physics go. Engineering is mostly applied physics anyways, and I've seen the spotty education the engineering kids have here (like they can design fantastic things in AutoCAD but they have difficulty in doing heat-transfer and fluid dynamics and pretty much anything involving formulas and theory).

    What should I do? I want to do a double degree but that might just snuff me since the workload is insane for both subjects, physics alone means I'd have a career that I didn't like, and engineering alone means I would be a crappy engineer (in my opinion anyways). I think I asked this before and I've done some more thinking but sorry for all these questions. Thanks to anyone who's still awake :)
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 16, 2008 #2
    Does your school offer an engineering physics degree?

    Why do you think you would be a bad engineer with only an engineering degree..? You have the option of taking plenty of physics classes along with your engineering classes. Also I believe physicists working at universities or doing research have phds, what are your plans for after undergrad, what kind of career are you ultimately seeking?
  4. Nov 16, 2008 #3
    Yes, my school has engineering physics but that and physics are virtually the same program with the exception of two extra classes.

    Because the amount of physics required for a engineering major is minimal and I don't know how much time I'll have to take extra physics courses if I'm struggling to just finish the required engineering workload. No idea about further education (I wouldn't be adverse to going to grad school if it would benefit my career) or career. I think I'd just like a career that I could use my creativity and problem solving and have the potential to get rewarded if I do my job well.
  5. Nov 16, 2008 #4
    That's kind of the way my school is - Applied Physics is about two or three classes off of Engineering physics...and the idea is that Engineering physics majors will have higher employ-ability strait out of undergraduate school. Probably not actually because of the classes, but more of because you have the word "Engineering" in your degree.

    Also, if you are worried that pure research will be too narrow for your liking, you might also want to consider R&D, where you are actually developing a device. And depending on the industry, they do hire physicists for that kind of position. Say for instance a company that is developing specialized spectrometers. Lots of interesting physics is involved, but at the same time it is also largely a multi-diciplinary engineering project to create such a device that *actually works*. The would need people to understand the physical principles at work, but yet still be technically competent overall for product development.

    Of course, experience with product development also impacts employability in this area. It would probably be hard to get such a position position strait out of undergraduate school without any experience in product development. And that's what I love about the co-op program at my school; I'm being exposed to it early.
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2008
  6. Nov 16, 2008 #5
    You could always do your undergraduate degree in Physics (and take as many extra engineering classes as you can) and then get a Masters in Engineering. Then you would be able to understand the theory (or, hopefully, most of it) behind the engineering & physics, but have a engineering job.
  7. Nov 16, 2008 #6
    I am a senior in high school having the same dimlema, I am unsure about pursuing a physics major because the jobs may not be the best. How easy is it for someone with a physics degree be able to get a job in petroleum or the nuclear field
  8. Nov 17, 2008 #7
    Even if she did take some engineering courses while getting her Phys degree she would still be playing catch-up before getting her MS in engineering.

    If students at your school are having trouble understanding the theory then that's their problem not the schools. YOU are responsible for what you want to know and understand, not the university. If you like engineering, then go for it. I suggest you try to job shadow an engineer for a day or two or maybe pick up a summer internship. A look into the "glorious" world of a typical engineer may change your mind.

    BTW, I never use autoCAD as most thermal-fluid engineers do not.
  9. Nov 17, 2008 #8
    Transitioning from undergrad physics to grad electrical engineering is not all that difficult. Just make sure you grab a circuits course, an electronics course, a signals and systems course, and maybe a couple other upper level electives. Five or six solid EE courses in your undergrad, combined with your physics education, should be sufficient to jump into an engineering masters program without too much difficulty. Also, keep in mind there are Masters of Engineering degrees and then Master of Science in Engineering degrees. They have different objectives so do a little research and see which might be more up your alley.

    BTW, even if you don't go to grad school, just having a solid 15-18 hours of EE courses in your undergrad should allow you to jump into a lot of engineering jobs.
  10. Nov 17, 2008 #9
    Either your school has a terrible engineering department or you don't have an accurate perspective of it. You need the same Mathematics requirements for engineering that you need for physics, and the field of engineering you choose dictates the area and depth of exposure you get to sciences. At my school a Chemical Engineer takes Fluid Dynamics, two semesters of Thermodynamics, Heat & Mass Transfer, Physical Chemistry, Reactor Design etc. Reviewing grad-requirements for students in the physics department at my school, I'm willing to bet the ChE student would be better prepared to tackle problems in flow analysis and heat transfer. They also have 5-6 semesters of Chemistry and half a dozen courses in process analysis and design (plus a half dozen other ChE courses).

    That said, the Physics major with a BS has a much greater understanding of where the equations come from which is a powerful insight. Engineers get the equations handed out to them, a brief blurb on what they are and what they do, and then an intense semester of application exercises. The physicist studies the beauty and perfect form of the adjustable wrench, the Engineer gets the wrench tossed at him and then learns how to turn it and use it for things like bashing in nails or cracking walnuts... :)
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