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Research / R & D careers

  1. Aug 21, 2013 #1

    trollcast

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    I'm struggling to choose between degree courses (I'm in my last year of HS, well uk equivalent) but I've sort of realised where / what I'd want to do at the end of it. Out of all the people my parents know and from my work experience / university tours the only real careers I've seen and thought I'd be extremely content at doing was some sort of research orientated role, at the minute I can't say I'd really want to do research in a certain discipline but I'd be happy enough with the general idea of it.

    Thats not to say I wouldn't take a different type of job if needs made it so but its the only type of career that I've seen that I could imagine feeling that I was actually doing something useful. The degrees I've sort of narrowed down to are physics, ee or mech eng and really I'm just sort of looking for a reality check for what I want to do and a bit of an idea of how to get there
     
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  3. Aug 21, 2013 #2

    analogdesign

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    I guess it's just one data point but I have a Ph.D. in EE and I do research in scientific imaging. That's a broad field but what I work on is high-speed, radiation tolerant readout integrated circuits for stuff like electron microscopes and I am also working on a long-term project in implanted brain imagers. It's really exciting stuff and a very satisfying career. I work in an academic environment by the way.

    Before that, I was in a couple of companies in the R&D department. In the USA at least, most company research is little r, big D, if you catch my drift. It was a lot of fun. I worked primarily on communications electronics, for projects like cellular basestations and optical data communications.

    As you can see, I've been very fortunate to work on some amazing projects. I love my job I can't imagine having more fun in a different career.

    If you read a few posts on here you'll figure out that there are more opportunities for EE and ME grads than physics grads. That seems to be the consensus.
     
  4. Aug 22, 2013 #3

    trollcast

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    Thanks, I know that theres more opportunities for engineering grads at the minute but in the future might this not change especially considering theres so many new technologies coming forward, nanotechnology, quantum computing, etc., that these traditional engineering grads aren't well versed in?
     
  5. Aug 22, 2013 #4

    trollcast

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    Is physics research viable in any field or is it always going to be a rat race to get lucky and be at the right place / time or should I just do engineering as it seems research there is more accessable?
     
  6. Aug 22, 2013 #5

    analogdesign

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    Sure physics research is viable in a lot of fields. The trouble is there are a lot of competent people chasing after too few jobs.

    Engineering is easier to get into, but getting an engineering research job is much harder. The good news is that engineering development jobs are a lot of fun.
     
  7. Aug 23, 2013 #6

    trollcast

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    What are you describing as an engineering development job as if its the standard sort of engineers design and refinement of an existing idea then thats pretty close to my idea of hell, well teaching high school level is closer. Are the chances of engineers research similar to physics then?
     
  8. Aug 23, 2013 #7
    My 2 (or more) cents: research roles in industry and research roles in government/academia usually are pretty different. Some people like both, some people are really turned off by the pacing and challenges of one or the other.

    I personally lean much stronger in the government/academia direction. However, the pacing and daily life in that kind of setting was still a lot different than what I thought it would be like in high school and even in college where I gained some research experience. The constant demands of obtaining grants and publishing papers is something that can be overlooked, even as an undergraduate researcher. Particularly, obtaining funding can feel like an albatross around your neck in some situations. In addition to that, there are lot of meetings, conference calls, power point presentations, and sitting at a computer. All in all, quite a lot of 'politics' and non-science stuff going on that was unexpected. In fact, graduate school was when I first really started paying attention to federal budget issues, not only because I had matured as a person, but because it directly impacted my career.

    I'm not going to say I didn't enjoy it. I did a lot. I loved going to conferences and interacting with new and old acquaintances - heck, going to conferences and hanging out with my friends that I saw twice a year was possibly one of the biggest perks. I also enjoyed going to Washington DC to lobby for my field and traveling to give talks, and lots of the other non-research stuff. I could do without some of the meetings :) But it was different from what I expected.

    I think some of this feel can be had in industry depending on what you end up working on and who you are working for. Startups or established companies that are large enough to have a sizable R&D wing, etc. Medical imaging for example; I think if you work for one of the large suppliers of advanced medical diagnostics like PET or MRI machines, you could be involved in some pretty cutting edge work. You will probably need a Ph.D. to be involved in a lot of that type of work. You will also need to be careful of what kind of physics you end up practicing. Medical physics or nuclear physics might be a good start if you want to get into the medical imaging field. Heck, even plasma physics (my field) might be acceptable IF you worked on the right type of research (some stuff uses a lot of tomographic techniques).

    It's a bit of knee jerk reaction, but I would think if that's the kind of stuff you want to do AND you wanted to do engineering, EE is probably a wiser choice than mechanical.

    As to whether or not there's a lot of competition, I'm getting cynical in my old age. It's looking to me that pretty much any field you go into is going to be a rat race. I won't discourage anyone from getting their Ph.D. in hopes of being a professor or research; I WILL tell them that it won't be easy and there's a high likelihood that you won't end up doing what you planned on. But that's true of most of my friends from college and high school, no matter what their aspirations were.
     
  9. Aug 23, 2013 #8

    analogdesign

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    As a denizen of hell, I can at least tell you it isn't so bad. I really enjoy it.

    Hate to rain on your parade, but I work with a lot of physicists. Their work is more engineering and project management than it is an idealized image of a deep thinker in a tweed coat sipping tea. I work with physicists in HEP and Nuclear Science and they are a lot like systems engineers (and sometimes software engineers) in practice.

    Ideas are cheap. Getting projects done to realize those ideas is hard, long work.
     
  10. Aug 23, 2013 #9

    jhae2.718

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    Engineering research isn't just "refining existing ideas". There is a lot of new and innovative stuff being done. I'm an aerospace engineer, so some examples include smart materials and work on nanoscales, modeling chaotic dynamic systems, extending control theory, work with computational intelligence, exascale computing, etc.

    The physics may not be new, but engineering research isn't just "make Widget A 5% more efficient".
     
  11. Aug 23, 2013 #10

    analogdesign

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    New and innovating to me and you, but probably not to the OP. Very little engineering research is truly new and out there. The stuff I'm working on was invented in the late 60s. It's a lot more advanced, but everything you mentioned points to incremental improvement. That's what real research IS. Very, very, very little research has ever been totally original.
     
  12. Aug 23, 2013 #11

    jhae2.718

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    I agree. It sounded to me like "standard sort of engineers design and refinement of an existing idea" was describing engineering product development more than R&D.

    After all, what is research but taking what we currently know and extending it?
     
  13. Aug 24, 2013 #12

    trollcast

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    Thanks, my comment about engineering design work was more refering to the fact that a lot of engineering work that I know about from dad and other engineers is a case of opening last years drawings and altering them, then increment the revision and send it out to production. I'm not saying that I have to be working on the latest greatest physics thing thats going to break massive ground like the discovery of graphene. Something like this: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23096320 is what I'm talking about, not a new GUT or of similar vein.
     
  14. Aug 26, 2013 #13

    analogdesign

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    100% agree. I also think the OP is mixing up what an engineer does "in theory" and "in practice".

    I worked on some very advanced signal processing hardware for 10 Gb Ethernet over Multi-mode Fiber when I was at a startup about 10 years ago. The project used unbelievably complex algorithm and physical concepts. But each engineer on the project (there were no physicists) focuses on their little area. Not only that, but in practice, I am still mostly dealing with updating engineering drawings, running simulations, making measurements in the lab.

    Sure, I had to learn some really advanced math that taxed my capabilities. But we were using math that was developed in the 60s. In some respects it wasn't that much different from the integrated circuits I've designed since, although maybe a bit more ambitious.
     
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