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Should I go for physics or engineering?

  1. Jul 10, 2015 #1
    Hey guys and gals ! :wink:
    I've been lurking on these forums for a while, reading threads about physics and engineering and ploughing ZapperZ's So you want to be a physicist series, while trying to decide what to study at university. I'll be applying later on this year (if I ever make my mind up :rolleyes: ) to universities in the UK.

    Basically, I want a career related to physics and maths in some way or another. I don't mind doing part of my work on a computer, but ideally I'd also like to work in a lab or even do some field work. I think I might enjoy some kind of research, or maybe R&D for a company.
    I'm interested in fundamental research in physics, but also in the possibility of using my physics knowledge to develop things like quantum computers, more efficient photovoltaic cells, medical imaging systems, optical electronics etc. I also have an interest in vehicles of all kinds, from cars to spacecraft, although I have no actual hands on experience with any of them.

    So I'm considering doing a degree in physics. I love my current physics classes, and all the topics so far have interested me. I'd say I'm pretty good at maths and physics, I can understand abstract concepts, I'm analytical but also quite creative (I used to be a design student :DD).

    But from looking at what Bsc graduates do, it seems that a lot of them don't go into careers involving science, like finance or IT. So I'm worried I might not be able to find a fulfilling career with a degree in physics. Is it the same at the PhD level? Should I even be worrying about it?

    My parents (and my engineering teachers) want me to seriously consider engineering as well, since that involves using science and maths to solve problems, but has better job prospects. If I were to do a degree in engineering I would probably do Aerospace engineering, electrical engineering or biomedical engineering.

    I'm currently taking classes in mechanical and electrical engineering, I do okay in them, but most of them don't interest me as much as physics does (except for the class we did about cars :cool: cars are awesome ). Also, unlike most of my classmates, I've never tinkered or built anything mechanical/ electrical, so I'm not very good at understanding how a system functions and stuff like that, and I have no practical experience with, well, anything :biggrin:.

    I've been doing some researching about what the daily life of your average engineer is like, and it seems that most of them sit in front of a computer all day designing a specific component or circuit (correct me if I'm wrong). I don't think I'd be able to stand working in a cubicle all day long, I'm the kind of person who can't sit down for more than an hour without going crazy lol.

    Is most engineering work really like that? Also, can you do research in fields like quantum computing, optics etc. with an engineering degree?

    And last question, if I change my mind after my Bsc in physics and go for a Msc in engineering (not an ideal route, I don't plan on doing that, just curious :wink: ), would I be able to get a job as an engineer? (BTW, in the UK the requirements for registration (like PE in the US) are not the same and I think registration is only strictly necessary in civil engineering, though correct me if I'm wrong)

    Thanks :) And sorry for the absurd quantity of smilies o:)
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 10, 2015 #2
    It's entirely possible to minor in ECE or ME and go on to graduate school for it. Won't be top tier, but it'll be enough to get a job. I'm doing the same thing with computer science-taking a minor in case physics isn't for me in 4 years. Others on here have done the exact same thing and gone both ways.

    Also, take a look at a lot of the threads asking about what engineers do on the jobs if you're curious about it. There's tons in the career guidance forum.
  4. Jul 10, 2015 #3
    What kinds of things did you do in the engineering classes you're in? Anything you liked/disliked? What do you like about your physics courses?
  5. Jul 10, 2015 #4
    Maybe the idea of working in an office job all day long doesn't interest you because it sounds boring, but really it depends on what you're doing. When I was in high school I wanted to choose a career in which I could avoid office jobs like the plague, but now that I am programming to solve physics programs I'd much rather sit in front of a computer than do an experiment. To each their own, just don't rule out careers because of your conception of the "typical worker". Who knows, you might enjoy programming!
  6. Jul 10, 2015 #5
    If only! I wish that I designed specific components and circuits. I'm an electrical engineer, and I usually sit in a cubicle all day long writing requirements for other people to design components and circuits. Or I review the designs of suppliers who are responsible to design various systems. I want to be the design engineer. Instead, I review the designs of other engineers - or specify the requirements for the systems that need to be designed. Blah! Is it too much to ask for an R&D job?!

