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Torn between Physics and Computer Science

  1. Jul 31, 2011 #1
    Ok. So the deal is that I'm going to be a senior in the fall at a UC in Northern California. I've taken enough physics and computer science courses so that I'm able to major in either one, but the thing is I can only do one. I really love learning physics. I really do. But I'm just fed up with how bland it can be sometimes (derivations that take too long, and also that all this grunt work could easily be taken care of by a computer) Also, what turns me off is the fact that I'll have very dismal chances of getting a professorship at a university, unless I get into top institution, which I have a very slim chance of getting into (my gpa being only around 3.0).

    Not to mention, I had a physics major friend who ended up with a 3.2 gpa from the same school, and he still couldn't find a job. I would like to be as competitive as possible in securing a high paying software engineering job in silicon valley, especially in these rough economic times

    So, I recently changed my major to computer science, partly because I live in the bay area and finding a job is soo much easier and better paying with Silicon Valley here and what not. Also, I'd probably like to take time off and working before going to grad school to study either artificial intelligence or computational physics. Am I really making the right choice switching to computer science from physics? I just feel like the future will really depend on computers and algorithms, much more so than physics would.

    Would it hard to get motivated to go back to school after working as a software engineer? I might have to apply to masters programs, build my resume, and then apply to PhD programs.

    Your thoughts?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 31, 2011 #2
    You need to compare apples to apples. One problem with a lot of the posts talking about physics bachelors that can't get jobs, is that they don't talk about the non-physics bachelors that also can't get jobs.

    The most important skill that you have in order to do well in rough economic times is to be adaptable. You have to get out of the "I get this degree and will do only do jobs related to this degree" mentality. Learn hard math. Learn lots of computer skills.

    Also you need to start thinking strategically. If you just try to be a good student and get what they give you, you aren't going to end up with much.

    Something to remember is that if the economy is good then you'll get a job regardless of your major. If the economy is bad, then your major won't matter.

    Hard to say. The first thing is to finish your undergraduate.

    Doesn't work that way. Physics graduate school is a form of academic serfdom, and it's hard to make the transition from software engineer to physics Ph.D. One reason is that once you are making $80K and have kids and a mortgage, it's pretty difficult to live off $20K.
  4. Jul 31, 2011 #3
    One other thing. If I were you I'd start learning something like air conditioning repair, auto repair, or some trade related skill on the side, and it probably wouldn't hurt to learn Chinese.

    The budget bill that is about to pass is going to totally gut government spending, and that's going to kill high technology jobs in the US, IMHO.
  5. Jul 31, 2011 #4
    It's a bit more secure but you don't need to major in Computer Science to get a software engineering position. There are many, many physicists with coding background that got software positions. There are also lots of people with no degree that have software positions.

    I'm a Physics major, and I like software too. If grad school doesn't pan out, I plan to work in software. I know some languages and will continue to learn more (also my school UIUC offers a software engineering certificate that can be obtained by taking a sequence of courses).

    So what should you take from all this? If you love Physics, do it as an undergrad, keep taking CS classes on the side. If you decide you don't want to stick with Physics, get your Masters in CS or just go and find a job. Physics degrees are markable in the software world.
  6. Jul 31, 2011 #5
    I'm one of them.

    The reason that I'm nervous about saying "do what I did" was that I was able to get my software job because I was lucky enough to have graduated during the "dot-com bubble." At that time, they were taking random people off the street and giving them quick courses in web design and jobs.

    That was 1998. The job market is different in 2011. What you should be thinking about is the job market in 2015, and right now I'm not very optimistic.

    But in any case, if you love physics, then do physics. If the Tea Party people are right and we can cut our way to prosperity, then in 2015, they'll be a boom and people will be pulling people off the streets like they were in 1998.

    If they are wrong, then you are sunk no matter what degree you get, and at least if you go physics, you have good memories to keep you warm while you are in the unemployment line.

    One thing about being a little older is that I'm old enough to have seen the world change. What I think is happening is that people in college right now are making assumptions based on how the world looked between 2001 and 2005, and I think those assumptions are questionable. In particular in 2000, we thought that history had ended, and until 2007, we were under the assumption that we were in a permanent economic boom.

    One thing that you really, really should do is to take things like history and literature seriously.
  7. Jul 31, 2011 #6
    You make some good points twofish. And you are right, I am making complete assumptions about ~2015. But I am doing what I can. I am not about to major in something I don't like for the job security that might not exist. So if others are right and all these websites that predict a high job outlook for computer programmers, then I should be prepared by learning the languages that firms like to see on a resume.

