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Physics Should I reconsider my future major and career?

  1. Jan 16, 2017 #1
    Hey everyone! So the advice I've received over the past two years on what to major in has overwhelmingly been in favor of some engineering discipline rather than physics, even though my genuine interests lie in physics and astrophysics. Main reasons seem to be salary and ability to find work, which are very legitimate and understandable. And don't get me wrong, I do believe that I would very much enjoy engineering (currently planning on MechE+Aero), but just not to the same degree as pure physics (and yes, I know pure physics isn't what popsci documentaries and books make it out to be).

    What I wanted to know is if you graduate from a top tier school in physics, could that make you a lot more employable and increase your ability to find work (either in the private sector or academia)? The reason I ask this is because I'm a high school senior, and can't believe this happened but I got accepted to Stanford! As with other top schools, I wasn't expecting to get in at all since it's a real crapshoot, but now that I have, is it worth reconsidering majoring in physics? I've also applied to Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia, but those decisions come in March (and I most likely won't choose any of them over Stanford tbh). Most of the awards, accomplishments and activities that contributed to the "wow" factor of my application were centered on physics and astrophysics, so I'm definitely much more familiar with that field than I am with engineering.

    Stanford has a fantastic engineering program in MechE, and I could add an AeroAstro minor to it, but damn, something in me just wants to go with physics. I think we have until like sophomore year to make a final decision on a major, so I don't need to decide now, but I'd like to keep my career path focused so I don't do anything stupid and wasteful down the line.

    I'm really siked about all this, but at the same time, it's hard to make these kind of decisions. I don't wanna put future me in a position of regret and anger, but I also want to make sure I stay happy with what I'm doing in life. And I'll say it, whether it makes me sound bad or not - I do care about money. A lot. And some of the hobbies I plan to be a part of seriously require money. And sure, if I go with engineering, nothing is stopping me from learning as much physics as possible in my own time, but that isn't the same as actually being a part of the field. What would y'all do in my situation? Any general advice?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 16, 2017 #2
    If you go to Stanford and work hard at a physics major, you will be unlikely to be underemployed or unemployed.

    Pursue what you love with drive and passion.
  4. Jan 16, 2017 #3


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    To the OP:

    Congratulations on being accepted to Stanford!

    On whether to choose engineering or physics, why not do both? Stanford has an undergraduate program in engineering physics, which would give you an opportunity to study a solid foundation in physics while also allowing you to pursue courses in engineering.


    At any rate, you don't have to make any immediate decisions now. See how things go after your first year. No matter what, if you work hard at whatever you major in (whether it be engineering or physics), it is unlikely you will be underemployed or unemployed.
  5. Jan 16, 2017 #4


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    1. You're not deciding on a career right now. You're deciding on a direction for your post-secondary education. While the two are obviously related, it's important to remember that your entire life will not be determined by your choices over the next few months.
    2. A lot of people confuse the terms "more difficult" or "less than ideal" with "impossible." Engineering is a profession, so if you choose to study it, you will orient your education toward that profession. You'll be more likely to get into engineering-oriented internships. When you graduate you'll be more directly qualified for entry-level engineering jobs. When you're searching for jobs with an undergraduate degree there will be companies that are looking for entry-level engineers. In terms of job-prospects after graduating the engineering disciplines are generally more ideal.
      In contrast, physics is more academically oriented. Physics programs are set up to prepare the student for graduate studies. When you leave academia, you have to figure out how to transfer your education into marketable skills. People commonly transition into careers involving quantitative and problem-solving skills such as programming, engineering, data analysis, etc. The data by people who track these things suggests that physics graduates have low unemployment and generally do similar to engineering graduates in terms of salaries. Physics is less ideal when it comes to transitioning into the workforce, but people do it very successfully on a regular basis.
    3. Don't expect the name of your school to do anything for you. That's not to say that it won't ever be a factor. But a 2.1 GPA is not going to get you admitted to graduate school, even if it is from Stanford.
  6. Jan 16, 2017 #5


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    Congratulations and enjoy the ride?!

    As an engineer and therefore biased in favor of practicality, I generally steer people toward engineering if there is a doubt. But do well at Stanford in any [technical] discipline and you've got a veritable Golden Ticket. That's all the practicality you need.
  7. Jan 17, 2017 #6


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    Well, as everyone else has stated you have a good opportunity ahead of you. My advice is rather simple:

    I tend to tell people, forget about the major, what is that you actually want to do? Once you figure out what you want to do, see what those who do it tend to study.

