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Physics Physics vs Applied Physics vs Engineering

  1. Nov 7, 2016 #1
    Hi everyone,

    So I'm currently a junior studying physics and I'm beginning to have some doubts if I want to pursue it anymore. I took two years of it in high school and two years (four semesters) in college so far. Loved it, couldn't get enough of it, foaming at the mouth for more. Now I'm in my fifth semester and getting into the more challenging courses. I find myself struggling a little (which is to be expected with more challenging classes), but I've found that I am not really passionate about it like I used to be. I find a lot of the complicated math kills it for me and I lose interest in the problem or example at hand. Some of it has to do with the material itself. I am taking an intermediate level E&M as well as a modern physics class, and I really don't enjoy either. I always loved mechanics, and it clicked well for me. Even though I'm only a junior, I am a little ahead in my curriculum so I only have a handful of physics classes left. Since I only have a few major classes left it is pointless to switch my major when I'm pretty close to a bachelor's. I plan on attending graduate school.

    My original plan was to go the whole nine yards and get a PhD in Physics. Between my recent loss of interest in it and reading up on the process of going through a PhD I don't think it is for me. I'd prefer a job in the industry. With that in mind does anyone have any suggestions for what to study in graduate school. I'm considering some sort of engineering (not electrical though). I took some engineering classes in high school and enjoyed it. Granted, high school engineering and masters level are two different things, but I think I'd enjoy it more than pure physics. I've read some threads on this site and others to see about going from a Physics BS to an Engineering MS and it seems quite possible, I just might need to take some undergrad courses in engineering (like design, etc.). Another option I have considered is Applied Physics. Now I've never had any experience with it so I have no idea what that would be like.

    What are your thoughts and opinions? Thanks in advance.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 7, 2016 #2

    Charles Link

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    I encountered similar problems several times throughout my college years, and in hindsight, the one thing that might improve this is for the courses to emphasize the fundamentals. Too often, the specialized courses were missing the more important fundamentals and/or presenting such detailed mathematics that the key physics concepts were getting lost in the mathematics. I would urge you to try to put as much effort as you possibly can into learning the fundamentals regardless of which course of study you pursue.
     
  4. Nov 7, 2016 #3
    Thanks and I know what you mean. A lot of these courses do emphasize math over basic concepts. Especially E&M, we talk more about curls, divergences, surface integrals, and volume integrals than what they actually mean or represent. Even though I know math is crucial to understanding physics these classes feel more like math than science.
     
  5. Nov 7, 2016 #4

    Charles Link

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    Additional item: If you do stick with it, I think you will find that the E&M instruction will begin to make much more sense after a while. That is one subject that can be extremely difficult if it is not presented properly, but if the fundamentals are emphasized, it is really very straightforward, and certainly much less abstract than quantum mechanics.
     
  6. Nov 7, 2016 #5
    Yeah I've noticed that too. Most of the fundamentals in the class they expect you to know from the intro-level classes. Not really much new to learn with fundamentals just a lot of tedious math and derivations.
     
  7. Nov 7, 2016 #6

    Charles Link

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    They just had an E&M question come up on Physics Forums about a week or two ago which is really quite representative of how mathematical the E&M can get. I gave it a number of detailed responses which I'm hoping were helpful for the student. It seems you may be at a similar level and you might find this post of interest: https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/electric-field-of-a-charged-dielectric-sphere.890319/ One other E&M post that I think you might find of interest covers magnetostatics and permanent magnets: https://www.physicsforums.com/threads/magnetic-field-of-a-ferromagnetic-cylinder.863066/ It seems you have enough interest in physics that if the material is shown to you at a healthy pace (and not too quickly), you are likely to excel. Anyway, I thought you might find these posts of interest.
     
  8. Nov 7, 2016 #7
    Thanks those posts are great! Those problems are pretty much the ones we have done for my class (possibly even the same ones but I can't remember of the top of my head). I do have an interest in it, just not E&M. Hate it like the plague.
     
  9. Nov 7, 2016 #8

    Charles Link

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    The E&M I think is actually one of the better subjects once you get some practice with it. Another very useful one is diffraction theory (e.g. single slit and double slit and multiple slits), wave equations, and interference theory. These are quite mathematical, but much of it is quite exact, and very little of it requires handwaving arguments and/or crude approximations. The subjects that I thought were much too wrapped up in theoretical and mathematical calculations were solid state physics and plasma physics.
     
  10. Nov 8, 2016 #9
    I'll have to keep this in mind if I ever take (or have the choice of taking) solid state or plasma. The handwaving arguments and crude approximations are near the top of my list "Things I hate in Physics." The basics of E&M I don't mind as much, just the more complicated problems which are math heavy and take away from the actual physics.
     
  11. Nov 8, 2016 #10

    Charles Link

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    A couple of fundamentals I highly recommend for you are linear response theory including the convolution theorem along with the Fourier series and especially the fourier transform theory for the continuous case (using ## \hat{F}(\omega)=\int F(t) exp(-i \omega t) \, dt ##). Also it helps to have a lot of vector calculus which you will probably get in the E&M courses. In addition, the Fraunhofer (far-field) diffraction and interference theory (single slit and multiple slit) is quite important. Having a good differential equations course is important, but you don't need every single detail like the solutions to some of the more complicated differential equations. Oftentimes, the best physics is supported with mathematics that rests on solid foundations that aren't overly complex. Some of these, such as the linear response theory, shows up in quite a number of places including electrical circuits=even the simple R-C circuits. The quality of the physics is determined much more by its clarity than by its complexity or degree of difficulty.
     
  12. Nov 8, 2016 #11
    Thanks I'll take a look at them. I'm already familiar with Fourier series, fourier transforms, and vector calculus.
     
  13. Nov 16, 2016 #12
    @ Dabac, I also felt the same way as you do and was totally disillusioned by theoretical Physics in graduation. I did my Masers in Applied Physics and loved it. It was a course somewhere between pure Physics and Engineering. I enjoyed it extremely. Fortunately the course was designed in such a way that we got to study a lot of stuff involving application of Physics in real life. The subject now had more meaning and I am happy about my decision.
     
  14. Nov 16, 2016 #13
    Thanks for the response! I have been strongly considering applied physics as, as least from what little knowledge I have, it seems like a halfway point between physics and engineering. As of right now I am leaning more towards applied than the other two, so my path seems similar to yours.

    Also, two things I have been mulling over. I was wondering if anyone would share their thoughts on them.
    1) Masters vs PhD. Right now I'd say I'm leaning more towards masters, mainly due to the shorter time span (most degrees take two years full time). I've also read some people claim PhDs are as useful as they are made out to be when it comes employment (as in a masters would suffice fine and a PhD would not net you a better result compared to all the time and energy getting a PhD).
    2) Whether go to grad school immediately after finishing my BS (and then enter the industry after completing my masters) or to enter the industry and do the masters on the side.

    Thank you all again for all the useful advice you have given me.
     
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2016
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