    Make no mistake: If as an engineer, you land a job in which you are doing actual DESIGN at the component level, you should at least know that given the opportunity, I would trade places with you in a second. Of course, it would be nice to not just sit in a cubicle. If you have the opportunity to do work in a lab too, that is a great opportunity that you wouldn't want to miss.

    The sad state of affairs is that many people who have degrees in engineering and who have jobs with engineering job titles do not do much engineering work.

    If you really want to do design, go after a design engineering job aggressively when and where you have the opportunity. If/when you land a design engineering job, do your best to excel at it. But know this: If for whatever reason you get a few years of design engineering under your belt and then due to various circumstances you somehow move away from design engineering work - if you spend 2 or 3 years not doing design engineering, you may never do design engineering again. Because at that point, you would have a gap in your resume. If you were to hire someone to do a design engineering job, who would you hire: the guy who has in the past 10 years had plenty of design engineering experience or the guy who had 5 years of design engineering experience 5 years ago, but hasn't done any design engineering the past 5 years? One thing you have to know: Don't expect anyone to give you anything. You need to hone your skills continually and market your skills. And you'll need to have the wisdom to take advantage of the opportunities that you do get. Opportunities multiply as they are seized and are lost as they are squandered. At the same time, you need to maintain a work-life balance (spouse, family, kids, location).

    If I sound like I'm speaking from some personal experience, it is because I am. I have 5 years of experience designing antennas. But it is very likely that I will never design antennas again in my career, because at this point is has been 4 years since I have designed an antenna. Also, since I have a family, I am unwilling to move. This limits my opportunities.

    Cubicles aren't necessarily that bad. You just have to know how to deal with them. Take breaks. Walk around. Exercise regularly. Maintain work-life balance. Be social. But the nature of the work you do matters a lot. If you get the opportunity to do design engineering in a cubicle, you have to realize that it is an opportunity to do design engineering. Don't think for a minute that those opportunities fall into your lap every day - even if you are an educated and competent engineer. Being able to DO a job and being able to GET a job are two different things.

    This probably doesn't help with your decision between engineering and physics.
  7. Jul 10, 2015 #6
    Thanks for the replies everyone :smile:
    I will be studying in the UK so there isn't the option of a minor unfortunately. Though most physics programs here have enough room to take some electives in another area, so I might be able to fit in some engineering classes. There's also a program that allows to spend a year studying computer science, which could be interesting.

    In my electrical engineering classes we've been studying how various electronic components work and what they're for, and we've done a circuits and signals class at the beginning of the year. We've also done binary coding, which was cool :cool:. In mechanical engineering we've done statics, heat transfer, elasticity of materials, we've worked on the energy consumption of a car, manufacturing and what goes in to the making of a coffee machine.
    I quite like electronics, but I find a lot of the circuits they ask us to modify are hard to understand, basically electronics are quite interesting but I don't get them. I liked statics, materials and the class on cars, but I found the rest of it to be quite uninteresting.
    What I don't like about our engineering classes is that they show us how to do a particular problem, and then in the test it's basically the same problem, but with different numbers. Whereas in our physics tests they can give us something we've never done before, and we have to figure out how to do it based on what we know. I guess I feel that in physics we have to actually think sometimes instead of just plugging the numbers into our formulas. Maybe things are different at university.

    I actually really enjoy programming, though I wouldn't do a degree in computer science. If it's to solve physics problems, that's already more interesting :-p Who knows? I might change my mind about office jobs, it's just that right now I'm fed up of having to sit 8 hours a day most days during class when I'd rather be doing a lab or group work that requires us to move around a bit more ^^.

