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Questions to ask Engineers and Experimental Physicists

  1. Jun 18, 2013 #1
    Hello,
    I am a senior undergraduate (USA) who wants to go to graduate school for either engineering or experimental physics. I am an A/B student and have taken all the recommended classes as if I was preparing to apply to physics graduate schools. I am not sure I am satisfied with an undergraduate's knowledge of physics, but the practical application of engineering is appealing to me.

    This is a list of questions I plan on sending to physicists and engineers I am in contact with to get information on their experiences. Does anyone have any ideas of other good questions to ask, or answers of their own?

    Thank you


    1. What are the top few things you do every day during your working hours? I
    am curious even if, or perhaps especially if, it involves things like dealing with
    bureaucracy.
    2. Is there anything you would prefer to have moved onto, or off of, that list.
    3. What hard skills or knowledge do you use the most on a daily basis in your line
    of work? For example : programming, troubleshooting, electronics, quantum mechanics, statistics,
    fluid dynamics, specific mathematics, etc.
    4. Why did you choose this career?
    5. Are you doing what you expected to be doing when you first entered that job or
    career?
    6. If you attended graduate school, in a general (or specific) sense, what did you learn
    there? For example : Was it like your undergraduate experience, but with a new
    level of depth and rigor?
    7. What do you fi nd most satisfying about your job and or career?
    8. How is success measured in your field? For example : in physics publications,
    conferences, teaching etc. In engineering, projects completed, designs approved,
    etc.
    9. What would describe as a successful first fi ve years for someone in the fi eld?
    10. Do you get to travel?
    11. Do you typically work with a small group of people, or as part of a large project
    or collaboration? Do you prefer one over the other?
    12. Do you have any thoughts on the job prospects of your fi eld, or physics and engineering in general?
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 18, 2013 #2

    jasonRF

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    I am an electrical engineer who primarily works on radar and related technologies. I have a PhD; my graduate work was in plasma physics (in EE).

    1. The answer to this one certainly changes over time. But over the 10+ years I have been in industry the main items would be

    a) Performing measurements and analyzing the resulting data for i) quantifying system performance, ii) validation, iii) debugging / troubleshooting, iv) understanding/quantifying phenomenology for complex scattering environments, v) developing signal processing algorithms.

    b) Modeling of system performance - the interesting part of this is figuring out how the systems work, developing models that are adequate but not too complicated, and sometimes figuringn out clever ways of doing the numerics to speed up computations when required.

    c) Generating documents - primarily presentations for my position. MANY hours can be spent doing this. At first I thought this was wasted time, but it really is important to get a possibly non-technical customer/manager to understand what/why/how a product should/will work.

    d) meetings.

    The ballance between these three can vary greatly at times. I spent most of the past 4-5 years primarily doing a), but have had some years where b and c dominated. d) can dominate in early phases of a project, but once things are underway meetings become less frequent.


    2. meetings. Sometimes the effort of c) can be overwhelming when a big customer (or the bosses bosses boss) will be the audience.

    3. programming (matlab mostly for me), signal processing, probability / statistics probably dominate most of my work. Having a strong electromagnetic theory background often helps, as does understanding how hardware works.

    4. I kind of fell into it. I went to grad school with academia in mind, but found that it clearly was not likely to work out. My wife found a job before me and moved, so I essentially took the first job I was offered that was in the same metro area that she was in. I figured I could always find a different job if it didn't work out, but have never left.

    5. My job has changed somewhat over time, but for the most part I am doing the same sorts of work. I have had to do more management than I really like, and I am successfully doing NO management right now! Note that avoiding management is NOT recommended if promotions are meaningful to you.

    6. Courses in grad school certainly were deeper, and students were expected to do a lot more on their own and projects were expected to be professional - some of us got publications out of class projects (I got one, my office mate got at least 2!). But research is what it is all about, not courses (my dept didn't even have a single course requirement!), so in that sense it was nothing like undergrad.

    The most important thing I learned was how to attack an open ended problem, find acceptable "closure" in a reasonable time-frame, and aggregate the results into a coherent story (dissertation). Most of the courses I took were not useful, but a few were - stochastic processes, signal processing, rf circuits, microwave engineering, ...


    7. Building something that is truly useful is satisfying. Having something interesting to think about for a fraction of each day is great. But as I get older, the most important thing to me is that it allows me to live a comfortable life, provide for my family, and work in an environment for which a physical injury is unlikely and would not effect my ability to work. I know, not a cool answer.

