1. PF Contest - Win "Conquering the Physics GRE" book! Click Here to Enter
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Physics or engineering for career?

  1. Jul 4, 2015 #1
    Hey guys :)
    I'm new to this forum, and I'm hoping you might be able to give me some advice.
    I'm about to enter my last year in highschool in France, and I'll soon be applying to university in the UK. I love finding out about how and why things work, so I'm hesitating between physics and engineering.

    1) I really love my physics classes, and I have good grades, and some of the modern physics research topics look interesting.
    But how different is university physics from A level physics? Is it completely different or just harder ?
    Is it possible to get a physics related job with just a bsc or a msc?
    I may go down the PhD as I understand it is generally required for research, but I'm not sure I want to stay in school that long, so I'd like to be able to get a science job if I stop at the msc level.

    2) I'm also interested in the application of physics to real world problems. So I was thinking engineering may be a good fit for my interests.
    I'm currently taking some mechanical and electrical engineering classes at my school, and I love them, but I'm not very good at some parts of it. I'm fine with the maths and the theory, but when we're given a drawing and we need to figure out how it works and how the parts move together, I'm not so good at it. I've never tinkered or taken old appliances apart, so I'm not that good at figuring out how stuff works just by looking at it. But I am good at working with my hands (I started out in an art A level before swithching to science), but I'm not sure I would be that good with mechanical or electrical things.
    Although I find what we do in class interesting, I sometimes feel I'm not really engineering material. I've never wanted to know how stuff works or even had the slightest interest in science and engineering until very recently, and I have no hands on experience with any machines. I'm quite creative though, and I'm proficient in maths and physics. Will I be at a disadvantage if I'm not good at building stuff and have trouble imagining how things work? Is it something you can get better at?

    How much physics is there in an engineering degree? I want to come out of university with a good understanding of physics, and most engineering programs don't leave much room for extra physics classes. Would I get a good understanding of physics from an engineering degree ?

    3) The degrees I'm considering are :
    mechanical engineering
    electrical engineering
    materials science and engineering
    and maybe aerospace engineering or biomedical engineering
    My main interests are vehicles, biomimicry, biomechanics, space technology, robotics, electronics, nanotechnology, medical devices, biomaterials and tissue engineering, renewable energy, nuclear physics, etc
    I know my interests are spread over a wide range of fields, which doesn't make the decision any easier ^^. I feel like I would enjoy any of these degrees. Any advice on choosing? Is there one that looks like it would fit my interests and skills better than the others?

    Also, a couple of universities offer a degree in Electrical and Mechanical engineering which is accredited by the Institute of Mechanical engineering and the Institute of Engineering and technology. Would such a degree allow me go to graduate school and apply for jobs in either electrical or mechanical engineering, or would I be compromising on depth too much?

    Here are the links to the programs I've found :
    http://www.bath.ac.uk/study/ug/prospectus/subject/integrated-mechanical-electrical-engineering/detail/ [Broken]

    4) From reading a thread by ZapperZ on accelerator physics, I've realised there are fields where physics and engineering overlap significantly. What other fields are like this?

    Sorry this is so long and thanks for any advice you can give me :)
    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 4, 2015 #2
    An Mechanical Engineering degree may be the best fit for your interests and also help strengthen some areas of weakness.

    ABET is the important accrediting agency in the US for engineering degrees. I don't know about Europe. You need to find out from reliable sources there.
  4. Jul 4, 2015 #3
    Thanks for your reply :)
    In the UK (where I'll be studying), it's the Institute of Mechanical engineering for mechanical engineering and the Institute for Engineering and Technology seems to accredit electrical engineering courses.
  5. Jul 4, 2015 #4
    You will use physics as an engineer, and depending on your engineering field, you will use more or less. As an Aerospace Engineer, I have used electric fields, optics, Newtonian physics, flow, etc. on a daily basis. But if there is a party of physics you like a lot, focus on that. Engineering will give you the ability to apply physics as a field of science to a variety of problems, but nothing too specific.
  6. Jul 4, 2015 #5
    Thanks for the reply :)
    The problem is I love most parts of physics ^^ Which engineering fields use the most physics? Are there any that use optics or quantum physics?
  7. Jul 4, 2015 #6
    I am an Aerospace Engineer - literally a Rocket Scientist - and I wish I had quantum computers to make things easier. I am sure that if you wanted to focus on quantum physics (or whatever), you could find excellent employment as an engineer. You probably won't be doing as much research, more application, though.
  8. Jul 4, 2015 #7
    Working on quantum computers sounds interesting. I guess that would be electrical engineering.
  9. Jul 4, 2015 #8
    I like to describe it like this: There is a broad gulf fixed between physicists/mathamaticians and the rest of the normal folks. Engineers bridge the gap between the "high" sciences and laymen. Naturally some engineers will be closer to one side of the Gulf or the other, working more with the physics and math of it all over working more as a practitioner (turning the screw driver when told to turn the screw driver, type of thing). If you want the best of both worlds, an R&D career will be sure to give you your fill of physics and math while also allowing you to produce quantifiable, real world implications through Engineering...just my opinion.