    It doesn't really help with my decision, but it's good to get an insight from an actual engineer about what their jobs are like :smile: I guess cubicle work doesn't sound so bad if the work is interesting, but I'm afraid that after a while I'll get bored of my job, or I won't be able to get a job that interests me, and a boring job sitting in a cubicle all day sound like hell to me. Right now, I can't even imagine doing a job that doesn't require me to do any science or maths.
  8. Jul 11, 2015 #7
    Programming to solve physics????!!!!! That's freakin' awesome!
    What job are you in?
  9. Jul 11, 2015 #8
    I don't have an engineering job so I can't help much with advice there. Since you like physics and engineering (you also mentioned optics), have you considered photonics science/engineering? Some of my friends are in a photonics program and it seems very similar to EE but with different upper level courses. Here is a link to a sample degree "flow chart" (don't ask me who organized it :P ) http://www.cecs.ucf.edu/web/wp-cont...tonics-Science-and-Engineering-Flow-Chart.pdf

    Also engineering is absolutely not about memorization or plugging things in especially in circuit analysis where it isn't a simple loop circuit (if you try going the memorization route you'll wind up hurting in your senior classes). There is a lot of design oriented projects and assignments that no single formula will get you through. Two examples I can think of are (1) designing a custom microcontroller in HDL (2) given a horribly unstable system design a control network which stabilizes it. Those take a lot of critical thinking and application of previous knowledge in a new way.

    You can choose to let however much physics you want into your engineering degree...and it seems like a lot of the advanced engineering research is kind of a blur between physics and engineering.
  10. Jul 11, 2015 #9
    I'm just an undergrad, but computational physics is a very real thing. In fact, it is rare to find a theorist who does only pen-and-paper work, from what I understand- most will do quite a bit of computational work. In the physics major, my school has three sequences - engineering physics, general physics, and computer physics. I choose the latter, meaning all of the research I have done is numerical and requires programming.

    Programming is a very valuable skill for a physicist to have.
  11. Jul 11, 2015 #10
    100% of physics jobs use programming. You can't get away from it in any STEM field. My brother-in-law who has his PhD in Ecology even uses python scripts to solve differential equations.
  12. Jul 11, 2015 #11
    Thanks for the reply :)
    I don't think I've seen a photonics science/ engineering program at undergraduate level in the UK, but it definetely exists at the graduate level, and it's something I could with a degree in physics or engineering :smile:
    I'm glad engineering at university level is not just memorization like my current engineering classes :smile: There's a limit to how much information and how many formulas my brain can hold on to :rolleyes: I do much better in classes where understanding will get you much further than rote memorization.

    The problem I have with engineering (or at least my current classes) is that I just don't "get it". I'm not sure how to explain it or why, I feel like I understand what the teacher is saying during lessons but when we get round to doing the problems (which is applying what we learnt), I realise I must not of really understood it because I just feel lost when looking at the problems, I don't even know where to start and sometimes even which of the formulas to use. And at the end of the year I can barely remenber what we did, I can only remember the topics. It doesn't seem intuitive to me like it is to other guys in my class. Especially electronics, some things in mechanical engineering were okay, like statics and the energy consumption of a vehicle, the former was basically maths and the latter was more like physics.
    Sorry for the rambling, I just fear that I won't be able to keep up in an engineering degree if I struggle with some of the basic things we're studying right now. :sorry:
    Also, I'm worried about not doing well in practical projects. I just don't ever build anything, I prefer reading about how things work. And I feel like it would hurt my university application if I applied for engineering, as I don't do anything that would indicate an interest in a technical subject, except for doing some basic programming.
  13. Jul 11, 2015 #12
    Oh I'm sorry if I sound dumb. I'm in high school, in love with physics and computer engineering
  14. Jul 11, 2015 #13
    Ha, you didn't sound dumb. You sounded like any other high school kid. Don't sweat it.
    Your study habits may be flawed. If you aren't studying the material and trying problems yourself before you go to lecture you're not doing it right. The mindset of, go to lecture, copy recitation problems, THEN trying to do my own work is a trope too often followed. If you've tried the problems on your own and have questions, lecture and recitation is where you can ask them and get a stronger understanding. I tell this to all the people I tutor in math and physics at my school, and they universally see better results when they study this way. Saying you just, "Don't get it," is always a cop out basically saying you just don't know how to study. So start there, ask questions, and seek tutoring from upperclassmen/grad students at your campus' tutoring center if you're still having problems.

