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Should I major in Physics or Computer Engineering?

  1. Jan 31, 2012 #1
    Hello there, I'm not really big on posting around here, mostly just lurk and read. Today however I feel I really need some help with making an important decision in my life. Being that this is the physics forums, and almost all of you are going to have a better knowledge of physics and even engineering than I do, I figure this is a good place to ask.

    Let me start out by giving a brief summary of myself and my interests and why I these two degrees. I'll start with why I am considering Computer Engineering. Ever since I was a young boy I've loved computers. I had the privilege of getting my first computer at the age of ten, and since then I have been learning as much about them as I possibly can. In high school, almost all of my electives were computer based classes (Java programming I, II, Web Design, even typing haha). Most of these were all programming oriented, but I tended to not care as much about programming as I did about the machine computing the code. I've learned a lot about how my computer hardware works over the years, but I feel at this point it's getting hard for me to self teach, and thus I think structured learning on Computer Engineering would be a good choice for me.

    Now for Physics. As I mentioned above, almost all of the elective classes I took in high school were computer classes. I say almost because the ones that werent were science classes. I took AP Physics, Astronomy, and Chemistry where I enjoyed the first two far more than the last. The thing I liked most about Chemistry was when we were learning about the structure of the atom, since that tied in nicely with what I had learned in Physics. In physics, I absolutely loved it. Our class was fairly general, teaching mostly mechanics, fluid, some optics, heat, work-energy, etc. It didn't get into any of modern physics though, so no relativity, quantum mechanics or the like. I think this fact really disappointed me and because of this over the years I've read several popular science books that I've seen mentioned on these forums before (Kaku's books, Hawking, Brian Greene) and these books seem to frustrate me as much as intrigue me. I love that they present the theories in an understandable way, but I hate that they don't explain any of the reasoning behind them (ie. the math). I feel uncomfortable with my current understanding of how the universe works, and I would very much like to learn more.

    Now out of high school, I was still very immature, not really putting much thought into what I wanted to do in my future, and thinking solely of what would make me the most money and nothing more. I felt like I needed time to figure things out (and rightly so as I'm realizing now!), so I went to community college. While there I figured I'd take mostly computer classes since "computers are the future." I took both levels of computer science (basically just Java programming which I already knew), two levels of calculus (wanted to take three but the third level never gets enough interest to be offered), basic gen ed type stuff (humanities, eng. composition, etc.), and some electives on computer graphics, history of electronics, and a general Physics course. Now I am finally in my last semester of community college, and have already been accepted into Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.

    I will be attending the school in the fall, and I had planned to do Computer Engineering, getting my BS and then going for their EE masters. But now as I've been getting myself prepared for my transfer, I've been thinking over what I want to do. Im no longer that same young kid who only care about the monetary value of my profession. I know I should go with something I am passionate about. The only two things I feel strongly about are Physics and computers. I want to know more about computer hardware as much as I do about Physics. If I were to study physics it would almost certainly be theoretical physics, doing research. For this I understand I would need a PhD, and would need a really high GPA. Unfortunately when I first came to community college, I was still immature and lazy and let my GPA fall to about a 2.5. I have since brought it up to a 2.8 and am currently on track to bring it above a 3.0 after this last semester. Do you think this would hurt my prospects for Physics grad school a lot? Or will that depend more on my work at SIUE than anything to do with my community college?

    I understand this is a fairly long post, but I hope you take the time to read it. I would like some input on the subject so I can come to a resolution and pick a major for certain. If you find you need me to answer more questions I'd be happy to do so, this is my future and I will answer all questions honestly and will not take any criticisms and/or questions offensively. I need some honesty here! Thanks in advance, I hope to hear from you guys soon.
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 31, 2012 #2
    I'm an EE so not the best person to give advice on physics. But I suggest you read the "So you want to be a physicist" thread and also the threads "Getting into Physics grad school" and "Why are there so few physics majors" which have all been active recently.

    You say you want to choose a major you are passionate about, even if it is potentially less lucrative, but it seems to me you are passionate about both physics and computers. Just because CompE is seen as a more practical major in terms of job prospects doesn't mean it is less fascinating than physics. In fact, IMO if you like physics and CompE equally, go for CompE because of the job opportunities (although of course, a job in any field is not guaranteed).

    Your GPA: if it is low now, why do you think it will improve, unless you substantially change your study habits? It is possible to graduate with an engineering major and a low GPA and land an engineering or IT job; it is extremely difficult to graduate with a physics major and a low GPA and get into physics grad school (even one that is not highly ranked).
  4. Jan 31, 2012 #3

    I've read "So you want to be a physicist" but will read the other two now, thanks for the suggestion.

    That's a good point too. I think I might just be over thinking my decision.

    I already have drastically changed my study habits. My first two semesters at community college I didn't try at all, scraping by with mostly C's which hurt my GPA a lot. Last semester I took a double load of classes, half of them retakes that I had to pay for out of pocket, and was able to get mostly A's with a few B's, bringing my GPA up to where it is now. I am in my last semester now, and currently taking 18 credit hours and while it may be too soon to assume final grades, I am currently getting high marks. I am no longer putting off assignments, and no longer giving any class or assignment less than my all. I'm a completely different person academically now than I was when I started college.

    However, I was afraid of my chances of grad school with physics because of my mistakes in the past, and your post seems to confirm my suspicions. I'm not sure it's worth the risk to go for physics given that I screwed up my grades in the past.

    I do have a new question though, how hard would it be to self study areas of physics that I'm most interested in (mostly QFT) given the level of mathematics I will be required to take for a CompE BS and EE MS?
  5. Jan 31, 2012 #4
    Well, I hope I didn't discourage you from at least thinking about majoring in physics, especially since I don't have any experience with physics grad school committees. If your GPA has improved dramatically, obviously that is very good, and a huge step forward to whatever major/career you end up choosing.
  6. Jan 31, 2012 #5
    It would take more than one opinion to make me remove it from consideration entirely, so I am most certainly still thinking about it. However you did make me realize that

    A.) I have not been giving the thought of majoring in CompE the same scrutiny as I have Physics over the past few weeks and

    B.) I need to find out more from others, and from my school specifically, about what my odds are at grad school given my poor grades in the past.
  7. Jan 31, 2012 #6
    http://www.physicsgre.com/viewforum.php?f=3 - Check out the applicant profiles.
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