Theoretical engineering?

  • #1
Even though it sounds like such an oxymoron, is there any such thing? I've found that I am much more interested in the theory side of things than practical/hands-on type of stuff. I've always loved physics but just never wanted to make the commitment. I've always felt that a graduate degree in engineering can lead to some type of theoretical work. What I mean by that is something that is not all hands-on but has something to do with research, development, and theory. Hands-on things are also fun, but they just feel too trivial to me at times, and not really intellectually stimulating. For instance, I found things like electrostatics and magnetism much more interesting and fun than circuits (V=IR, P=IV, etc..). I also like oscillations and waves though I found them difficult at times. Its probably too early to say, of course, because that is the extent of my exposure to physics (except for mechanics, which I also liked). I also enjoyed a course in p. chem which had some elementary level quantum.
I'm afraid I may have chosen the wrong major. I am an EE major who really wanted to be a physicist but was not (and is not) sure whether he can put the time and energy required in establishing a firm career in physics. I would do it but I don't think that in the end I would cut it: its a long journey. So, how much theory can one expect to find in the engineering world past college? Something that would be a good mix of engineering and physics..?
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
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Sort of. They give doctorates in that stuff too. But engineering research is usually some mix of theory and experiment (as far as I've seen, at least) rather than having pure theorists and pure experimentalists.

P.S., Paragraph breaks are awesome.
 
  • #3
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Same here, I was mechanical and switched to engineering physics for this reason. At the undergraduate level a lot of people are preparing for careers and don't care about the theory. There is a lot of design/practical stuff and if you intend to go to graduate school it's disheartening. Go to your school's website and look at the electrical engineering graduate course descriptions, and some papers published by grad students. I'm sure you'll find it quite more theoretical than finding the voltage drop in a circuit.
 
  • #4
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I want to do theoretical stuffs too.
I like more theoretical things but not because that practical stuffs are too easy for me.
Rather, they are too difficult to me...I am crappy in figuring out where to put a scerw and where to put a bearing etc..
I am okay with manipulating equations and do the abstract thinking...
 
  • #5
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Pretty sure its called "Physics".
 
  • #6
yeah, and thats just the thing. I love physics, but just don't think that I have what it takes to make a career out of physics. Its a long and uncertain journey, only for someone who is wholly devoted to physics. Furthermore, I'm not entirely theoretical. Its just that it seems to me that engineering is for the kind of person who likes to tinker with things, and analyze/develop them in practice.
I think theory is beautiful... the way math works out to explain physical phenomenon, how everything in the universe is linked and has symmetry, etc. Essentially, the larger principles of nature are what intrigue me... hence, physics. Other engineers I've met don't really care for all that, some even hate it.
I also like practical things, of course. I've been working with computers for a long time, hardware and software. I like designing new things too. But in the end, I just don't find those things as serious as the stuff physicists do.
But the thing is that, like Asphodel said, they give doctorates in engineering too. Does that mean that there is more theory at the doctorate level? In essence, I like physics but I don't really care very much about cosmology, string theory, and many of the extremely fascinating but far-fetched notions. I like the more practical type of theory, stuff I assume engineers work with...? If there was some way to divorce from engineering a major part of the handiwork involved, and to replace it with the stuff physicists do, i would be very happy :)
I find advancements in technology fascinating... wireless technologies, the internet, semiconductor devices, TV/LCD/plasma technologies, quantum computing, and such. But I'm just really not interested in making toasters, or basic consumer "products," which I'm afraid is a big part of engineering in the real world.
 
  • #7
Astronuc
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Engineering is essentially applied physics.

Certainly one could learn the basics in engineering program and then apply formulas from a book or specification, just as one could learn basic physics and do much the same. Or one can obtain an advanced degree, MS and/or PhD, and get more into the theory and applications.

Besides physics or engineering, there is engineering physics. One could do a EE and EP double major.
 
  • #8
I don't think an EP degree is offered at my school. Even if it were, it would be nothing short of madness attempting a second major with the EE degree.
If I were to switch to physics... what would be my options after the bachelors? After a masters? Basically, if at some point life just happens and I can't go through with a physics PhD and all that it entails, how screwed am I? I don't fancy working as a "technician" or something similar with a masters under my belt... I like learning/education so what would be some possibilities in further education (other than the PhD)?
For various reasons it may be necessary for me to be financially stable as early as possible, and that is what is prompting me to think so hard about this.
 
  • #9
...oh, and my interests, if that helps, are generally theoretical and abstract things. I find many things interesting, and am willing to cross borders. Math, physics, philosophy, economics/finance, research, business/entrepreneurship, leadership,... thought-intensive things mostly.
 
  • #10
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My first reaction would be EP...you say it isnt offered. How about a M.Eng course? Correct me if I am wrong but that would give you the opportunity to go academic OR professional and you could finish your EE as well...Not sure though...Or is a masters not an option?
 
  • #11
A Masters is definitely an option, and even a PhD is potentially an option. But why M.Eng courses? Why not just some physics courses instead...? The only problem is that even without all these extra courses it is difficult to graduate in four years with an engineering degree here.
Bottomline, I can go through with the EE degree but I'd feel that I'm missing out on a lot of physics. So I thought I could just do physics for undergrad, and since its about half the size of the engineering majors here, I could probably end up taking a bunch of courses in EE if I wanted to. But how does that work for grad school? And does it matter what your undergrad was in after you have a masters?
 
