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Physics Should I leave Physics?

  1. Mar 19, 2009 #1
    I am currently in the second year of a math and physics degree. I like physics, I like math, I love learning, and I seem to be quite good at all of the above. I get good grades, and I have secured an interesting job in a lab this summer and look forward to the courses I will get to take in the coming years and the people I will get to work with.

    However, I have had serious doubts as to whether I really want to be a physicist. What I am afraid of is the many years of intense graduate school that I might not enjoy and the many years of wandering around the world between low-paying and high stress postdoc positions. I am afraid of the intense competition for tenure track positions and the possibility that I wont be good enough and will just burn out after I have spent 10+ years being a lab monkey. I know a lot of people go this route and like it despite the hard work, but I am not sure if I love doing science enough to put myself through that. My mind wanders a lot. Sometimes I think "wow, this stuff is amazing I want to spend my life studying this no matter what" and then my mind goes to something else for a while and I find myself doubting that I would have the focus to be a good, happy scientist. And if I don't go to graduate school, then what? I would be looking for engineer's jobs but at an extreme disadvantage.

    So...I have been scrambling for the past few months to secure a transfer to Electrical Engineering. I have it worked out such that now, all I need to do is press the button, and I will be a 2nd year Electrical Engineering student next Fall. I even chose my research job this summer such that it would have applications to things electrical engineers might work on. I did this because it seems to me that there is a lot more job security for engineers. They graduate knowing that they have a career that pays relatively well, allows them to have a life outside of it, and still allows them to research interesting things.

    If the job security question wasn't an issue, I would stay in physics in a heartbeat, but I am afraid that if by the end of this degree I decide I cannot go the graduate school route, that I will have no job prospects. However, engineering would add a year to my degree (which would mean I will have stayed in school for 6 years if I do coop), and the classes wouldn't be as interesting.

    Thanks in advance for any input.

    EDIT: I should also add that I live in Canada, where there is a big legal difference between someone with a PEng and someone just working as an engineer in industry.
    Last edited: Mar 20, 2009
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 20, 2009 #2
    I am in the same situation, but I do think that if you like it enough then there is no reason to quit.
  4. Mar 20, 2009 #3


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    This conundrum comes up around here often. One thing I feel that's important in such a decision is that the student weigh perception against reality.

    In my opinion, it's not as difficult as some would have you believe for physics graduates to get jobs. What I might suggest is that you do some research before making the decision. Many universities keep their own statistics on student employment. You may also want to check out the AIP statistics. I suspect you'll find that most physics graduates do quite well, even with just a bachelor's degree.

    The major hurdle, which in my opinion is what promotes anecdotal evidence to the contrary, is that employers will rarely advertise that they are seeking physics graduates. This contrasts significantly with the engineering profession, where employers will advertise for a specific degree.

    That being said, I won't sugar coat anything. Graduate work is hard. Post-doctoral work is hard. Academia is competative. Ultimately, to be really successful with a physics background you have to take more responsibility for your own destiny than you do in other professions.
  5. Mar 20, 2009 #4
    Go into Engineering. You still use physics principles and math, and you have the advantage of actually being employable.

    I am an Engineering Physics major graduating next month and looking for jobs. Most people hiring don't have any idea what physics is. My biggest mistake was not transferring to a real engineering degree like Mechanical, Electrical, or Civil.

    If you get a physics bachelors degree you can still go to grad school for other types of engineering, but you will have to take some core undergrad classes first. It's better to just get a BS in the area in the first place.

    Engineering, Computer Science, Chemistry, Information Technology, almost anything is better than physics for employment.

    And it really is sad because physics is the greatest.
  6. Mar 20, 2009 #5
    I think this is a good point to consider as you make your decision.
  7. Mar 20, 2009 #6
    So are you sure you'll like EE? Personally, that's the only branch of engineering I've been exposed to that I don't really like.
  8. Mar 22, 2009 #7
    Just a thought:
    what if u gruaduate in nanophysics, since its new, wouldn't that give u more oppotunities for work
  9. Mar 23, 2009 #8
    If you, or anyone, is scrambling for a transfer, it probably means you don't like what you are in enough. Honestly, if you have doubts now, get out now - they hardly ever go away, and usually, they just get worse. Transfering will be a smart move for you because you can still do physics and math recreationally as an peng.
  10. Mar 24, 2009 #9
    Don't missunderstand me, I love physics and don't have any doubts about it. I also love the good life, which I've missed out on for so long. Havings depts and counting coins is not something I can just wave away. So thats why I'm wandering if a physicist can have an interesting job at a company that works with nanophysics, instead of being stuck at a faculty for 10 years or so researching to become a proffessor.
  11. Mar 24, 2009 #10

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    I think a couple of points are in order.

