Physics vs. Electrical Engineering in college

  • #1
So I'm a freshman in college right now and I am a physics major. The class I am also having most trouble with is.......physics. I am doing great in math but physics is tougher for me. I was thinking that maybe physics isn't for me, as also looking around I realized just how theory-based everything in physics is, and I was thinking of going into electrical engineering. I know it involves a lot of physics still but I feel that a more applied look at it will help me stay interested and also I do enjoy building things, using my hands and figuring out how gadgets work, even though I'm not particularly great at it. My dad is an electrician and I enjoy working with him and I was big into robotics in high school and loved building things. I also want to apply my knowledge to real-world problems and really have an impact on people's lives. My only concerns in engineering is how much I hear that engineers are paper-pushers, and that I feel many jobs in engineering is just using methods other people have come up with and applying it to your situation. Not to offend anyone but I don't know exactly how much research goes on in an engineer's job. The head of the department of electrical engineering however said it depends on what I do with my degree if I got it in engineering, but my question is how feasible is it to get an engineering job where I get a decent amount of hands-on work with a lot of room for innovation? Thank you!

Answers and Replies

  • #2
Not to offend anyone but I don't know exactly how much research goes on in an engineer's job.
Depends on the job. If you plan on stopping at a Bachelor's degree, you probably won't do much "research." If you go on to graduate school, you may end up doing lots of research.
  • #3
Also, just because when I looked at the sample course sequence for electrical engineering at my school, I only need, physics-wise, classical physics 1 and 2, the rest are really math and engineering, so really to what extent is physics involved in electrical engineering? This is probably a very naïve question but I wanted to know.

Depends on the job. If you plan on stopping at a Bachelor's degree, you probably won't do much "research." If you go on to graduate school, you may end up doing lots of research.
Thank you for that
  • #4
Allow me to give you my perspective. I'm a Junior in electrical engineering right now.

In terms of physics, surprisingly, there are actually a lot of subfields of electrical engineering that don't really have much (or any) physics. Of course, this is still dependent on the course. And also of course, the fields may be based upon physics, but little to no physics is actually done.

I've taken general physics I (mechanics) and general physics II (electricity and magnetism). I am currently taking a modern physics course (junior level) as an elective, though we're not required to take any physics beyond that.

Courses I've taken like signal processing, communication systems, control systems, microprocessors, and digital design have essentially no physics in them (or have physics only in a limited extent). That's not to say these classes aren't interesting though--signal processing has made me look at the world a little bit differently, control systems can be incredibly mathematical at the higher levels, the theory behind communication systems is enjoyable to learn about, and digital design is (seemingly) simple, yet fun.

That said, we do have to take one or two intermediate electromagnetics courses (which are a bit more application-focused than the physics department's analogous courses). Microwave/RF circuits and antennas involved quite a bit of electromagnetism. Some schools do research in computational electromagnetics, in fact. So there's a highly physics-related area. On the other hand, there's also the whole field of semiconductor devices. At the undergraduate level, it's a fairly soft introduction to semiconductor devices and how they work, but at the graduate level, for instance, the professor who taught me this particular subject told me he took several QM and solid state physics courses in graduate school. I don't even need to say that there are definitely electrical engineers doing research in this area in industry--just think of places like IBM, Intel, etc. So yes, there is physics involved, but it's also engineering, so we're not learning physics for the sake of physics, but to use the physics to design something (which can be rewarding in and of itself).

Of course, I encourage you to grab a grain of salt after reading this, because these things are just what I've seen.
  • #5
Thank you very much that helps a lot.
  • #6
I have advanced degree in physics and in addition I have completed about ten graduate engineering courses and I work alongside with a co-worker with a similar background as myself. I know many half-electrical engineer half physicists in my time. A very good friend of mine passed the physics PH.D prelims in graduate school ( a difficult achievement). He was introduced to plasma physics in the electrical engineering department and he even had to forgo the pass and pass the prelims in the EE department. Clearly he was brave and well-motivated in his effort to change directions. I know other professors of electrical engineering working in semi-conductor physics.

I have a great deal more experience than AXMLS. Nevertheless, AXMLS is right-on. He (or she) gave an excellent introductory tour of EE and I agree with almost all of it. Whether you get to do research is more likely influenced by achieving advanced degrees, than whether you are an called an engineer or physicist. I know experimental physicists who are hands-on people and engineers who are Itheoretical and do not go near equipment.

Engineers are no more paper-pushers than physicists are. There is a tendency among physics students in the first couple of years of students to believe, physicists derive the equations and engineers just use them. This belief is supported because at the pedagogic level, basic physics is important background to study engineering.
In practice, a professional engineer (or physicist) both may be required to extend further than what is known and accepted, to "derive" and test "the right equation"

As far as using other people's methods, or equations, If you examine for example the Journal of Guidance, Navigation and Control, or many other engineering journals, you will see several authors (mostly EE's) propose exciting new methods, as many methods as advanced physics journals. Moreover, both physicists and engineers build on earlier developments and methods in their own disciplines so their contributions are like variations on a theme.

In general: A good engineer can be a good physicist. A good physicist can also be a good electrical engineer.

That being said: I did relatively badly my first year in Physics. I considered EE at one point. I had a poor idea of what EE's did (until working with them 5 to ten years later). I stuck it out in physics. I found out much later my undergraduate institution was very highly regarded in physics, and less well regarded in engineering. (It's engineering departments have improved over the last 40 years so that now it is better (although still nowhere as good as physics)) I think this perseverance was the correct decision in my case.

Bottom line. You might want to consider the strengths of the respective programs, you are considering before making a decision. It is also quite possible after a suitable exposure to EE courses and work, you may want to change direction to EE.

Related Threads on Physics vs. Electrical Engineering in college