    8. leading large successful projects; patents; to a lesser degree publications.

    9. ... probably not my first 5 years!

    10. "get to" is a loaded phrase. I have been required to travel on many occasions. Again, as Iget older I dislike it more and more, primarily because a) field experiments/tests usually involve working most waking hours, and b) I hate to be away from my family for weeks at a time. Some people love to travel - not me. There are some positions that require TONS of travel - such positions often lead to promotions, it seems.

    11. I have mostly worked on small projects of <=10 people. I have worked on a 50+ person project as a "lead" engineer - I did not like it so much.

    12. All I know is the market is rough. Employers can be VERY picky, since there is a lot of talent looking for jobs. I must say that I was lucky and finished school before the .com bubble burst, so it was much much easier.

    good luck,

    jason
     
    Last edited: Jun 18, 2013
  4. Jun 19, 2013 #3
    Thank you very much. I like hearing what real people have to say, not just blanket, overly optimistic career info.
     
    Last edited: Jun 19, 2013
  5. Jun 19, 2013 #4
    1. What are the top few things you do every day during your working hours? I
    am curious even if, or perhaps especially if, it involves things like dealing with
    bureaucracy.

    A lot of what I do is very routine. I negotiate on the phone a lot. In large operations, you have to communicate and coordinate with lots of people about technical issues and schedule your tests so that they don't stop other projects going on at the same time.

    2. Is there anything you would prefer to have moved onto, or off of, that list.

    I hate the process of purchasing stuff. If I could give all that worry and paperwork to a clerk, I would. There are political concerns as well as review and paperwork that just turns my stomach. However, it's not going away, and if I don't get involved, something very stupid will probably happen.

    3. What hard skills or knowledge do you use the most on a daily basis in your line
    of work? For example : programming, troubleshooting, electronics, quantum mechanics, statistics,
    fluid dynamics, specific mathematics, etc.

    Kids in elementary school use 90% of what they learn later in life. Kids in middle school use about 70% of what they learn and kids in high school use about 50% of what they learn. By the time you get to college, if you use 10% or more of the things you studied, that's a lot. The only issue is that nobody is quite sure what part of the curriculum that 10% is. It's probably different for different avocations. So we study it all and then naive students go in to the working environment thinking that they'll use it all. No. it doesn't work that way.

    Besides, I went to school to get a piece of paper that said I knew what I already knew. That's right. School didn't teach me very much. I learned most of it in context of getting a ham radio license and tinkering with leading edge stuff in high school.

    Academia is really detached from the real world. I think most engineering students know this intuitively, but are afraid to admit it. Then they get disgusted when they realize that most of the stuff they struggled to learn won't matter in the working world.

    It's like that no matter what. I struggled for years to perfect the management and operations of a 600 channel analog FDM microwave network. Fifteen years later, there wasn't a single node left of that old network. Everything I did became obsolete. Get use to the idea that if you're not learning all the time, you're not going to go anywhere in your career.

    One guy in the radio shop stopped learning everything when he got out of the military. He still wanted to see tubes in the radio gear he worked on. Needless to say, his career was as stunted as he was.

    4. Why did you choose this career?

    I enjoy electronics and communications. I have been fascinated with radios since I was five years old. Today, I'm fifty years old and still playing with radios. However, my job has morphed and it is interesting too.

    5. Are you doing what you expected to be doing when you first entered that job or
    career?

    Nope. And I doubt you will either. If nothing else, the technology will change under your feet and the things you thought were way cool will become as obsolete as electron tubes are in a computer.

    6. If you attended graduate school, in a general (or specific) sense, what did you learn
    there? For example : Was it like your undergraduate experience, but with a new
    level of depth and rigor?

    Didn't attend graduate school. Frankly, Academia can only give you a foundation in Engineering. The first thing we do on the job is start teaching you to shed some bad academic habits you learned in school. For example, academics will teach you everything you ever wanted to know about thermodynamics. However, we have rules of thumb for the application. We do not open steam tables to solve most problems. We either model it on a computer with accuracy that we'll never see in the real world, or we use a quick rule of thumb to estimate where we expect to be working and then tweak to get things right.

    An overall awareness of where we are in the steam tables is good, but you don't do laborious calculations like you did in class. We don't have time for things like that unless you are doing something that NOBODY has ever done before, or unless there is a problem and nobody is quite sure what's going on.

