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Engineering Switching or not switching from Civil Engineering to Physics

  1. Nov 3, 2009 #1
    Hello, dear forum

    I am a Norwegian Civil and Environmental Engineering student, soon to finish my very first semester. I have a tough decision to make regarding my choice of studies, and I would greatly appreciate some input from you. Here's some information:

    My preferred future profession (the reason why I am in Civil Engineering) is to work with water and wastewater systems in developing countries, preferably in an NGO. This is why I started doing science in the first place, having no previous knowledge of basic physics at all. So I took a one-semester preparatory course for engineering studies, and am now at university.

    My unsuspected "problem" is that in the process I found myself really enjoying theoretical science, especially physics. The upcoming Civil Engineering courses look OK, but I think the courses listed in the physics BA look intensely exiting, like something I could gladly do in my spare time. I find it hard to let go of my dream profession, but the thought of going through life without understanding relativity and quantum mechanics are makes me want to cry..:)

    So, I am considering making the switch to Physics, out of pure interest in the subject. However, I have already been changing career paths once, and I really don't want to end up like one of those "eternal students" that never finish (or amount to) anything. I don't care about the money, but at some point you have to get out into the world and do good in one way or another, right?:) These things make me unsure:

    - I am pretty much set on where I want to end up, and I realize that advanced physics will have very little to do with that job. I am unsure whether it will be possible to i.e. take a masters program in CE after a BA in physics (my uni doesn't seem to be sure either). I am, however, open to physics studies revealing other attractive career opportunities.

    - Since I don't really have any experience with more advanced physics, I am a bit afraid that it might be a bit less glorious than I imagine. Most of what I know I have from popular science literature. Now, I am not afraid of equations, but my interest, in the end, is understanding "how everything really works" (Let this serve as an illustration to my naive approach to the subject..). I don't expect the studies to be all philosophical and romantic, I expect a lot of math and a lot of work, but I am hoping it could give me an insight to some "fundamental truth" every once in a while. :)

    I am definitely no genius, and I developed my interest in physics at the late age of 20, but I tend to do pretty good in these classes, at least at the level I am now.

    Another factor is that I, by mysterious twists of fate, am studying in foreign country, in a language I do not understand very much of yet, so I am kind of relying on self study. I find this less of a problem in math and physics etc., as the language is universal, it's worse in typical CE subjects.

    I apologize for this far too long post, and my perhaps extremely unclear request (and for the use of smileys, due to my lack of ability to express myself precisely enough in English..). I would greatly appreciate any advice, tips or comments on any of this from you. I have no idea what to do, and my time is running out..

    Thanks a lot!

    O.L., Science Newbie
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 3, 2009 #2
    Hey, welcome to the forum. Can you double major or minor in physics or take courses as electives? I would recommend you go that route unless you have your heart set on doing physics professionally or going into some field that doesn't care about your undergrad degree. Since you seem interested in a job only available to you with a CE degree, I'd go for that.

    Additionally, you can always continue to study physics in your spare time after you graduate and have that dream job (on your own or at a local college or whatever).
  4. Nov 4, 2009 #3
    So major in what you actually want to do, and then read about and study physics on the side. I can't stress enough how completely unrelated the enjoyment of the study of a subject and enjoyment actually working in a field can be.

    Then end up there. The suggestion you double major is not bad advice, but I don't see how it's necessary. You don't know anything about what actual academic or industrial physics is like, so you have no idea whether you want to actually work in physics.

    You have a good end goal. Don't go mucking it up because you found a neat hobby.
  5. Nov 4, 2009 #4
    On the other hand, you could end up working in a field and find out that even if you have to put up with a lot of nonsense, that in the end you actually enjoy it.

    One of the reasons that I talk a lot about how tough and painful physics is, so that you are more likely to enjoy it once you go in with realistic expectations. If you go in to a Ph.D. program thinking that everything is going to be wonderful then when you have a really bad week, then its crushing. If you go in knowing that things will often be really bad, then you just take the bad days along with the good, and you're much less likely to burn out.

    Also you can get the best of both worlds. There are a lot of physicists that work in hydrology and fluid flow.

    On the other hand, you probably don't really know that much about what real civil engineering is like, so it's a good idea to keep some options open.
  6. Nov 4, 2009 #5
    Hi, thanks for your answers!

    I guess I should either keep doing what I do now, or try some sort of a double BA. I think the latter sounds like a brilliant idea. I've checked it out, and it can probably be done without losing a lot of time (one semester, probably). It does leave a lot more doors open. As mentioned, I don't really know what Civil Engineering is about either, or whether my career plans are realistic, so it might not be a bad idea. I think that's what I'll be going for.

    Do you think it would be possible to work "in the field" with wastewater systems with a background in i.e. hydrology or fluid flow?

    Thanks again!
  7. Nov 4, 2009 #6
    It depends on where you plan to work. In many countries civil engineering is a profession, which is a very different type of thing than physics. In the US, a PhD physicist with a decade of geophysics, hydrology and fluid mechanics experience couldn't work as a civil engineer in most states. This is because to become a professional engineer you must have an engineering degree. In some states a science degree will count, but that is being phased out.

    Regardless of where you work, it is difficult for me to imagine that the hydrology and fluid flow will be very useful as a civil engineer, though there may be exceptions (I talked to someone doing some sort of "environmental engineering" who had a civil background once, but I don't remember what they actually did). The reality is that most of civil engineering is understanding the legal and professional environment you're operating in and meeting those guidelines.
  8. Nov 5, 2009 #7
    I have relatives that build dams, and in these situations hydrology and fluid flow is really important.
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