    Oh, and don't "not ever build anything." The best way to not-not-ever-do something is to do it.
  15. Jul 11, 2015 #14
    I'm not at university I'm still in highschool, we don't have a textbook and they don't hand out a syllabus at the beginning of the year, so there's no way of knowing before hand what we'll be doing in class.
  16. Jul 11, 2015 #15
    You can ask the teacher. You can read ahead in the book(I'm assuming you at least have a book). You can ask people who've taken the class before. You still have resources available to find out. Pretty much any experimental work you're doing in high school with your engineering and physics classes will be present in college, only harder, and with less oversight. That's true of physics and engineering, so it's not going away.

    Addressing the concern of you thinking you'll just sit at a desk doing programming all day-that's a possibility no matter what you do in STEM. Physicists program. Mathematicians program. Engineers program. It may not be all you do, but it will still be a large portion of what you do no matter what.
  17. Jul 11, 2015 #16
    It takes a lot of practice and looking at other methods of solving the same problem to understand it. Youtube can be helpful to show you different circuit analysis approaches. Things also tend to click if you try building basic circuits..a bag of resistors, a battery, and a light bulb can go a long way. I would start by trying to understand the effect of resistance, series resistance, parallel resistance in a basic light bulb circuit and go from there..I know a lot of things are easier said than done, sorry if my advice isn't the most helpful.

    As for you concerns of not grasping things...When I started in community college I could barely understand binary numbers. In my first circuit analysis course I struggled a bit and got a B. I didn't build a single circuit until my first circuit lab. Now I can tell you all about EE topics and I build things almost everyday. You learn so much in a few years of university, don't doubt yourself...if you are already making threads like this (while still in HS) and showing this kind of interest you'll be fine, just need to go out there and do the school work when the time comes.

    Also don't worry too much about getting into a big university. CC is a fine option and much cheaper, a lot of times you get smaller more personal classes. A bright student will excel no matter where they go.
  18. Jul 11, 2015 #17
    The problem is we don't even have a book. And none of the topics in our physics textbook are relevant to introductory level electrical engineering classes. And since I'm in my last year of highschool, the people from the year before me have all left to go to university.
    I love experiments in physics and chemistry, but I struggle with all the wiring involved in the engineering labs. Not matter how many times I've asked the teacher to explain why things are wired the way they are, I just can't seem to get my head around it. I'll try asking one of my classmates to explain it again, they've been pretty good at making me understand some other stuff.

    I know if I work in STEM I'll probably do a lot of programming, which is fine, I like programming, but I don't want computer work to be the only thing I do.

    I'll have a look at youtube videos. Any particular channels you'd recommend?
    I'll see if I have any money left in my account to buy some stuff for basic circuits. I've noticed my friends who build stuff and fix electronics seem to have an easier time understanding how stuff works, so they're of great help when I don't get it, and then I help them out with the math :wink: Where would you recommend getting stuff like resistors, batteries etc. from (except from stealing them from the eng lab :-p) ?

    Personally, I found binary numbers really easy, for some reason it just made perfect sense to me, probably because it's more like maths than anything else we've done this year.
    There's no community colleges in the UK, and wherever you go you're going to pay the 9000 quid a year fees, so my parents kind of want me to get into a top school (which I do have the grades for if you don't count the eng grades) if I'm going to end up in that much debt afterwards, and I sorta feel the same way about it. But I do have the option of going to a smaller school (no fees) with more personnal classes in France if I decide that that might be better for me.
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