    If your life goal is to study physics and be an academic, then go for it! However, the only life aspiration you have given us so far has to deal with he need for income, thus I say go for engineering, especially if graduate school isn't something that appeals to you. Can a person with an undergraduate degree in physics get a well paying job? Of course! However, I encourage you to look around this form and see the stress some senior physics majors have encountered with job hunting. It isn't always pretty.
  8. Jan 18, 2017 #7
    My advice is spend some time to really think about what you want. While it's great to go to an institution like Stanford it will bring into contrast the diversity of attainment, e.g. it is highly likely some of your cohort will be on six figure salaries coming out of graduation! If you haven't thought long and hard about your choices it might be difficult to see that (i.e. you think 'if only I'd chosen that route').

    Also try to find out what your choices actually mean. Remember life as a senior academic is mostly chasing money! In my opinion it is not that difference from managing - there are easier ways to get into management!
  9. Jan 18, 2017 #8
    Thank you for the in depth advice. So I guess this isn't such a black and white situation since it seems like you don't have to stay in academia as a physicist. I'll definitely need to keep this in mind as I continue to read people's stories on this website.

    Yeah, I've been reading around here and on reddit's physics community, and there are a fair amount of people who regret majoring in physics. I know this sounds a bit crazy, but would it be feasible to get a bachelors in MechE, a masters in Aero, and then go back to graduate school again later on in my life to study physics? I know I may have to take some extra courses to fulfill requirements of starting a masters in physics, but hopefully it something that may be done.
  10. Jan 19, 2017 #9


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    Define feasible. Can it be done? Sure. Is it practical, meh. Let's say everything works out perfectly well and you graduate in four years. You then spend two years in a masters program and graduate. You're now a sought after engineer and you get this amazing job that is paying you rather well and let's say you enjoy said job. After six years of school, working a job you enjoy, and possibly having a family or hobbies that take up your time, do you really think you'll be super motivated to go back to graduate school to study for physics for no other purpose than to study physics? I'm sure there exist some individuals who would do that, but as you get older, interest change, and so do life goals. That's not even including the amount of physics you'll forget between now and then.

    You might want to read https://www.physicsforums.com/threa...if-my-bachelors-degree-isnt-in-physics.64966/
  11. Jan 19, 2017 #10
    I regret studying physics from the bottom of my heart. 6 years (in EU it's 3 or 3,5 years of Bachelor and 1,5-2 year of Master) are lost. Don't listen to advice such as "you don't choose your career now, only major", "follow your passion" (especially when you have several interests and some of them are more marketable). You study in college only few years - career lasts much longer. and while you may be interested in physics more it doesn't mean you would be happier with career and lifestyle that waits for you after Bsc or PhD in Physics.
    It's true to some extend that college major doesn't set in stone your career but the older you get the higher price you pay for any changes which means you would want (belive me) to have "smooth run" straight after graduating - get a good intership, well-paid job and being on a right track straight after college. You wouldn't want (belive me) to study in college for 3-5 years more in order to get more marketable skills and degree. You wouldn't want to do additional schooling while working full time in dead end job. You wouldn't want your career to start for real few years after college.
    It's true that with degree from Stanford you will have easier life. But you'd still miss a lot of opportunities that you would have with engineering degree.
  12. Jan 19, 2017 #11
    Aerospace engineering is specialized Mechanical Engineering, so a BS in ME and a masters in AE is pretty common; but when you say you want to study physics what is that you mean by that? There are plenty of physics heavy areas of engineering (electromagnetics, thermo-fluids, plasma fusion, fission reactors, etc) that you could choose from so you could have that cake and eat it too, Stanford has an Applied Physics department which does a mix of engineering and physics targeting lots of different problems FYI; but if by physics you mean what most lay people mean which is some ill-defined blend of theoretical quantum particle astrophysical cosmology than yeah that's going to unfeasible to say the least, but there's no need to shoe-horn yourself into subject matter that's so specific that it'd be a mistake to bet a whole career on it right from freshman year.
    Last edited: Jan 19, 2017
  13. Jan 19, 2017 #12


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    Rika, you yourself state that you are from eastern Europe, where (if I'm not mistaken) the unemployment rate is far higher than it is in the US. So while your experiences are significant to you, I don't think one can conclude or generalize your experiences to those students living or studying in the US (or elsewhere).

