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Should I ditch physics?

  1. Nov 29, 2017 #1
    Hi, I am new to this forum and hope that this is the correct place to post this question.

    I received my bachelor's in physics and math last may. I enjoy physics, but I don't know if I should go to grad school. I noticed that boston university offers a LEAP program where non-engineers can become engineers in a couple of years by taking necessary undergrad classes and then doing required master's level courses/projects before finally getting a master's in some engineering field.

    I'm not sure I want to do research, and I realize that not every physics PhD does research, but being an engineer sounds like something I would more enjoy. I for a long time wanted to do astronomy, but now I'm not so sure. On the other hand, I have no engineering background (which is why the LEAP program in electrical & computer engineering interests me, they expect no engineering experience) but being a physics major would give me a leg up in becoming an engineer as opposed to someone who has no scientific/math background.

    Additionally, I don't know what kind of research interests me. I did astrophysics research as an undergrad, and found it semi-enjoyable, but I feel like I want something more technical. With grad deadlines fast approaching, I am running out of time and options, especially since universities like you to mention your research interests in your personal statement.

    Finally, I'm not sure I can survive a physics PhD program. About 1.5 yrs ago I got a 590 on the PGRE with no practice (24%). After taking it this last october and studying quite a lot, I received an 800 (69%). A huge jump, but I don't feel like I'm a master of physics. Advice?


    Don't know what research I want to do as PhD or what schools would accept me. Considering engineering switch because I want to do something technical but don't have any engineering background. Have small amount of programming experience from computational physics course, enjoy programming, so considering ECE switch.
    Last edited: Nov 30, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 30, 2017 #2
    LEAP is for people with non-technical backgrounds AFAIK, you might not qualify for that program with a dedicated STEM degree; with a physics degree you'd be fine entering an electrical engineering program somewhere though, you'd just be made to take a few leveling courses like sophomore/junior level circuits, electronics, signals and systems, etc before you jump into grad courses and there's definitely areas where someone with a physics background is at least as prepared as the person with the EE background. I've had friends jump from math and/or physics undergrads to engineering masters without a problem.

    800 is pretty good PGRE score though! If you don't want to do 'pure' physics anymore, you could take your score and try your hand at engineering and applied physics programs? Programs like UMich's (https://lsa.umich.edu/appliedphysics) or UWisconsin (https://www.engr.wisc.edu/department/engineering-physics/) straddle both disciplines where you're coursework is physics but your research and such is essentially in engineering, a friend of mine has a physics background in one of these programs but his research is in electrical engineering, and I think he got/will get his masters en route to his PhD, might be a good marriage of your background and new interests.

    If you don't want to do a PhD, an engineering masters is a pretty good option as far as employability goes, ECE isn't all programming (though there are EE's that do mostly that); if you like numerical methods (like solving PDE"s with a computer) and such you might actually try mechanical engineering, but that depends on what flavor of programming you like (microcontrollers and such for example could go either way since ECE and ME share robotics), best of luck.
  4. Nov 30, 2017 #3


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    I agree with clope023 that you could apply directly to any number of engineering departments. I have a BS and PhD in EE, and while I was in grad school I knew quite a number of fellow grad students that had a pure physics undergraduate background - sometimes from liberal arts colleges that offered no engineering courses of any kind so they were in the same boat you were. It just meant that they had to take a few undergrad classes and be willing to fill in the remaining holes in their backgrounds on their own. There may be certain specialties that would be harder to catch-up in, but for most areas of EE you could pick from a couple of undergrad courses would likely be sufficient to get you up to speed.

  5. Nov 30, 2017 #4
    It is true that not everyone who receives a PhD in physics continues on to a career performing research. However, it is true that every grad student pursuing a PhD must perform research. In the US, a PhD program runs ~4-7 yrs after the BS degree, so this is a large chunk of your life. If you don't have a true passion for performing research...at least as an end in itself during grad school, even if not as a long-term career goal...don't bother with a PhD program in physics. It's a long, hard, and winding road; and if you don't receive satisfaction in research per se, you'll be struggling to complete the journey, and totally worn out at the end of it, assuming you complete it.
  6. Nov 30, 2017 #5
    There is nothing wrong with getting a job after a bachelor's degree, working a few years, then going back to grad school. I did it, my office mate did it, and several other friends did it. One man had nine kids, and he did it. One woman was a single mother and she did it. One man was a pipefitter, and he ended up starting a business with his advisor. One man had a bachelor's in forestry, and got an MS in mechanical engineering. There were a surprising number of students in their 30's and 40's who had gone back to school. It's a good option for those who are torn between getting a job and going to grad school.
  7. Nov 30, 2017 #6


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    It sounds to me like you (OP) are looking for permission not to carry on with physics and get into engineering. I don't mean that in a negative way. A lot of people enter physics at the undergraduate level with a "professor or bust" mentality and then they realize that the path they thought they wanted isn't all it's cracked up to be. Then they face a kind of internal struggle where straying from the original idea feels like they are somehow giving up on something.

    Physics graduate school is not easy. If you're not all that excited about it going in, it will be a challenge. It's okay not to know precisely what you want to do, but that desire to explore your options should really to be there. If it's not, choosing a different path might be a good idea.

    We can't tell you whether to pursue engineering or not. That's a choice you have to make. But if you do choose engineering, it's not a bad path to take.
  8. Nov 30, 2017 #7
    I got into EE grad school with a pure math/physics background; no EE. I'm doing computational electronics, which is a small field but involves a lot of computational physics. There are many EE departments with large applied physics components working on solid state devices. So far solid state courses are different from what I'm used to but not too hard to get into with a physics background (the quantum is easy for me, but the EE's are all struggling :p).

    So, look for an applied physics or EE program that's strong in a physics area as an option.
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