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Physics vs. Engineering in college

  1. Aug 12, 2006 #1
    Hi, this is my first post on this forum, but I'm definately a longtime lurker.

    I am looking for advice regarding my post high school schooling and have a couple questions for you guys.

    I think it's important for you to know my situation, so as of now I have a 710 on the Math and a 660 on the Verbal portions of the SATs. I do well and school and am enrolled in the top courses offered.

    I'm most interested in Cornell and UPenn, but realize the competiveness of these schools and am also looking at Rennselear, Villanova, UMass Amherst (i live in MA) and Syracuse, as well as some others.

    Here are my options as I see them.

    I want to study physics, but am worried about carreers, so I see engineering, even though physics is what I love I can see engineering as being enjoyable also, but more rewarding.

    Physics leads me to believe I'd need at least graduate school, which is more money, so physics at UMass seems to make sense.

    I don't really like the social aspect of technical schools, but really love the academics. However, I like the social and academic aspects that Cornell and UPenn have to offer.

    As you can see I'm very divided and confused. Any input would be very appreciated.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 13, 2006 #2
    I'm not sure where to start on this because I have a few different points of view that I believe in.

    1) If you really love physics and you know that physics is what you'd ideally like to spend your life studying--even if that means spending a lot of your 20s still in school--then do physics. Otherwise anything else will bore you.

    2) I'm not sure what you mean about engineering being "more rewarding" (do you mean personally? financially?), but if you're on the fence, then don't be afraid to just pick one discipline and try it out. Guess what, many engineers and physicists take the same classes their first year (there are some exceptions, such as 'advanced track' freshman physics sequences). I'm biased as a physicist, but the general consensus is that it's easier to do physics and then switch to engineering versus the other way around.

    3) I'm not sure how much "getting a good job" should dictate what you study. Certainly there are situations where one's financial situation requires that career takes precedence over one's personal passions. However, if you're not in this situation, then I would recommend exploring what you enjoy. While engineers are certainly employable right away, I haven't heard of a physics bachelor's student who has had trouble finding a job. Again, this is somewhat biased, but I've heard lots of physicists who now work in industry (medical physics, silicon valley, electrical engineering) say that physicists are especially respected as problem solvers as the requirements for an 'engineer' specialize in today's high-tech economy.

    4) You may be surprised that what you enjoy can change dramatically as you learn more about what it's like to *do* physics (rather than just do physics homework) or to *do* engineering (which is probably a lot like doing engineering homework... :rolleyes:). You might find that your true passion isn't engineering or physics, but something entirely different. Then again, if you read this and think "that's rubbish, I know exactly what I want to do--then do that.

    Well this is a big difference between science and engineering. Engineering is applying knowledge, while science is creating knowledge. As such, graduate school is pretty much a prerequisite to become a physicist (excluding technicians). However, as mentioned above, it is possible to get a job in industry with a physics bachelor's degree.

    Finally, here's a really, really important point that I feel HS students need to hear if they're interested in grad school:

    You do not have to pay for graduate school in the sciences.

    Grad school in physics is NOT like "med school" or "business school" or "law school" (i.e. professional schools). As a graduate student, you receive a funding from either an external source (the National Science Foundation) or the gradaute program that has accepted you. So while it is true that there is a 'tuition fee' for grad school, it will always be taken care of. If you do not receive a fellowship, you may have to TA undergrad courses in your department, or you may get a research assistantship and get paid for the research that you're doing--but you will never, ever have to pay for grad school out of pocket. Of course, you won't be rich, but you won't have to pay tuition and you'll have a stipend for your every day expenses (rent, food, whatever).

    Got that? There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about whether grad school is right for you (you spend another 4-6 years in school, you dont' know if it will work if you want to start a family soon, you decided you don't like research, etc.), but financial hardship should not be one of them.

    There isn't much I can say about which particular school is right for you. You need to decide that for yourself, and it will be a combination of the social atmosphere, the academic opportunities, the weather, etc. If you're interested in science, I'm a proponent of big-name research universities because that's my background and I thought the opportunities I got were worth it. However, as you'll find all over this forum, many other people recommend smaller schools that specialize in undergraduate education. Don't worry about which school you want to go to just yet. First get into them and then they'll each do their best to convince you to come.
  4. Aug 13, 2006 #3
    Thanks a lot

    The whole thing about graduate school was a big deal for me, it was really something I didn't know. I always knew that was true for engineers, but not ALL the sciences.

    I agree with the research aspect. Obviously RPI, UPenn, and Cornell have great research, but UMass also has extremely good research.

    Again thanks a lot.
  5. Aug 13, 2006 #4


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    Gold Member

    I am a physics major in college so I also have a bias, so I'll defend your career as a physicist. If you already have good scores, and a chance to get into a good school, and you're more interested in physics, then take physics.

    Youre financial situation will not be threatened by this choice as long as you pay attention to where the money is going in physics and make sure to stay as good as you are. You'll have some time before you have to choose what branch of physics you want to pursue, and you'll have a world of advisors with communication noawdays (internet, libraries, your academic advisors).

    It's when you choose a branch of physics that you focus on a) your finer interests and b) your career options
  6. Aug 13, 2006 #5
    Do both, like me. :tongue:
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