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Programs Physics or Engineering (aka hardest decision of my life)

  1. Jun 8, 2016 #1
    So I've been struggling with this decision for the past 6-8 months. I go to a community college and I will be completing an associates degree in mechanical engineering in about a year (only 6 classes left). I think engineering is awesome, and so far I love the classes I've taken; Statics has been one of my favorite classes so far. While I love the classes, I'm not sure if I can see myself being an engineer; from what I understand, engineers learn all of the hard physics and math, not so they can use it in the field, but just so they can understand it. I have a passion for math and physics so it would suck if this were true.

    The things that draw me to engineering are the fact that it is purely problem solving; I think problem solving is an amazing skill to develop because it not only helps you with engineering, but with pretty much everything else in life. I also like how easy it will be to find a job, and I'm already going to have an associates degree in it, so it would be an easier transition to a B.S. in engineering.

    I've been set(not really) on engineering for a while but certain things keep drawing me to physics. I tutor at my college, and a lot of people have been coming to me for physics appointments the past few weeks. I really enjoy teaching physics, and people always tell me they can tell how passionate I am about it. I've also always liked to question everything; when I was a kid I would always read greek philosophy, specifically pieces of philosophy written by Plato, so my interest in the theoretical side of physics comes naturally with my interest in the socratic era of philosophy.

    Its been hard trying to make this decision, and I go back and forth, but it seems as if I always go back to mechanical engineering because of how safe of a decision it is. I'm not sure though what do you all think?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 8, 2016 #2


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    So I think you're going about this kind of backwards. I've never been a fan of pick a major then thinking about a career. You're getting this degree in order to do something. What exactly do you want to do? Once you determine of what kind of work you want to do, then start considering what you have to do in order to get to that. Then consider how feasible all of that work is for you and if it'll be worth it to you.

    I mention this because if your goal is just to get a bs in Physics, then you have to consider that one day you'll eventually leave science altogether and work for me doing software development. Even if you get a PhD in Physics the same scenario may occur. (In fact, I currently manage two former professors from top 10 universities who have PhD's in physics.). With that said, for some point the ability to spend x years of your life dedicated to science is worth it, even if it doesn't become a lifelong endeavor.
  4. Jun 8, 2016 #3
    You're definitely right. My idea was that I would pick someone in which I liked to learn, which has brought me to either physics or engineering. I can see myself getting a PhD and teaching physics while doing research, that is definitely what I would want to do with a physics degree. But I'm not sure how much I can see myself being an engineer. I guess I don't know though because I have no experience with engineering aside from the classes I have taken.
  5. Jun 8, 2016 #4


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    Sure, but to the same extent do you have experience doing research? When I was younger, I had the same idea that I would go on and become a professor in statistics and do research and wear a tweed coat. I then did research and I was very unmotivated to work on it. I initially assumed it because I lacked interest in that particular field, so I went to graduate school anyways. However, even during graduate school, researching for my thesis was painful for me because I just didn't like the academic approach to research. In retrospect, I finally realized that i'm not really the academic type. I enjoy learning, but I enjoy learning within the context of applying it to problems that need to be solved that gather me tangible results.

    I mention all this to stress that until you do something you can't really be sure if you enjoy it or not. I would advise you to search for engineering internships/co-ops before deciding that it's something you can't see yourself doing. Maybe you'll find that it's soul crushing and you can't possibly ever do it, and that's fine. At least you'll know that you made the right decision to not pursue engineering to completion. To the same extent, I would also try to find research opportunities through REU to help see if research is thrilling to you.
  6. Jun 8, 2016 #5
    That's exactly what my physics professor said to do. The only problem is that I won't be able to get an internship until next summer, which is after I'll have already picked my major.