  • #12
Astronuc
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A Masters is definitely an option, and even a PhD is potentially an option. But why M.Eng courses? Why not just some physics courses instead...? The only problem is that even without all these extra courses it is difficult to graduate in four years with an engineering degree here.
Bottomline, I can go through with the EE degree but I'd feel that I'm missing out on a lot of physics. So I thought I could just do physics for undergrad, and since its about half the size of the engineering majors here, I could probably end up taking a bunch of courses in EE if I wanted to. But how does that work for grad school? And does it matter what your undergrad was in after you have a masters?
electrifice, if I was in your shoes, I'd go talk to the EE department's undergraduate advisor, or department head with regard to your desire to take physics courses, or rather your desire to do something equivalent to engineering physics with a focus/specialization on EE/EM. One might also visit the physics department to learn what courses are available in EM and solid state electronics.

ElNino's reference to MechEng is a reflection that most EP curricula are weighted to MechEng with some EE. MechEng would include mechanics of materials, thermodynamics and fluid mechanics. Of course, programs may vary considerably among the many institutions.

One of my friends in university was a EE, and one of his upperlevel EE courses was in EM with respect to radar and waveguides, and the course work went heavily into the physics.
 
  • #13
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Undergraduate mechanical engineering is not heavily theoretical, at least in my school.
 
  • #14
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Undergraduate mechanical engineering is not heavily theoretical, at least in my school.

I dont understand what is not theoretical about mechanical engineering. Did you not learn about fluid mechanics and the Navier Stokes equations? Did you not learn how to derive it from differential forms? Did you not learn about material properties, such as stress strain relationships? Did you not take physics I,II and III? Did you not take heat transfer and thermodynamics? Did you not take vibrations, circuit analysis, and controls?

I dont see how one can go to an engineering school and say they did not learn anything 'theoretical' unless they were asleep during class and never read their book, or they go to a really, really, crappy school.
 
  • #15
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I dont understand what is not theoretical about mechanical engineering. Did you not learn about fluid mechanics and the Navier Stokes equations? Did you not learn how to derive it from differential forms? Did you not learn about material properties, such as stress strain relationships? Did you not take physics I,II and III? Did you not take heat transfer and thermodynamics? Did you not take vibrations, circuit analysis, and controls?

I dont see how one can go to an engineering school and say they did not learn anything 'theoretical' unless they were asleep during class and never read their book, or they go to a really, really, crappy school.
I guess by theoretical, I mean that the underlying science was not emphasized as in a physics class. My courses provided the methods, but not the whys.
Empirical courses like thermo felt like I was being trained to install air conditioners. There werent many derivations either
 
  • #16
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Yikes, thats pretty bad. I dont see how you could have possibly not learned anything theoretical though. Were you simply given formulas to plug and chug away?

Every formula we had was derived for us from first principles.
 
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  • #17
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Yikes, thats pretty bad. I dont see how you could have possibly not learned anything theoretical though. Were you simply given formulas to plug and chug away?

Every formula we had was derived for us from first principles.
Not to bad mouth my school, but my peers and I learn pretty much everything from doing the homework. If the book has the derivation, then the formula is derived.
 
  • #18
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I dont understand what you mean by your last sentence.
 
  • #19
Astronuc
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Undergraduate mechanical engineering is not heavily theoretical, at least in my school.
If that is the case, then that is unfortunate. At my university, we studied the theoretical bases of NS equations.

Engineering Physics programs tend to weight more to MechE than EE, and they tend to be a little more theoretical than applied.
 
  • #20
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I dont understand what you mean by your last sentence.
The only derivations we get are from the book.


And I did in fact switch to engineering physics for this reason
 
  • #21
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The only derivations we get are from the book.


And I did in fact switch to engineering physics for this reason

So if your book has the derivations in it, what is not theoretical about it? You know the theory, and the homework applies it to problems. Even in physics classes, you have problems that are applications of the derivations.
 
  • #22
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So if your book has the derivations in it, what is not theoretical about it? You know the theory, and the homework applies it to problems. Even in physics classes, you have problems that are applications of the derivations.
What I'm saying is that if the book has no derivations, or only a few thats it. Its mostly example based
 
  • #23
I guess by theoretical, I mean that the underlying science was not emphasized as in a physics class. My courses provided the methods, but not the whys.
Empirical courses like thermo felt like I was being trained to install air conditioners. There werent many derivations either
Yea thats exactly what I'm scared of. Our engineering program is ranked fairly high so I'm hoping its not going to be so bad as that...

Astronuc, I will definitely talk to an engineering advisor or head as you suggested and see what options they are able to offer me. At this point it seems best to try and take some physics courses on the side. I will try to sit in some upper div EE courses as well, just to see what its going to look like further on up. My guess is that the lower div classes will not be as theoretical or intriguing as the upper div ones.

If I feel at some point that I really just don't like EE that much then I might opt out entirely and go with the physics degree and just take some EE courses on the side, which shouldn't be too hard. The physics degree is about half the units of the EE one!
 
  • #24
im in the same boat as the OP, wanting to do something applicable, but also using the abstractness in physics and math rather than 'hands-on' work
 
  • #25
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Response to the original post:

This is my take on it. Basically, you have three main types of engineering research:

1.) experimental (laboratory)
2.) theoretical (mathematical)
3.) computational (simulations).

In graduate school, you will basically be specializing in one of these three. While you may not be completely devoted to one method, you will probably focus on one method. For example, you might focus on theoretical work, but you will use a lot of computation. Or, you might do experiments mixed with computation.

The bottom line is that you DO have the opportunity to do theoretical research in engineering graduate school. You just need to select advisers that have the same research interests as you. I would recommend that you take as much math as possible, because that sort of paves the way for doing engineering theory.
 

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