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Physics majors Elec & Mag vs. EE majors

  1. Jun 8, 2011 #1
    I have an inquiry: I work with quite a few physicists, some with Bachelors, some with Masters, and numerous with PhD.s. It seems to me the individuals I interact with are extremely well versed in Electrical Engineering. I understand, in a general sense, after the dinosaurs died, there was basically Math, Physics, Astronomy (you get the point). The other engineering disciplines (comp eng, comp. sci, aeronautical) are considered newer, some obviously as a result of technology.

    My question is, what are the advantages, or disadvantages, between Physics graduates and EE graduates, in terms of skill sets relative to Electrical Engineering? (Yes, I realize this can be subjective, depending on the person, school, etc). I am just looking for some generalized conceptual perceptions.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 8, 2011 #2
    I'm just speaking of my experience as a physics/EE double major and so I can't comment for everyone.

    Physics advantages:
    Mathematically more rigorous which lends itself to quite a lot of areas of electrical engineering. Communications, nano/micro fabrication, fields, just to name a few. In addition a major area of study in EE right now is on MEMS and NEMS, which physics absolutely prepares students for, think applied quantum. Generally speaking if you do research in physics you will learn to program (although perhaps not too efficiently), and you will probably also learn basic equipment electronics and signal processing in physics labs.

    EE advantages:
    You focus on electrical engineering applications of physics for the most part. Digital and analog circuits, embedded electronics skills will be more developed than your average physics major, plus you learn how to develop things efficiently (this is probably the key).

    Honestly a physics major has the skill set to learn any information that an electrical engineering major knows but for the most part physics majors are not really taught any business sense if I had to break it down that's the real difference.
  4. Jun 8, 2011 #3
    Excellent. Thank you for the feedback, I hope we get more. I got a degree in Comp Eng, and for my particular curriculum, it was light on EE theory/application (it focused more on VLSI, VHDL, Verilog, SoC). I found this to be a disadvantage for me (this strictly pertains to me, and to my career positions). So now I am studying EE. I started to think of the question, if, for the sake of generalizing, I should be better equipped for EE-related job tasks than a Physics graduate (again, I am generalizing). In other words, is EE a subset of Physics, in the sense of a college curriculum, and if so, then am I getting short-changed (since, given this theoretically query, a Physics grad will know/have the same capability as me, IN ADDITION to Optics, Thermodynamics, all that other good stuff they study).

    I will add my interest and emphasis, currently, is in DAQ and Control Systems. Perhaps this in and of itself is a differentiation between the two.
    Last edited: Jun 8, 2011
  5. Jun 9, 2011 #4
    The mathematics rigor of EE and physics are no different, it only depends on what level you and your school takes the math to. You can find the same advanced math used in physics and in engineering applications. However, you don't need to know the theory and proofs behind the math to be able to apply it in many circumstances. This is why you can get engineering or technology degrees in the US, because some courses are more theoretical while others are more practical.

    For example, so much of quantum mechanics shares the mathematics used in the signal processing and information theory of an EE curriculum. Transforms, differential equations, matrix operations and linear algebra, polynomial expansions, and probability theory are important to both fields. Even Heisenberg's uncertainty principle has parallels in signal and system analysis in the time-bandwidth product. They are just looked at from different perspectives, and we are seeing convergences in once unrelated fields all the time.

    Physics is a broader field than EE, and so an obvious advantage of studying physics over EE is that you are exposed to more ways to apply the math that you learn. The other advantage is that ultimately, many EE technologies rely on the underlying physics behind their operation, and so to go down to a certain level, a physics education can place you in a more advantageous position than a generic EE who does not really bother themselves with more than a basic overview of the physics behind operation of devices.

    This is why many of the greatest semiconductor engineers were educated as physicists and chemists, and why to get into these more specialized EE fields, it is usually only done at a graduate level. However, when an EE specializes in a field like EM or semiconductors, they are required to grasp the physics as well as a physicist, which is a special quality that EE has a reputation for.

    In other words, EEs are expected to be able to excel and pick up concepts very quickly and to be able to apply them, and this is what they learn in school through a different kind of program than physics. EE is known for having a very rigorous and broad curriculum with many challenging projects and lab exercises that require the student to be very resourceful and constantly connect the dots between various fields and concepts. I'm not saying physicists can't be this way, but they are generally taught in a more hands-off and general approach.

    The truth is that EE and physics are both challenging and their fields are very interweaved. I was an EE undergrad, and I am in a graduate physics program. I really find my EE background a big advantage, but any physicist who is good in their field already knows all of the EE, ME, and any other practical information they need for their field, and so its just a matter of meeting each other from two different directions. I would always choose to be an EE undergrad major over a physics major myself though.