    Job security is never assured by a degree. Times ARE changing, and its scary.
  8. Aug 1, 2011 #7
    I was really hoping you'd comment twofish, seeing as how you usually give invaluable lessons with respect to physics employment. Thanks

    I hope this was just satire directed towards governmental policies. Is the economy/software job market really going to be this bad?

    Also, do you think the West, particularly Silicon Valley, will be affected much by it? All the career employment websites keep listing the software/technology field as the fastest growing, and that jobs will be plentiful come graduation time (around 2012-2013).

    This is EXACTLY what I was planning, getting the Masters in CS if physics doesn't pan out. The thing is that I'm afraid that physicists are NOT given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to getting the better software positions and higher salaries, seeing as how, even though they may have strong analytical skills, they simply don't know enough about topics like computer networks or computer architecture, and aren't as comfortable with computers as computer science majors are.

    Are you saying that even a bachelor of arts in physics could get his/her first job at Google? Aren't those prestigious jobs delegated to those who have the actual computer science degree? Also, I know it sounds immature, but I really am interested in getting as a high a starting salary as possible. I still really love doing physics, but I'm not quite convinced yet that I would pass up a high paying job and a comfortable lifestyle fresh out of college and go for that CS degree.

    Also, is it really worth getting the Masters in Computer Science if your only goal is to be a software engineer? I heard that they make comparable salaries (only +5k / year for Masters vs BS), and considering the typical lack of funding for Masters students, it may even be detrimental?

    Your guys' thoughts?
  9. Aug 1, 2011 #8
    Regarding your salary question, the only thing I'm thinking is that a masters might help you find a more desirable position, and you'll have a few more options when it comes to job openings.
  10. Aug 1, 2011 #9
    Computer programming jobs don't really work that way. The assumption is that if you can program in one language, you can program in any computer language, and any non-trivial computer programming job will require you to work in a multi-language environment. In a typical day, I'm programming code that is partly in C++, partly in Fortran, partly in Java, partly in C#, partly in python, and partly in some internal language that no one outside the company uses.

    It never really was.

    It's actually normal. The year that I graduated was 1991, and that was when the Soviet Union collapsed, and a lot of my friends that graduated with aero-astro ended up with nothing. It turns out that within a few years, there would be a lot of jobs created by the dot-com bubble, but in 1991, very few people had heard of the internet.

    Between 1991 and 2007, there were pretty few economic fluctuations, and after the end of the Cold War, there were people declaring "the end of history." The idea was that now that we had a good understanding of how societies worked, we could make the US into a perfect economy and then export (by force if necessary) the American system throughout the world.
  11. Aug 1, 2011 #10
    If you ask me, yes. If you ask someone else, no. A lot depends on how you think economies work, and my view is that high technology requires government investment. A lot of people disagree with me, and there really is no point in arguing this now because they've won the argument.

    What I think will happen is that in three to five years, it will be become totally obvious that the current policies of cutting government have failed, and the US is large enough so that it will change. China is making massive investments in science and technology right now. People keep saying that the Chinese economy will blow up, but if we get to 2015-2016, and it's obvious that China is pulling ahead, then something will be done.

    In my experience, career projections are rubbish.

    What you can do is to take career projections from say 2001 about 2005 and see how well they match. In fact they don't.

    The reason that I'm particularly pessimistic about the cuts is that there it gets rid of the "clever ways" of getting government funding into high technology. Before, you could justify high technological spending through defense and medical spending, but that's going to get axed. IMHO, it's profoundly stupid, but the decision has been made, and it will take two or three years for people to realize how profoundly stupid things are, and then another two or three years for people to come up with political alternatives.

    You can teach yourself computer networks or computer architecture and then spend a ton of your time coding.

    No idea since I don't know how google does hiring.


    Then don't go into engineering or physics. Seriously.

    You should talk to a diverse set of alumni, but my experience has been that people with undergraduate physics degrees don't end up with worse jobs than people with undergraduate CS degrees. Also, if I'm right and you are going to end up fixing air conditioners no matter what you do (which is what happened to my father in the 1970's), you might as well learn what you love.
  12. Aug 1, 2011 #11
    That is a very good advice, and one that I have seen you promote many times in this forum. But could you be a bit more specific?

    First of all, why computer skills and hard math make you more adaptable? (Of course I have an idea why, but I'd like to hear what you have to say about it in case I'm missing something)

    Second, what do you mean by "hard math" and "computer skills". Is "hard math" some specific branches of mathematics that enjoy wide use (like Information Theory for example, or DEs and stuff like that) and therefore having knowledge of these branches make you more adaptable since you can apply for more jobs? Is "computer skills" knowing how to use a computer? How to program? Knowing many programming languages?

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