    7. What do you fi nd most satisfying about your job and or career?

    Seeing my work in use. Seriously, I live with my creations and it is very satisfying to be there, talking to people, and finding new areas for improvement and old things I did that perhaps hasn't worked the way I expected.

    I detest consulting engineers who perpetrate a design and then leave, never to see the fruits of their labor again.

    8. How is success measured in your field? For example : in physics publications,
    conferences, teaching etc. In engineering, projects completed, designs approved,
    etc.

    Setting goals and getting there. Really, it's cool to spend time writing filter backwash code for a controller that accounts for all kinds of failures, and then to come to a plant years later and still see it in use.

    9. What would describe as a successful first fi ve years for someone in the fi eld?

    Learn something well. Become an expert at something. Be the go-to person for some project. Note that in my little part of the world it will probably take at least three years before we can turn a brand new graduate loose on their own. There are safety, operational policy, personnel, and regulatory concerns that one does not easily absorb overnight. There are also political situations that the naive can easily trip over.

    Be prepared to seek out a mentor. Your mentor has probably made the mistakes you're about to make and they'd hate to see anyone else have to go through those learning experiences for no good reason. You will make mistakes, but as long as they're relatively obscure or new, nobody will fault you for it.

    10. Do you get to travel?

    Not much for work, however, I do volunteer with various professional organizations, and I travel several times a year for those sorts of events.

    As others have pointed out: travel is typically a single person's thing. Those raising families are generally less likely to want to travel as often.

    11. Do you typically work with a small group of people, or as part of a large project
    or collaboration? Do you prefer one over the other?

    Uhh, can I answer both? Because it depends upon what I'm working on. Our group designs projects and we spend lots of time together working on a deliverable. However, it has to get integrated in a larger system and that takes coordination and consultation with a lot of people. I like both and I do both.

    12. Do you have any thoughts on the job prospects of your fi eld, or physics and engineering in general?

    I work at a water and sewer utility. Most utility operations may seem like dull and obscure work, but it is exciting because it is a silent unsung effort without which there would be no cities. There are details that the public rarely ever sees and it is a lot of fun working with resources, power, and energies that dwarf all but the very largest physics experiments.

    Most people flip a light switch and never bother to think of all the things that have to go exactly right for that light to come on. It is very important, frustrating, and yet satisfying work. The frustration comes from the bureaucracy and politics that any large project engenders.

    You have to pay to play. Many people go to school thinking that when the graduate, someone will want them so badly that they'll throw money at them just for being a graduate with good grades. It ain't like that. Nobody will throw money at you unless you can put on a good show, speak their language, and navigate the politics to sell an idea.

    Good Luck!
     
  6. Jun 20, 2013 #5
    I have an MSEE but primarily do software work now. Work in the aerospace/defense industry.

    1.) What I do during a day depends on the phase of the project I am working. That might be generating documentation (requirements documents/design documents/presentations for customers), detailed design (researching and layout equations/algorithms), modeling, coding, testing/debugging. There is always other components including meetings, light weight management duties, etc.

    2.) I think most engineers would prefer to spend all their time doing detailed design and implementation. But the documentation, management, meetings are a necessary evil.


    3.) I guess for non-standard skills I program, use MATLAB for simulation, in the past have used various board design software packages to layout circuit cards, etc.


    4.) I went into EE because I wanted to know how computers worked at the lowest level, my specific career is just because this is where I ended up through job opportunities I have had.


    5.) My expectations for my field have been more or less met, although as I have seen more of the industry I have been lucky to work on a variety of interesting projects.


    6.) My experience in graduate school was kind of like you mention, more depth and rigor on similar topics that I already had exposure to in undergrad. Only exception would be I took several AI classes in graduate school which I had no exposure to as an undergrad.


    7.) Most satisfying about my job is the design work I get to do. Most of the time I find it very interesting, every once in a while I get stuck doing something that is kind of boring.


    8.) Success is the successful completion of a project.


    9.) Success for someone new to the field would be making meaningful contributions to the project on which they work, taking pride in their work, working independently, etc.


    10.) I travel about once a month-6 weeks for several day to week long trips to attend meetings, evaluate/manage subcontractors, do testing at another location, etc.


    11.) I lead a small software group as part of a larger software department. On the two projects my group is currently working one is small in that only my group is working the project, the other is large in that there are around 25 software engineers working it distributed across 5 groups.

    I prefer small projects if they are interesting, the bigger the group the more overhead and less hands on work I get to do.
     
  7. Jun 21, 2013 #6
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