    I should add, most EE and physics majors take the same core mathematics and physics courses in the US, its only after the first two years that they really begin to diverge into the actual specializations.
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2011
  6. Jun 10, 2011 #5
    It would be great to get some more feedback from other persons.
  7. Sep 12, 2011 #6
    Not true.
  8. Sep 12, 2011 #7
    By well versed, it is all relative. I worked a long time surrounded by 75% PhDs, I don't notice they are that good in EE!! If you refer to some digital and micro/embedded stuffs, sure, those to me is not even EE, more like EE want to be. Anyone read a book on digital design and common sense can do that. I started out designing control system using Intel 8085 only have an AA with 3 courses of digital design, microprossers and only a year or so in the field!!! Even todays' FPGA design is really easy that you follow the instruction for a few weeks and you are a so called designer!!! I did quite a bit of these kind of design and programming in the pass and FPGA as late as 6 years ago, it was more learn as needed bases.

    There are things in common between the two major..........Electro Magnetics. I study a lot of Engineering Electromagnetic books and the most popular Electrodynamics book by David Griffiths used by a lot of physics majors. My impression of Engineering EM books is they are not very complete. All try to go through EM by avoiding the most difficult part that is not used often by EEs. Problem is without that, it is not complete and I question students of EE major really understand EM. They also avoid more difficult calculus. I studied through two EE EM books, first by Ulaby used by San Jose State. Then I study a famous book "Field and Wave Electromagnetics" by David K Cheng. I reference to the book by Haytt and Buck used for MS and PHDs programs of Santa Clara University. I also reference with a few others also. After two go around, I still don't feel I understand this subject. Then I studied Griffiths and that really made the difference. It turned out to be easier because it really go through the material in more detail and not leaving out much. Yes the math in Griffiths is a whole lot more difficult. I end up had to stop and study PDE. I worked through all the problems in Cpt. 10 and most on Cpt 11. It is like an advanced course on Vector Calculus. Also it really push the coordinate system. In the EE EM books, they talked a little on spherical and cylindrical co. but they really don't work you over. I know because I worked through most of the problems on two books. Work on problems in Griffiths and you'll see.

    Remember all real electronics are heavily involved with EM. As speed of circuit goes up, it is all EM. This will give advantage to physics major.

    Physics major is more general, you get a good background in math and EM. It would be easy to switch field to EE or even ME. I looked at the requirement of math, I don't think physics major require more, it is just the usual 3 calculus and ODE. But subject in physics major work you over a lot more like a described above. After you gone through Griffiths, the four courses of math you had become a child's play.

    If I were to go to school, I would go with Physics major and enroll in the EE classes I like. EE require you to study at the digital stuff that I think you can just pick up when you need it or study on your own. Make use of the professors to guide you on the more difficult subjects like PLL, RF, modulation and systems etc. No matter which way you go, study more math. At least study PDE no matter what. You'll find this very insightful. I am planning to study Complex analysis and Numerical analysis in the future myself.
    Last edited: Sep 12, 2011
  9. Sep 12, 2011 #8
    As I describe in my long post, the math course requirements between the two might be the same, but the physics major classes really work you over on the math where the math requirements in EE are more like a figurative thing.
    Last edited: Sep 12, 2011
  10. Sep 12, 2011 #9
    Well my opinion comes from experience with the two majors, my experience is the EE degree is rather weak in math or at least high level math; it is a rigorous degree but the math is not where the rigour is. Working through Griffiths Quantum Mechanics yielded more real rigorous math than I've seen in my whole upper division EE major, with the exception of maybe Communication systems. Alot of the math in EE is tedious algebra IMO, some complex numbers, some very basic linear ode's, you might look at pde's like the wave and diffusion equation but you're not gonna solve them. Like I said the rigour in EE is the hands on work, I've had a much more difficult time building projects and making them work than deriving equations; there's trade off obviously.
  11. Sep 12, 2011 #10
    I missed out one important word in my post reply to you and I added it back already in Bold. If you read my long post, I think we are saying the same thing down to Griffiths!!!! That's exactly what I said. It is not the number of math classes, it is about how the main classes work you over on the math that you learned or even more. Like the example of the coordinate systems and the vector calculus, you don't use it much in EE EM class( if you disagree, you really need to take a dabble into the Griffiths). It is quite a day and night difference. That was the reason I don't feel I got a handle of the EM after working out two books of EE EM and has to go through and work through the Griffiths book before I feel comfortable with even the undergrad EM. I think we are in total agreement and that's the reason I gave the opinion that if I were to go to college, I would actually pick Physics with heavily emphasis on EE.

    It is easy to get A's in math particular in the liberal school system that you really have to fail the class. Unless it is from a better school, people better talk about their class quietly if they only get a B or below because it is likely a give away!!!! Sorry, but this is the sad truth. Getting A is one thing, problem is how well you really understand and really know how to apply. The Griffiths ED book really make you become proficient of the calculus you learn........and that is a different world. EE EM books do none of this. And again I ask, how many EE student that went through the EM class can say they understand the basic EM or they just "survive" through it.
    Last edited: Sep 12, 2011
  12. Sep 13, 2011 #11


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    ^try Jackson
    Both departments have interesting takes on the material, it is good to see both.
    Often EE classes are more about concepts and applications and physics classes have a bit more theory and remedial calculus.
  13. Sep 13, 2011 #12
    I tend to agree, my school's physics department tends to use books even more mathematically rigorous than Griffiths (Wangsness Electromagnetic Fields), while the EE's book is no where near the rigour of Griffiths. At least in my school, there E&M course is used as a prereq for the power systems track, so they understand lenz law, faraday's law, etc within the transformers, motors, and other ac circuits. I must admit my knowledge of EM is lacking sorely compared to a physics major and I'm an EE major. What the EE is very good at is circuits, my physics major friends all tend to be weirded out by the circuits I do especially big integrated ones like A/D converters and what they call the triangle thing (the opamp) and whatnot. Hell the only reason I can keep up with what they're doing when they show me their work is because I've done a minor in math, their classes will spend 2-3 weeks just on the math review for vector calc; that probably tells you something.
  14. Sep 13, 2011 #13
    Most EE's love to ignore EM Theory (and I agree, my Engineering EM textbook is god awful), so develop a fundamental understanding of the equations behind the lumped element approximation and RF/T-Line theory and you are head and shoulders above the rest. I still use Griffiths in my graduate EE work, I think it's a happy medium.

    Jackson E&M is probably unnecessary as an EE unless you want to do heavy research (e.g. Plasma, relativistic accelerators) and it might help in advanced antenna design.
  15. Sep 13, 2011 #14


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    remedial? Humm.

    On the first day of my EM class, we were told that the final exam will include deriving Maxwell's equations and we would fail the class if we couldn't.
  16. Sep 13, 2011 #15
    Most EE I knew just "survive" through EM class and never want to look back. That's the reason most want to get into embedded design, FPGA etc. Those are a dime a dozen!!! Sorry!!! Well, I shouldn't put them down, that's how I started out!!!

    I have Jackson's right in the middle of my book shelf so every time I look, it is right in front of me. I always say "one day"!!! This would be my life long goal......to climb the Mt. Everest!!! I am planing one step at a time. Right now, I want to finish Balanis Antenna Theory. Then I am planing to study Complex Analysis and Numerical Analysis to get myself ready for Jackson. It is going to be a long road!!! I am not working anymore, necessity is not an issue. This is my crossword puzzle like the other old people!!!
  17. Sep 13, 2011 #16
    I have three Vector Calculus ( not the 3rd semester multi-variables!!!) books, none even get into the coordinates system. You have to go to PDE text to get some of it along with the Bessel's and Legendre functions. Still, I have to resort to get on the internet to really get the full story of the coordinates transformation. In Cpt 10 and 11 of Griffiths ED book where it get into the retarded potentials and fields and then radiation, the calculus really start to get dicey!!! I was told Jackson is so so much harder!!!:surprised:bugeye:
  18. Sep 14, 2011 #17
    I'm not very impressed with the typical EE, and physicists don't fare near as well. The well versed EE requires more than math and the mastery of a couple of basic sciences. To be effective, one must be devoted.
    Continual study of the body of knowledge, keen insight, and intellectual honesty will give one a better command of the subject than any degree. Jeri Ellsworth is an excellent example.
    She lacks a degree, and has become successful as a programmer, ASIC designer, and she has has even managed to fabricate semiconductors in her lab.
  19. Sep 14, 2011 #18
    We are talking about the classes in the major, not talking about how good a worker after taking these classes, it is not very related.

    I myself has been a self studier all my life, never have an EE degree, in fact for the longest time I only armed myself with basic knowledge from a low level book by Malvino. You'll be surprised how far you can go with deep understanding of some simple books just with dedication and a good dose of common sence. I became an engineer only two years into the field from a junior tech just from being able to do assembly language programming and a class of digital electronics from Heald College. Then I studied and gain experience by changing jobs, from data acquisition with Lecroy, to analog IC design with Exar, to design the whole front end of the 64 element phase array ultrasound medical scanner with Seimens to mass spectrometer with Physical Electronics. Until 10 years ago, I only has a little more than one class of Calculus, don't know anything about EM. But I managed to design heavy duty analog electronic, became a manager of EE and the chief designer of various mass spectrometers. I published two paper in American Institute of Physics, Review of Scientific Instruments of my ideas. It was after that I decided to fill the holes that I am missing.......The formal knowledge of electronics, math and EM. At the same time, I join a telecom startup working on SONET OC192 router system and later into defense sub contractor.

    Education has nothing to do with whether you can be a good design engineer, I actually credit my career from my experience as a musician, the way to approach the problem, the discipline and trust my feeling. To me, it is still part of an art, all the theory is more like to back up the feeling!!! It is like I have a feeling to design the circuit in certain way, then I proof my feeling with knowledge, never the other way around. Now that I am not working anymore, I concentrate on academic and I am getting into graduate level studies. This is like filling the void that I miss all through my career.

    In fact, I have seen engineer from good college never manage to transition into a good engineer. That is the reason when people are hiring, they don't look too much on the degree. A degree only show you have the endurance to go through the agony of 4 years of schooling. It's the instinct, common sense and the feeling that matter.
    Last edited: Sep 14, 2011
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