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Physics vs. Engineering undergrad for industry aspirations?

  1. Feb 3, 2015 #1
    First, I would like to thank in advance to anybody who takes the time to read this and provide any feedback. Your help is greatly appreciated!

    I’m a first year undergrad and my passion is studying physics. I find myself 95% of the time looking up things that pertain to physics & science rather than engineering. My original intention was to pursue a B.S. in physics, however lately i’ve been second questioning that and have been entertaining the idea of a more vocational/practical degree, which thus leads me to engineering.

    I don’t really have any intentions of doing research in physics, and instead I plan on working in industry. I really want to partake in the advancement of the human race to be honest. I’m fascinated by the innovation in recent years, and want to be a part of that. Such sectors include space exploration, energy (e.g. fission, nuclear, solar), software, and artificial intelligence. In fact, my personal ambitions is to eventually start a business within one of these innovating sectors. I want to combine my interests for start-ups with my love of science. Physics I feel would adequately prepare me for this, but I want to pursue this goal AFTER I get some experience in industry--something that a physics degree won’t really help me with.

    I feel that in order to get jobs in these sectors, an engineering degree would be much more useful than a physics degree. I feel engineering will still satisfy my love for physics (to an extent), but is a smarter choice in the long term. For example, on SpaceX’s website, all of their positions require some sort of engineering degree and it seems very unlikely to get a position with a Physics degree. I feel the same would apply to any other innovating companies as well.

    If I go the engineering route, I don’t really want to commit to a specific field (as an undergrad). Since i’m caught between aerospace, energy (nuclear and fusion), and being able to do anything else that I might be interested in at some point in the future, I’m leaning towards the mechanical route because I feel it allows me to be flexible and is the perfect bridge between the aerospace and energy disciplines (any any others). I would like to go get a PhD, however as of right now I have no idea what I would specialize in. I feel a PhD would further allow me to be on the front lines of cutting edge stuff, and also would allow me to continue to learn fun stuff with like-minded people (sounds like a great experience!).

    For those who say, “just follow your passion” etc. etc., the problem is that I AM concerned about salary and job prospects. So this is something to be taken into consideration.

    My questions are
    1) Although I might have just influenced your answer with my biased writing, what would you advise me to do?
    2) If I go the engineering route, which discipline do you recommend, and would a PhD be of any use?
  2. jcsd
  3. Feb 3, 2015 #2

    Quantum Defect

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    Some opinions:

    I think degree level depends upon how deep you want to go into something. I went to a school (1980s) that had a strong Engineering Program and a strong Physics Program. Most of the BS Eng people got good jobs, many with multiple offers, straight out of undergrad. Most of the Phsyics majors went to graduate school. I knew one guy who went into industry -- working for an optics company, basically as an optical engineer. The ENG people that I knew are all doing quite well. Many went on to get additional degrees, but the majority seem to have gotten degrees in business (MBA). I don't really know any of the ENG majors who went on to graduate school in ENG, but I am sure that there were some. In ENG, I believe that an MS can lead to much better jobs with better pay. This is really not the case with an MS in Physics. PhDs in ENG are aboslutely necessary (imo) if you want a job in academia. Some schools might be fine with someone with an MS, but most major programs have people with PhDs. I have physics friends who wnet on to get PhDs in Physics and are University Professors and I have other physics friends who got Applied Physics PhDs and are working in industry. I know one fellow who was a year ahead of me at school who got a PhD in AMO physics and went on to a job in industry (laser company in the Bay Area). I have one high school friend who got a PhD in Chem Eng. He worked in a large consumer products company for a while, and is now working for another large multinational; he went back to school mid-life to get an MBA. Given his career trajectory, I suspect that the MBA opened doors for him that would have stayed closed with only a PhD.

    1) Long story short. If you want to work in industry, I think that you would have more options with an ENG degree, compared with PHY. You should definitely consider getting a PhD in engineering if you really, really like research or if you would like to "Profess" somewhere. Otherwise, I think that you can have a very productive career with a BS or MS. Other Engineers will probably provide more first-hand experience about the value of a PhD.

    2) This is a matter (I think) of picking an area that you wouldn't mind working in for a lifetime. Certainly, salary information is available for the ENG subfields, as a function of degree and domain (industry, government, higher ed). Depending upon where you want to work, a PhD may of may not be useful. In industry, you may be better off getting an MBA so that you have options in management.
  4. Feb 3, 2015 #3


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    You may want to start by reading this:


    Accelerator physics, Instrumentaton/detector physics condensed matter physics, Atomic/Molecular physics, etc. all have strong application and engineering components if you choose correctly and carefully within each area. There's nothing here that says that you have to choose one or the other.

  5. Feb 4, 2015 #4
    Thank you for the awesome feedback, that was definitely good information! I think after all the reading i've been doing today that I'm pretty much persuaded towards an engineering degree primarily because of the job prospects in industry.

    Also, i've just stumbled upon the Engineering Physics degree and was curious to know if you have any information on that? More specifically, since EP is a lot more broader, can it still be as effective at opening up job prospects than say a ME degree? I've read that EP is an extremely respected and rigorous degree that looks good on a resume, but is it better to go with a discipline rather than EP? I'm going to seriously consider that path because it seems like the perfect bridge between physics and engineering, and will be extremely versatile in regards to keeping my options open for whatever I want to do.
  6. Feb 4, 2015 #5

    Thank you for that link! I've heard about accelerator physics here and there but i've always dismissed it (no real reasoning to be honest...). I'll certainly go read up on that thread!
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