    The closest thing I have to research is I did this NASA program where I pretty much just read a ton of old documents about mars and wrote reports on them. That was really interesting but I'm not sure if that would count as research
  7. Jun 8, 2016 #6
    What about getting a PhD and teaching engineering while doing research? Engineers do advanced research too.
  8. Jun 8, 2016 #7


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    Engineering careers cover a very wide range of technicality. Some of them amount to glorified code monkeys who rarely (if ever) use any of the math and physics, and some of them regularly use the math and physics they learned in school. Most fall somewhere in between (particularly at the BS level). I wouldn't write off engineering as a whole on that account (not that there is anything wrong with deciding you are more interested in a career specifically in physics, of course).

    If your concern is that you don't want to land in one of the "nontechnical" tracks of engineering, then the solution is sort of twofold: don't target those jobs when looking to start your career, and/or continue your education and get a more advanced degree. Advanced degrees in engineering tend to lead to more technical career tracks and still have a pretty heavy focus on the "problem solving" aspect of engineering. Research in engineering is also pretty varied, spanning from the very applied all the way to some highly theoretical topics that are essentially indistinguishable from applied mathematics and physics. For example, in my field (which is essentially the modern version of the field in which Heisenberg earned his doctorate, excepted I learned it in an engineering department), you can basically cover all of those bases at once.

    Regarding internships, I actually did a few of them during my undergraduate years and it was what steered me toward graduate school. In my opinion, internships are incredibly valuable for their ability to help you determine if the sorts of jobs available to someone with just a BS are the sort that would make you happy. For me, I came away feeling I would not have a fulfilling career (for me personally) if I had stopped there, so I went straight on through a PhD. Many other people really like their options with just the BS, so I think for you, this issue really warrants some further exploring.

    I'd say stick with engineering for now (at least until you can get an internship or two) and then if you decide you need something a little more physics-/math-heavy. If you do, then weigh your options for graduate school and maybe see if you can get into a physics program if you desire it at that point. Another option would be to see if the school you will be attending offers a degree in mechanics (sometimes called "engineering mechanics" or "theoretical and applied mechanics"). Those programs generally split the line between engineering and physics and tend to be more math/theory heavy than typical engineering degrees. They are fairly rare these days at the undergraduate level, though.
  9. Jun 8, 2016 #8


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    I will, once again, point out that you CAN have your cake and eat it too!


    There are many fields of study, even in physics, where your specialty can straddle one or more engineering fields. If you want to do physics, but don't want to give up your love of engineering, you can specialize in many areas in physics (accelerators, solid state, detector/device physics, etc.) which have a huge overlap with areas of engineering. In fact, as a physicist, I'd say that almost 75% of my daily job involves engineering work!

    Physics isn't just dealing with esoteric, no-immediate-application topics!

    So to the question of which to do, physics or engineering, my answer is do BOTH! Why do you have to choose?

  10. Jun 8, 2016 #9
    That's awesome. Yeah you're definitely right though, I could just major in physics and then get a job that involves engineering, if I wanted to.
  11. Jun 8, 2016 #10


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    I definitely agree with the above, especially if you do a PhD in physics. A lot of the times you can easily have an advisor in another department like materials science, chemistry, mechanical engineering, etc. Even within the physics department, I know people who did their PhDs in condensed matter experiment who went on to work for Intel and IBM in engineering positions.

    So in some ways I would say physics gives you more flexibility.
  12. Jun 9, 2016 #11
    Definitely. But it really depends on what you do. If you spend your entire education learning specialized things about the atmosphere of exo-planets, then you shouldn't be surprised that you'll have difficulty finding a job. There are many things in physics that are very employable, like Zz pointed out. But there are many things in physics that are not very employable either. Choose wisely, and don't forget to work on side-skills such as programming or communication.
  13. Jun 9, 2016 #12
    There is nothing inherently wrong from getting an applied math introduction to cryptography. But it depends what you want. Do you want people to tell you "this is the algorithm, now program it" or do you want "here's the algorithm, let's find out why it works and let's find out how to generalize this". The latter you are more likely to find in pure math. The former you are more likely to find in applied math. But a good applied math professor might still focus a lot on why things work, it's just that it depends a lot on the professor.
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