    One is that there is a perception that someone with a BS in physics should be able to get a job as an engineer. I don't know how this got started, but my advice is that if you want a job as an engineer, get a degree in engineering.

    There are an order of magnitude more engineering degrees awarded than physics degrees. It makes sense that there are more engineering positions advertised than physics positions. And while the number of jobs a physics BS could do is large, the number where one must have a physics BS is small.

    Another is that a BS in physics doesn't make one a physicist any more than a BA in history makes one a historian, or a BA/BS in economics makes one an economist. It's not realistic to expect to be able to do independent research fresh out of college.

    Plenty of people get jobs in industry that were not what they majored in. Looking at some friends of mine: I know a psychology major in HR. A classical langauges major in politics. A math major in sales. A history major in administration. A music major in IT. A

    Finally a college degree makes one an educated person - it is not a union card nor a meal ticket.
  12. Mar 24, 2009 #11


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    We get this type of question very frequently, and I'm sure it has been addressed multiple times. So here it is again, and I will bring out two very important issues that hasn't been dealt with directly here.

    1. What you specialize in makes a difference in your employability.

    Anyone who has been on here long enough can tell that you that I've mentioned this a few times. I have personally seen a friend who majored in theoretical elementary particle physics abandoning his ambition to work in academia and instead went back to get a teaching credential, while another friends who majored in experimental condensed matter physics with expertise in laser ablation technique getting recruited by Xerox even before she finished her thesis defense! All of this occurring around the same time!

    We seldom hear medical physicist or material scientists either looking for jobs, or out without a job for a long time. These degrees have a larger range of employability beyond just academia or research labs. They are employable in many areas of industries and private sectors as well! What you go into and what skills you acquire while you went through your college program is vital in determining what kinds of jobs that are available to you after you graduate. This fact cannot be over emphasized strongly enough.

    2. The future job outlook.

    The job situation now can easily be quite different than what it will be when you graduate. It is almost foolish to predict such things, and if you are just starting college and somehow think that the outlook is going to be the same, then you are setting yourself up for a major disappointment. I cringe when I see kids, some time still in high school, almost making definite plans based on what they see now ("Oh, nanotechnology is HOT now!"), without realizing that it will be at least 4 year before they venture into the job market, and a LOT of things can change very rapidly during that time.

    The risk in having that tightly-focused ambition is that you tend to not participate in other areas and other projects that may feel way out of that focused area, but could easily expand your skill, and could easily be something that increases your employability later. One just cannot predict how things are going to change, especially over that time period.

  13. Mar 24, 2009 #12
    Electrical engineering? Well, different strokes, I guess...

    What will you do at the end of next year, if you don't like EE or are doing poorly in it?
  14. Apr 1, 2009 #13
    You'll be surprised at electrical, there's a lot more math and physics in the courses than you'd think. Physics is awesome, but EE will give you a much bigger leg up in finding opportunities for yourself. If you love math and physics you'll really like controls engineering.

    The Subversive Guide to Engineering
    Latest Post: Grades vs. Effort: The Engineering S-Curve
  15. Apr 2, 2009 #14
    Well well, I love physics..:) I had done civil engineering at my bachelors level.....then i worked with computer industry as a programmer fr 2 year .. now i am in geophysics :) doing my master ......:) .......oha i really dont know where i am going
  16. May 12, 2009 #15
    I just switched from physics to engineering, and oh boy am I glad I did! Physics was taking me nowhere except to a life of poverty and being an eternal post-doc or sessional (the ever-increasing part-time faculty that get paid a sixth of what tenured faculty make and work twice as much).

    By the way, anyone who says to do what you love and not consider the money is an idiot. Wise up people! Money is definitely a factor; indeed, it is not the factor but it is a factor.
  17. May 13, 2009 #16
    I am an engineering physics major and I have enjoyed my three years. I was thinking of going all the way with physics but the way I am feeling right now I need to take a break from it. Instead I will be doing a MS in Nuclear Engineering. I want to work in industry for a while then I'll decide if I want to go back. I am not going to lie, the money in Nuclear is suppose to be pretty good.

    What about majoring in EE and physics with a minor in math? That's a pretty good back up plan.
    Remember: Money isn't everything. But it is MOST things.
  18. May 13, 2009 #17
    May I ask where u live
  19. May 14, 2009 #18
    Like the op, I too live in Canada.
  20. May 17, 2009 #19
    the reason why I'm asking where u from is that I want to know if there is a difference between different countries. I for instance live in sweden and here the major companies first and foremost employes engineers rather then physicists.
  21. May 17, 2009 #20


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    Good point.

    I have a PhD in theoretical particle physics (from a very well known US university) and a postdoc but am unemployed now. I will soon be looking for a job delivering pizzas or washing dishes in a restaurant. But I have no regrets, I prefer to have challenged my mind and learned a lot than having made lots of money to buy a house, a fancy car and other stuff.
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