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Should I go with physics or engineering?

  1. Nov 18, 2014 #1
    As the deadlines of college admission approach, I really start to think about what I should study in college.

    I love physics. And by that I mean I really love physics, not just those popular science about time traveling and all those junk, but also the more "real" physics like how the Maxwell's Equation lead to EM waves. I do realize that college physics is nothing like high school physics, but even so I do sure that I would enjoy to be a physics major.

    Yet, as I research deeper, it seems to me that for science students, going into engineering is by far more economical than studying pure science. To be honest, I have little passion in engineering (as I hated all those rocket-building lab, robots or whatever in my high school). And I really don't care if I would end up in a career that have nothing to do with physics. I am realistic enough to not dreaming to work in academia, and I actually have little interest to be involved in research (Although I particularly hate those "engineering" lab, I really just dislike lab in general). But considering that my family is not really in a good financial situation and the great possibility that I would not go any farther than an undergrad degree,I really start to think if going to engineering would be a wiser choice?

    And just for reference, my primary interest in physics is relativity (which is my current goal in studying), astrophysics and perhaps condensed matter but not so much in the particle world. (I know it may be way too early to say where I interested in...). For subject outside of physics, I am somewhat interested in atmospheric science, mainly meteorology (which seems to me is another of those that won't make money?) And so I guess for engineering, my first choice would be aerospace or mechanical. And finally I think it is necessary for me to point out that, although I am somewhat good in math ,I don't like math. I don't necessarily hate math, and I actually appreciate how math is used in physics. But without the physical context, I just have no love for math. And I actually hate to deal with it when it comes to those tedious calculations. (That's why chemistry is not on my list, I am so sick of stoichemetry).

    Thanks for reading all that. I know that is an old question that had been asked for several thousand time already...
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2014
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 18, 2014 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    Welcome to PF!

    Yes, this is an age-old question asked since students have been students. Being a highschool student about to enter college you still have time to explore and decide what you want to major in which is usually the last interest killed off by your education.

    Engineering in general has better job prospects than Physics. However, you must remember to stay on top of your
    field lest you become obsoleted by new developments in technology or materials...

    At one time, for Astronomy only 1 in 10 people ever get jobs in the field which I don't think has changed much.

    Theoretical Physics can be very competitive at the grad school level and again when trying to get a job.

    My gut feeling here is that right now you'd be best in engineering nanotech or mechatronics or robotics.
  4. Nov 18, 2014 #3
    I would study something you enjoy, speaking from experience the more you like the subject the more likely you are to do well in it.
  5. Nov 18, 2014 #4


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    Gold Member

    There are numerous fields other than engineering where you can earn a lot of money, although that should certainly not be your main criteria for choosing a profession. I'd advise you to go with what you enjoy more.
  6. Nov 23, 2014 #5
    Thanks for the reply.

    Actually, I don't necessarily want to get very deep into theoretical physics or astronomy. And I guess relativity would be my last stop in theoretical things and it is barely just a goal I wish to achieve as a student. And beyond that, I think I really would not care too much about what sort of physics I study, after all, as I said, I don't except myself to work with what I really like anyway...

    As I read more about this subject, I found myself really inclined toward physics. Perhaps I am just seeking a reason to choose it... I would hope to hear some from a engineering perspective. And do any one have an idea about meteorology and atmospheric science?

  7. Nov 24, 2014 #6


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    You aren't expected to choose which field of physics you'll work in right now. Since you enjoy physics, you probably should apply to universities with physics as your prospective major. Generally, you can take courses in physics/engineering and then decide which one you enjoy more. It usually isn't too late to change majors after a semester or two.
  8. Nov 24, 2014 #7
    Engineering student perspective here.

    I wanted to major in physics before I started college. Very badly, actually. It was an internal debate that I had I believe from the beginning of my senior year of high school to the end of my first semester of college. I think physics is a great subject to study--if you're truly interested in it and aren't dead set on doing physics when you finish your degree.