    To begin with, students in the American college/university system (and to a lesser extent, the Canadian university system) have considerable flexibility in shaping their undergraduate degree curriculum. For example, students in the US can double major or major and minor in just about any subject (with some exceptions and/or restrictions, depending on the particular college/university). So students in the US (and Canada, again to a lesser extent) studying physics can gain wider set of skills by broadening their courses beyond the basic physics curriculum. I wouldn't expect that students studying at Stanford would be any different in that regard.

    From what I understand, that is not the case in the university system in most European or Asian countries -- there, students are restricted to only those courses that count towards their primary degree specialty.
  14. Jan 19, 2017 #13
    True. Your courses are more or less set in stone the moment you start college, starting new major means you need to start from 1st year and you can't skip years or classes. If you really insist you can take extra classes or start new major but basic curriculum for STEM s so heavy (8-10 claases, 30-40h a week) that it's hard. And in EU bachelor degree is seen like master degree in US - so nobody really stops at bachelor, everyone go for master. There are majors that have no bachelor degree - you need to study for 5 to 6 years and get master.

    Yeah but it's not as bad as let's say Greece. I have never been unemployed in my life, neither I was working in dead end job. I think the biggest difference lies in job market. We lack high-tech industry so most STEM majors are useless here. Only CS, MechE and EE are ok. As I mention before - bachelor degree is not seen as real degree and everyone go for master. What's more you go to college when you are 19 or 20 years old and by the time you finish your first degree you are 24-25 years old. From what I understand in US you go to college when you are 17 and finish it by time you are 21 or 22.

    So not only it's harder for you to change your major - you finish it when you are older. Because of that when you make wrong choice about your degree - it heavily impact your future career and life.

    But that's not the point.

    I was fully aware of that and tbh I was sure situation for physics majors in US is much better unless I started to read this forum where ppl are delivering pizza while having 200k$ of debt. It seems that even in US engineering degree is kind of no-brainer in terms of career. You go to school, take classes, do intership and get a nice, well-paid job. <- that's true for every part of the world when you graduate with marketable degree and skills. So if OP is interested in engineering and want to lead comfortable life - there is no need for him to hurt his chances and choosing harder route.

    The point is I have been working so hard in order to make up for lost years. I do what I wanted to do in terms of career but I needed to work twice as much as ppl who choose proper route from the start. If OP is interested in marketable field and is interested in nice lifestyle he should be smart and choose optimal route.
  15. Jan 19, 2017 #14


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    Actually, in the US the majority of students go to college/university when they are 18 (some students go earlier because they have skipped grades, some go later because they may have repeated grades or dropped out and came back), so they would be finished by the time they are 22 or 23 (assuming they don't pursue further graduate studies). Also, many students in the US, after graduating from high school, go to community college first and then transfer to a college/university -- many of these students would graduate a little bit later than those who went straight to university.

    More importantly, everyone suggests people go into engineering, but I don't necessarily think everyone who is interested in science is necessarily cut out to be an engineer, so I don't subscribe to the notion that the only degree worth pursuing for those interested in science is an engineering degree.
  16. Jan 19, 2017 #15
    I agree, as someone who did both an engineering and a physics degree; depending on the person, someone who is more 'blue skies' minded so to speak or is oriented to mathematical rigour could be demotivated in an engineering program.
  17. Jan 19, 2017 #16
    Tbh there is not that much you can do with physics degree with little to moderate schooling/self-teachning- it's engineering, teaching or programming. Other professions need more work. In my country programming is the best option for physics majors but since neither me nor my classmates enjoyed it we were screwed. From my class most people are still during their PhD or second degree so it's hard to say but those who went IT are lower-level specialists because they lack knowledge that CS majors or self-taught hobbists have. So it's true that blue-sky person may be not suited for engineering or programming. In that case finding job is even harder.
  18. Jan 19, 2017 #17


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    But this implies that a physics degree doesn't provide you with any marketable skills. Maybe that is true in where you are from, Rika, but certainly that is not necessarily the norm elsewhere.

    You stated that neither you nor your classmates enjoyed programming -- again, that isn't necessarily true of other physics majors (I happen to know many who often enjoyed programming as a hobby, or who double-majored or pursued a minor in CS -- an option available to students in US and Canada).

    And remember what I posted earlier in this thread about pursuing an engineering physics degree (an option available to the OP at Stanford)? If someone is fascinated with or interested in physics, but also have an applied bent, an engineering physics degree could be an ideal degree program.
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