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The Truth About Nuclear Engineering vs. Physics (Employability)

  1. Jul 16, 2014 #1
    Hey everybody, so I've been going through a bit of a dilemma and have done a kind of ridiculous amount of personal research on this including talking to people and looking at jobs/programs etc. I'm looking for another opinion, hopefully unbiased (disappointingly difficult for me on this it seems).

    I'm currently enrolled at a state school in a dual degree physics/engineering program with the intention on pursuing nuclear engineering at UW-Madison for the second part of the program. Let me first say I do absolutely enjoy physics and math and through my research have learned I will be able, even required, to take a lot of very advanced math, physics and computer science courses.

    Here's my problem, I'm having a hard time debating what I will go to grad school for. Of course, I'm looking at things a bit early but I tend to get obsessive about some things. I've had a strong interest in nuclear reactors and power production since I was 17, I am now 20. I've done nuclear physics research since I was a freshman and am currently researching nuclear physics at the University of Notre Dame for the summer. I've probed my most respected friends here on the topic of nuclear engineering vs. physics and they keep giving me the response that a Ph.D in physics vs. nuclear engineering & engineering physics (Madison's grad program is my main consideration at the moment) would look so much better on the desk of literally any employer out there and I'd automatically be at a disadvantage. Also who knows, maybe I change my mind about reactors in the future, though I don't see that happening myself unless I turn out to hate how reactors are studied for some reason. I just...can't find myself passionate about spending my life researching the structure of a nucleus. I do not mean to sound disrespectful but it's just so seemingly arbitrary, MSU, the #1 nuclear physics program in the nation has a long term plan to expand the chart of nuclides. Literally create as many isotopes as possible just to see what can be created.

    I have zero interest in going to school to operate reactors, I'd like to research them whether it be improving design or more recently I've been interested in fusion and plasma physics. Like I said, I tend to get obsessive so I am perfectly fine with working 60-80 hours a week when I finally receive my degree (I generally do ~60+ hours here as a REU student). I don't necessarily want to go into industry (industry research, that is) unless fusion falls through or I end up not being able to get a job after grad school. I'm not overly interested in teaching unless it's my route to my desired research, which is probably fairly realistic.


    How correct is it that a physics Ph.D looks significantly better than a rather specialized engineering Ph.D to an employer? Were I to pursue a physics Ph.D would I not be equally as specialized? Any insight you can give is very appreciated.
    Last edited: Jul 16, 2014
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  3. Jul 16, 2014 #2


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    I did my PhD in nuclear structure and am now a community college professor, which is a job I love.

    A degree in nuclear engineering means you really only have one career option. That could be a great career option, though. IMO it's a vital that we expand nuclear power a *lot* in the next few generations as part of a broader strategy to deal with global warming. However, it remains to be seen whether the political roadblocks in the US will come down or not. In particular, we really need Harry Reid to have a stroke tomorrow morning while he's sitting on the toilet, so that we no longer have a senate majority leader who's dedicated to keeping Yucca Mountain from getting underway.

    Your image of nuclear structure physics as "a long term plan to expand the chart of nuclides" is not 100% true, although there is an element of truth to it. (It's been stereotyped as "nuclear stamp collecting.") People do address interesting physical questions in this field, at least sometimes. The truth is that every field of academic research has its plodders, and probably 90% of all academic research, in any field, is absolutely unimportant, uninteresting, and unnecessary. The good news about MSU, from what I understand, is that they're using genuinely new techniques such as radioactive beams. The worst dead end to get into is a field in which everybody is just trying to milk old techniques for one more result.

    What I really hated about doing nuclear structure research was that at that time (ca. 1995) it was becoming Big Science. Every paper had 50 names on it. I guess some people might thrive in that kind of social-insect environment, but I found it loathsome.

    "How correct is it that a physics Ph.D looks significantly better than a rather specialized engineering Ph.D to an employer? Were I to pursue a physics Ph.D would I not be equally as specialized?"

    A physics PhD qualifies you to work at a university. An engineering degree qualifies you to do engineering. People with PhD's in STEM aren't unemployed except by choice, so you shouldn't be worrying about whether someone will hire you. You should be thinking about the two lifestyles and which is the one you want to spend the rest of your life doing. They're radically different. Also, keep in mind that only a tiny percentage of physics PhD's will ever have careers doing fundamental research.
  4. Jul 16, 2014 #3
    That's a very good point, I shouldn't specify this project/field as uninteresting, everything, engineering included, has a degree of disinterest involved. I suppose it's the direct impact it has vs. that of nuclear power would have that gets me. Like you said, I, too, hold the opinion that an expansion is vital, though politics plays the biggest role there.

    I suppose I could phrase my end question a little differently to more accurately describe what I'm getting at. Is it correct that one on one a nuclear physicist would get hired over a nuclear engineer were they competing for a valuable position? I keep getting told a physicist is so stereotypically regarded as having gone through a more rigorous education than an engineer that the words on the degree themselves would make a large impact. That, to me, seems like such nonsense if your CV displays you've had high level physics/math education as well. But, I'm still only an undergraduate.
  5. Jul 16, 2014 #4


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    It would depend completely on the job. In most cases they wouldn't even be applying for the same jobs. There is very little similarity what a nuclear physicist knows how to do and what a nuclear engineer knows how to do.
  6. Jul 17, 2014 #5


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    A nuclear engineer has a practical skill set. The 'profit now' mentality of most businesses places a premium on short term rewards, IMO. In general, I believe a qualified physicist would prove a greater asset than an engineer in any particular discipline after 5 years.
  7. Jul 17, 2014 #6


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    When I was in engineering school back in the dark ages, GE was recruiting college candidates from different fields to train to be nuclear operators after graduation. Two of my classmates who graduated as naval architects/marine engineers took up GE's offer after graduation, even though the curriculum at that time didn't have one course dealing with nuclear energy or nuclear propulsion. IIRC, these two worked for a time for GE after they completed their training.

    In any event, a nuclear plant operator may be a good job to take for a limited time, even if you don't want to make a career out of it. Your prospective employer may offer assistance when you want to go to grad school.

    It's not clear what your financial situation is, but training as an operator may give you some good practical experience with reactor operation which would come in handy when you use that PhD in nuke engineering to improve reactor design. It would enhance your resume, IMO, and making some money as an operator may be a more realistic prospect than trying to find a job as a Physics B.S. graduate.

    When I was at school, we had to complete different work assignments between semesters, such as working in a shipyard (welding and stuff), sailing on a merchant ship, and working in a design office. Now, I wasn't going to sail or weld as careers, but the exposure to the practical aspects of the profession did come in handy as a practicing engineer, something which could not be obtained solely by sitting in a classroom.
  8. Jul 17, 2014 #7
    There are many areas where the work carried out by a nuclear engineer and a nuclear physicist is pretty much the same. The field of nuclear engineering is not just about nuclear power, one can also work with radiation detection and simulation of radiation, to name just a few. Nuclear physicists also work in these areas.

    I took my undergrad in physics, masters in nuclear engineering, PhD in nuclear physics (nuclear structure) and now work in what I would consider leans more towards nuclear engineering. So the ability to move between the fields is entirely possible and in many cases the difference between the two is really not very clear.
    Last edited: Jul 17, 2014
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