    Also, I don't know how it is across the pond, but here in the states I know people that recieved their degree in Civil or Mechanical Engineering that now work in IT or in some other EE or CE field. I think choosing a path to take would have more to do with what you're willing to do. I see a lot of EE students that have no interst in it, but think it's the path to a wealthy life and so that's what they choose: pick what you like to do and do that, the rest tends to work itself out.

    Good luck my friend ... :smile:
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2015
  10. Jul 4, 2015 #9
    Thanks for the reply :)
    I think a career in R&D might be just what I'm after. But I still need to choose which field ^^
  11. Jul 4, 2015 #10
    I can offer you no advice that wouldn't be dripping with personal bias, but... EE is superior to all others...that is all. :cool:
  12. Jul 4, 2015 #11


    User Avatar
    Gold Member

    I think the majority of work on quantum computing is currently done by physicists. The biggest hurdle for designing a quantum computer is building one that can withstand all the "noise" from the environment and correct errors efficiently. So it's not surprising that the field of quantum error correction and fault tolerance is very hot right now. Another problem is physically designing a universal quantum logic gate that can perform any needed operation at the hardware level. Simulation of quantum systems or simulation of classical systems with quantum computers is also a hot field of research. Just some areas of research to consider if you are interested in quantum computing.
  13. Jul 4, 2015 #12
    Thanks for your reply :)
    I'll look into those, quantum computing sounds intersting ;)
  14. Jul 4, 2015 #13
    This is coming from a Junior in electrical engineering, so keep that in mind. Definitely look into electrical engineering. Optical communication is a big field of research in EE from what I know. This ranges from optical networks, multiplexing techniques and whatnot, to optical devices, quantum optics, nonlinear optics. A graduate degree would probably necessary to do work in these fields. In terms of quantum mechanics, you can look into semiconductor devices, which can utilize quite a bit of quantum mechanics from what I know. I know plasma physics is often considered an EE research area, and many EE professors do research in Electromagnetics (antenna arrays, computational Electromagnetics).

    Definitely if you want to do optics-related research in engineering, electrical is the way to go from what I know.

    Depending on the field, electrical engineering could include heavy amounts of electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, optics, complex math (not just in the complex number sense), and even thermodynamics in some jobs.

    Of course, it is engineering when it comes down to it, and when you do utilize these tools, it will be to design things, whether it's to improve efficiency or decrease cost. It's not particularly quantum mechanics just for the sake of quantum mechanics. But that's okay--new technology is fun. And applying physics to real situations can be remarkably rewarding.

    It really all depends on what you make of it. You could be an electrical engineer who only learns enough physics to get by, but there's also so much more you could do.
  15. Jul 5, 2015 #14
    Thanks for the reply :)
    I'm definitely considering electrical engineering ;) So far I've loved our classes on optics and quantum physics, and I'd rather use that knowledge to create technology than do quantum physics for the sake of quantum physics.

    Are there any areas in mechanical/ aerospace engineering that use a lot of physics?
  16. Jul 6, 2015 #15
    Consider that there also is engineering physics/applied physics in many countries (not sure about the UK).

    In general EE is a good choice because if you pick the right track you can dive into semiconductor devices and stuff and you will be able to take a course on quantum physics while in undergraduate education.
    Then various universities in the UK have masters' degrees completely dedicated to photonics and optics.
    I just looked up one and for admission they require either physics or EE.

    So that may be an idea.
    But it depends on whether you like electronics or not as many courses will be about that, the electron devices are just part of it.

    With EE you are sure you will see more maths than other engineers and you'll have the chance to use concepts from modern physics instead of just newtonian stuff.
  17. Jul 7, 2015 #16
    Thanks for the reply :)
    I haven't found any engineering physics courses in the UK or in France.
    EE definitely seems like a possibility, the more maths the better! ^^ So far I've only taken some basics classes on circuits, signals, transistors etc. and I've really liked it, though I sometimes struggle to understand and I'm not as good as my classmates when it comes to using the software or doing lab work. Unlike them, I've haven't wanted to be an engineer since I was a kid, I've never taken apart or fixed anything, and they have more "technical" knowledge than I do. Hopefully I can get better at this.
  18. Jul 24, 2015 #17
    Something to consider is a degree in geophysics. What I am doing right now, as a seismologist, is building programs that tries predict/approximate earthquake damage based on various parameters. In the fields of geophysics you apply inversion theory, mechanics, dynamics, wave theory, signal processing, geometry, programming (most common is Python and Fortran), etc. So I would say its a good mixture of math, physics and engineering. And if you are inte electricity and such, geophysics offer electromagnetism as well.

