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Physics Majors Internships (and a bit more)

  1. Oct 23, 2013 #1
    Hello there PF! Recently I've been trying to decide between engineering and physics as a college major, and I came across this forum and thought I might as well see what you guys had to say. As you can tell from the title, I'm particularly concerned with what internship opportunities are available to physics majors, but I'll say a bit more. You can skip to the bottom if you aren't interested in my story, but I have a tendency to write more than I should and I'm too weak to resist the temptation now.

    A little background: I'm currently enrolled at the University of Houston on a full ride scholarship, studying electrical engineering. I like engineering too, as circuits are pretty much just one big, fun logic puzzle and often I feel like I have the potential to do really important things with a degree in it. However, I'm not really satisfied with the upper level classes in the future as they all are very similar (circuit analysis, programming, EM circuits, antennas, more circuits, using programming in circuits) while the physics degree plan looks amazing (quantum mechanics? E and M theory? Extra chemistry? YES).

    Now, I've thought long about what I want to do, and have talked to many professors and students about making my decision. It seems that if nothing else, I can go to grad school for engineering in the future, especially with my current background in engineering as I have taken 10 hours of engineering courses so far. Because yeah, I like engineering and would love to work with it in the future, I just think I'd enjoy studying physics much more.

    There is of course, a catch.

    As most of you probably know, engineers make a lot of money. Even in internships. And there's a ton of engineering internships here in Houston. I know several other sophomores who are being interviewed for $40 an hour internships with people like BP or Shell. Students like me in the middle of their third semester in college. And you know what? Opportunities like that are hard to pass by. It would be one thing if I hated engineering, but I don't. It just doesn't feel quite right as a college major right now. It feels a bit too technical, and a little too rigid. But if it affords financial flexibility in the future to raise a family and such, it might be worth it, especially if one of those internships leads to a company paying for my grad school as well.

    This would all be a lot easier to let go of if I was confident that there were internship opportunities out there for physics majors as well. Not nearly as well paying, of course, but at least out there to give me experience and make some extra money over the summer to pay for grad school in whatever I want (likely physics, math, or engineering, and probably engineering). Of course my professors all say they're there, but most of the students I've talked to are more focused on research (which I plan on doing as well since I'll be going to grad school) so I haven't had much feedback on how physics internships go.

    So my questions to you guys are as follows:

    1. Do physics majors have good opportunities for internships? Again, I'm in Houston, so there are plenty of oil and gas companies if nothing else (although working for NASA would be so much better).

    2. Building off of that, I've heard that many physics majors don't necessarily go into science as a job. Is this because they don't want to, or because they can't find a job there? I'm not majoring in science to work in finance, you know.

    3. How easily could I go into an engineering grad school? I know it's been done before, and I've looked at some of the top schools entry requirements for their engineering graduate programs (some are ambiguous, some I seem to fulfill), but I can't help but feeling like it would simply make more sense to just do engineering if I want to do it for a masters, even if I'd rather study physics. Because I suppose I could study physics on my own time, after all.

    4. And finally, how will me being from a non top-tier university for my undergrad (again, University of Houston) influence my ability to get into an engineering graduate program or eventually a job?

    I realize that I haven't contributed here at all, so it's sort of like 'why should I help you?', but I figured if nothing else it would help me sort out my thoughts on the matter. Thank you so much for any advice you could give. It really helps!

    Edit: Okay, sorry, I know this is already really long, but I had one more question I forgot. I've heard physics can in some ways actually prepare you better for engineering grad schools or jobs. Is this true? I've heard it from an engineering teacher even, especially if I got into semiconductors or SSD's, but there's still a lot I'd be missing I feel.
    Last edited: Oct 23, 2013
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 23, 2013 #2


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    I'm not going to answer most or any of your questions, but you should look at the "career guidance" forum for posts on being a physics major and looking for jobs. Also, if you made the drastic choice to change majors, would you lose your scholarship?

    If you were to get a masters in EE, what specialty would you be interested in? Most specialties would be best served by an undergrad degree in EE. Since you managed to procure a full ride, you are likely someone with the ability and drive to do very well in your studies, which is what is required to get into grad school - try to work on projects, do research with professors, or get good summer internships, as the recommendations from those experience can really make a huge difference. I did an NSF REU program one summer that certainly helped me.

    Anyway, I feel your pain. I did EE both for undergrad and grad, and also found that I wanted to learn more physics. I did grad school in plasma physics (in EE) and ended up in industry, where I by far use stuff I learned in undergrad more than what I learned in grad school. I wish I had chosen a more useful grad specialization (like signal processing, communications, ...) even though plasma was fun. I still teach myself some physics in my spare time once in awhile, and find it to be fun - better than crossword puzzles!

    I must be honest that my first thought was to tell you to just take some physics electives, and to take the "physics-like" electives in your department. But I looked at your department web site and see that your curriculum is pretty locked in with very few (if any!) space for outside electives without overloading. However, you will be getting a reasonable foundation in applied classical (non-quantum) physics with your engineering courses. Certainly enough to prepare you to self-study more theoretical aspects if you are interested. By the way, if your two semester EM sequence is similar to what I took many years ago, it should have significant overlap with the physics department; you will primarily miss radiation from accelerated charges (you will learn radiation from currents on things like antennas!) and relativistic electrodynamics.

    I know, I didn't answer your questions even though I rambled a lot. But you are asking the right questions - it is smart to find things out before you think about making a dramatic change like leaving engineering. And by the way, the program you are in looks like it does a really good job of preparing you for a variety of EE careers. I wish you the best, and hope others chime in.

  4. Oct 23, 2013 #3
    Thank you so much for the response jason! I made a single thread here because I felt weird asking what is essentially one, overarching question in two places, but I'll definitely check out the career guidance forum.

    My scholarship would not be in peril if I switched majors. My only requirements are to remain above a 3.0 each semester (I'm above by miles at this point) and at least 30 hours a year (not necessarily for degree, just total). It's known as a national merit scholarship, but idk if those are well known or not.

    I'm not entirely sure what I'd specialize in in grad school yet, although there is a nanoengineering minor available at my current school which I can take using my ECE electives (or at least I used to be able to, but they might have just combined it all into the MECE department which would be a huge disappointment as the courses would no longer count as ECE electives) and I was hoping to build off of that in some way. Otherwise I'm still at the stage where I'm open to many different things, although some kind of energy field or semiconductors are the ones I've looked at most.

    And yeah, the first advice I got was to do an EE major with a minor in physics, but I was unable to find any time to fit in the required courses. I'm pretty much a full 15 hours every semester from here on out using EE courses; I could probably at most take extra courses over the summer if I didn't have an internship/summer research to worry about (and I plan on either having an internship or research if possible), although summer work isn't covered by my scholarship.

    And anything other people says is fantastic, so don't worry about directly answering any questions. Thanks!
  5. Oct 28, 2013 #4
    Me and most of friends that were physics majors didn't really do internships during undergrad. Many of us worked in a lab or under a professor doing research. Sadly, the "pay" was either for credit or like $8/hr. If you intend on only getting a bachelor's degree then make sure you take classes in CS, engineering or something applicable for the job market.
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