    Not to say that there are no jobs for physicists. I want to avoid being pessimistic, because there tends to be a lot of pessimism on these boards. If you utterly despise hands-on work (and I'm not so sure high school experiments are a good indicator), then maybe you wouldn't like engineering. If you don't like tedious calculations at all, then you won't like either. Sometimes, those calculations just show up, and you have to deal with them.

    There are a lot of subfields of each engineering discipline, and there are a lot of subfields of physics. If you enjoy science and technology, I guarantee one will be right for you. In my opinion, it's important to avoid falling into the mindset that physics is the only option, because sometimes there are better fits. In several years, your interests may be entirely different. Or maybe you haven't had enough exposure to the various fields to know what your interests are. Just explore various options with an open mind. You'll find a fit. When you find that fit, give it your all.
  9. Nov 25, 2014 #8
    I'm sorry but the tedious maths will show up occasionally in physics courses. Stuff that looks like mathematical demonstrations, but is used in physics. I'm an engineering student so I'm talking about basic physics, I don't know how the more advanced courses are.

    honestly, I'd be wary about robotics, because there is quite a lot of formal maths in that and in control theory (which is quite general and mathematical and could be applied to any physical system, and in specific courses it's addressed in a purely theoretical way).

    In Europe there are many institutes of technology which offer physics or engineering physics programs which are physics, but they're more application oriented (the same goes for maths, e.g. you study maths but at graduate level you do stuff like quantitative finance or scientific computing).
    You focus on stuff such as photonics and nanotech later in the program. You can do stuff like lasers.
    My guess is that it's better than pure physics regarding job opportunities. It's still engineering, but with lots of physics.

    I don't know how these programs are called in the US.

    Also there are many courses which don't spring immediately to mind, like energy/nuclear/oil engineering. I don't know anything about those though.

    Monetary concerns aside, you should study what you enjoy studying/doing, not just pursue objectives that you think will make you feel good.
  10. Nov 25, 2014 #9
    Thanks again for the replies.

    I have heard quite a few comments about the math (I have asked about this in several places) which is good because that bring up another aspect that I should think about. But I want to make sure that the "tedious math" I hate is the same "tedious math" that people are talking about.

    I actually have no problem with doing algebra or calculus with just pure variables, things like deriving the wave equation from a string or whatever; what I really dislike though is the kind of math that involved some ridiculous amount of arithmetic and require me to keep pressing and pressing and pressing my calculator until I get that fat long number that I am looking for. In order words, I like the step where we are deriving the equation for a situation, but beyond this stage, I have little interests on how numbers are plugged in to the derived equation and how the derived equation are used to calculate whatever values (maybe with the exception for some whimsical application) .

    And I feel this especially strongly when I took a "physics" test in my high school recently, in which my teacher required me to show all my works and thus I have to copy my derivation of my equation to every single problem literally just to plug in different numbers. I am completely sick of that.
  11. Nov 25, 2014 #10
    usually you just keep symbols until you have x = ... where x is the variable (or parameter if you're solving for a parameter) you're looking for, and then take the calculator and push in the numbers. The expression can be complicated, or not.
    In many situations at least in electronics, you have to keep the numbers in mind in order to make approximations and end up with a manageable expression. E.g. this in parallel with that will result in mostly this because this is much smaller than that. Ofc remembering from the lectures which ones are the usual and justified approximations and the final simplified expression helps (as you can't recompute every formula from scratch every time anyway, not enough time).
    My professor usually starts doing circuit analysis, and does approximations along the way, citing the orders of magnitude, and then says "let's plug in some numbers", which is necessary to verify the assumptions you've made. So numbers do matter.

    top lel.
    In my experience, you're either asked in a theoretical question to demonstrate an expression, or if it's an exercise you can use whatever formulas you can remember.
  12. Nov 25, 2014 #11
    Regardless of how you approach your problems, at some point, you will have to deal with some tedious number crunching. It's the nature of the game (as sometimes, the universe doesn't care for making calculations easy).

    One difference I've noticed about my physics and my electrical engineering courses, though, is that physicists (at least, some of my physics professors) place a greater emphasis on your process of finding the solution as opposed to your answer (in general), but most of my electrical engineering professors care only about the correct answer. A correct solution but incorrect answer isn't worth much. This is only my experience, though.
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