    If you don't want to do research you can always join the field of applied geophysics is the mine and oil buisnesses, where the payments are much higher. Or, work with infrastructures.
  19. Aug 4, 2015 #18
    Thanks for the reply :smile:
    That actually looks really interesting, I'd never thought of geophysics. It's definitely something to look into :wink:
  20. Aug 5, 2015 #19
    So speaking as an EE at uni in the UK who is currently wishing I'd done physics, I might be able to provide some insight. I will preface this by pointing out my experiences here are limited to one university (a reasonably well considered Russell Group uni, usually in top 10-15 but afaik never in top 5).

    While engineering is based on physics fundamentally, in my experiences generally they don't focus a lot on the theoretical underpinning and spend more time teaching you methods and techniques to be able to perform engineering design tasks. For example, we didn't do electromagnetism (i.e. electrostatics, magentostatics and maxwell's equations, from a vector calculus viewpoint) until third year, by which point we'd spend a year doing general engineering and a year doing electronics engineering. Fundamentally understanding the laws of electricity and magnetism, while contextually useful perhaps, was not essential in actually being able to design and build circuits and microelectronic devices.

    We were shown the "shortcuts" that allowed us to skip a first principles approach. While this is obviously useful in a day-to-day sense, I personally found it very frustrating as I realized, over time, I didn't really care so much about designing circuits and stuff, regardless of what they are used for. I personally would rather have fundamental understanding of the laws of physics behind them and spend time considering the implications of that (which is why I wish I'd done physics >.> ).

    Another point worth mentioning is in the UK generally, and for engineering especially, the degree structure is extremely rigid. BEng engineers get a maximum of one optional module, in the entire degree (which is also an elective and hence can be taken outside of the engineering department potentially). MEng students have the same structure as BEng and then a 4th year where they choose typically 3-4 of their modules from a restricted list of electives. As such it can be difficult trying to "branch out" and include e.g. more fundamental physics modules.

    Generally with a BSc/MPhys in physics you can probably get a generic job somewhere, possibly related to the stuff you done (various computing centric jobs tend to be common, or for example working at the nearby met office which is typically quite programming focused as well). Additionally there may be some roles within engineering companies and similar which you could apply for as a physicist. However generally to "be" a physicist implies to a great extent doing academic research, which invariably requires a PhD. While industrial research opportunities exist for physicists these typically will require a minimum of a PhD and a lot probably want further experience (e.g. as a postdoc) as they seem fairly competitive.

    Generally speaking, don't do an engineering degree if you don't plan on working in an engineering workplace after graduation (possibly after getting a masters). If you want to do engineering research you can often get into it via a physics degree (at least 70% of the electronics researchers at my uni are from a physics or sometimes maths background). While it can often be daunting to consider doing actual academic research, particularly considering committing yourself to 3+ years after your bachelors in academia, as a high school student, you'll often find over time it's either something that you just fall into anyway or it becomes obvious early on that's not the path you're going to go down.

    Additionally a lot of the things mentioned e.g. quantum computing, plasma physics and nuclear fusion, quantum optics and photonics, while often sharing resources with engineering departments and being somewhat cross-disciplinary are still generally physics research areas. While a handful of really top tier places have more open research plateaus (e.g. MIT) in your average university those topics will fall under the purview of the physics department, and it may be difficult or impossible to get a PhD in those areas without a physics background (certainly, at the very least, you will likely be missing a lot of relevant background theory in exchange for additional training in instrumentation and engineering design, which is generally going to be less useful in that circumstance). They're with the exception of photonics not really at an "Industry" stage in their life cycle. Quantum computing is very much academically oriented currently, with a lot of interested industrial partners and sponsors but limited positions for anyone who doesn't have an extensive research background to start with. Plasma physics and nuclear fusion is similar, although with a stronger governmental and policy based interest in it. Generally speaking you won't just get a job after BEng in one of those areas. You might get something photonics related in the semiconductor industry or in optical storage device related areas after bachelors, although they'd probably prefer masters candidates.
  21. Aug 5, 2015 #20


    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member


    In my uni days physics students had options in third year of specialising in theoretical physics or experimental physics .

    The few that took the experimental option learned a lot about physics but at the same time time learned a bit about engineering .

    Those fewer still that took the experimental option for higher degrees actually spent a good amount of their time doing engineering while at the same time doing advanced physics research .

    Designing , commissioning , developing and then finally successfully using research equipment can be a fascinating and rewarding task .


    Ther are quite a few areas of (non academic) work where pure physics and practical engineering go together successfully - medical physics is one example .


    Actual engineering companies are not usually overly concerned about what specific degree a job applicant has . For any non mediocre job in industry extensive training will be needed anyway so provided a degree has the basics of maths and some applied science content that's ok .
Know someone interested in this topic? Share this thread via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook