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Physics Torn between teaching physics or becoming an Engineer (for the pay scale)

  1. Aug 21, 2009 #1
    Hello all! I'm a sophomore in college and the only real lead I have so far is becoming a teacher. I had an awesome high school physics teacher and decided during my freshman year in college that I want to teach college physics. Currently, I'm on track for a B.S. in Physics. Further on I plan to go for a Ph.D and then teach at a university. However, anxiety keeps striking and I get this feeling that I won't be able to make a living as a physics professor while paying back student loans.

    I've been considering speaking to my academic advisor about picking up a B.S. in either Electrical or Mechanical Engineering, as for which one I'm not sure. All I know is that they both have some overlap with physics and pay higher in most situations.

    Do the gurus here on PF have any advice for me? I'd greatly appreciate it! Thanks.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 21, 2009 #2
    Plenty of people end up in PhD programs. It may take a while to pay back loans, but it's definitely doable. You're usually funded in grad school one way or another.

    If you want to do research and publish in physics journals, definitely go for the PhD. It's really about research, writing, and publishing though, and not so much about teaching.

    If you'd like to get a job designing stuff for a living or doing technical analysis or any type of business job really, go for the engineering degree. Honestly, if you aren't going to grad school in physics, engineering is a better choice, if only because the accreditation guarantees a rigorous program that all recruiters are familiar with.

    You've probably heard this before, but I can honestly say you shouldn't worry about making a living and should do what you are interested in. If you hate the business world you will do a mediocre job and your pay and prestige will reflect that - likewise in academia. Either way you won't be bankrupt or living on the street.
  4. Aug 24, 2009 #3


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    According to all the statistics out there, (AIP for example), people who do a physics B.Sc. actually end up earning a salary that's quite comparable to those who go through for an engineering degree.

    The sacrifice is largely that you end up starting your "career" later if you end up going to graduate school.
  5. Aug 24, 2009 #4
    Hi there,

    Just remember though that a College professor's first job is not teaching. Physics professor's main job is to look for "sponsors" to support his/her research. Then, you need to find the students (PhD in general) to help you in this research. Then, if and when you have time, you might give a few hours of classes. Otherwise, you can always send your grad students to do the teaching job.

    If you enjoy being in front of a class, "transmitting" knowledge, why don't you look into high school teaching. I believe the wage is not so bad. The first (and only job) of high school teachers is to stand in front of a class.

  6. Aug 24, 2009 #5
    Profs make quite a lot of money just teaching.
  7. Aug 24, 2009 #6
    The relative amount of teaching versus research varies considerably depending on the kind of university. My http://www.nau.edu/" [Broken], for example, is mostly an undergraduate degree granting institution, so the in the physics department full professors spend more of their time teaching classes and labs directly, because there are very few graduate students to supervise.

    At any school you have probably heard of, the case is what fatra2 says, the professor writes grants, manages grad students, and authors papers. Teaching is not really part of the package in any substantial amount.

    There are other options if you really want to teach more than anything else. Smaller liberal arts schools and community colleges need physics teachers too.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  8. Aug 25, 2009 #7
    Hi there,

    I agree with the undergrad schools. There professor spend more time teaching, but relatively little compared to school teachers. If you're talking about US, I believe you can even become a private school teacher, and make quite a decent wage.

    If, like me, you are afraid of not using the knowledge you learned in your studies, as a high school teacher, be reassured, you will neither in undergrad teaching. If you want to "use" this knowledge, you will have to stay in research or go in the industry.

  9. Aug 26, 2009 #8


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    It's true that with engineering it will be much easier to get a job immediately after a bachelor's degree, but a job in engineering will be full time, and pursuing a PhD will be difficult.

    Some graduate programs at both the masters and doctorate level will cover your tuition entirely if you TA. If you're losing sleep over being in debt for years and years, find one of these programs. They'll probably even give you a stipend, tiny though it may be.
    Then you should only have loans from undergrad, but that shouldn't be more than $50k.
    Just be prepared to live frugally for a couple years after graduating.
  10. Aug 27, 2009 #9
    Thanks for all the replies!

    I had a great HS physics teacher and decided that I wanted to be "that teacher" who can inspire people and get them interested in something. If this were all I'm looking for, I would probably get into HS teaching. However, my HS teacher ends up teaching other stuff like algebra and "physical science," or the very conceptual science course. I'd like to be a professor because of the higher pay scale, you can teach within your subject, and there's not as much immaturity as there is in HS.

    On the other hand, I'm not sure I would enjoy some of the things that come with being a professor. I don't know if I would enjoy doing research over teaching, I'd hate to get a job for the teaching and then figure out most of the job duties don't involve it.
  11. Aug 27, 2009 #10
    Think about it. You go through your bahcelor, masters, and PhD (and maybe even a post-doc or two). Do you really think, that by being a professor, you will be teaching anything close to your field. You would be a specialist in the third hyperfine level of the hydrogen atom, for example, but you would be teaching basic atomic physics (if ever).

    For the immaturity of students, you are absolutely right. In HS you have immature people that could not care less about you. In University, you have a bunch of pseudo-mature people that could not care less about you. Don't forget that most of them will not be coming from biology, medical science, or other faculties, having to take your class. The only difference I noticed is that in HS the interaction with the students is constant and amazing. The pseudo-mature university students do not dare to open their mouth in class.

    You have to chose which one you prefer. If you are made for HS teaching, you will love it. Otherwise, you might find your thing in university. Far from my idea to influence your choice. It was just not mine, eventhough I tried both, and decided to quite both for the private industry.

  12. Aug 27, 2009 #11


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    I think the original poster's point is that if you end up pursuing physics, you'll end up teaching physics. True you may not always get the closest classes to your research area, but they will almost always be within your own faculty.

    And if your goal is teaching at the university level, there is a lot of opportunity for it. You can start out teaching as a graduate student. If you want to avoid a lot of the other duties professors have, you can pursue teaching at a community college or smaller university with a teaching focus.
  13. Sep 2, 2009 #12
    My situation is a little bit different, I am taking a double degree in both BSc Phy and B.E Environmental Eng next year. I found that I really enjoyed understanding physics and doing experiments. At the same time, I wanted to make something out of my life and contribute to mankind. Should I relinquish one of my degrees? Or just slog it out and do both? Apparently some of my friends think im nuts and they'll expect to see me in 5 years absolutely brain damaged.
  14. Sep 2, 2009 #13
    Not really true. Teaching is one of the options you have with physics background. But many private firms are looking for physicist, to do physics work or not.

  15. Sep 2, 2009 #14


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    Physicists can make very valuable contributions to society and, lead very fulfilling lives. The thing is sometimes you end up working on problems that can be very academic in nature without immediate real-world applications. My experience has been, however, that while there is a stochastic element to the sub-fields people end up in, personal choice is still a very strong factor. If you want to stay working in an area with real-world application, you can.

    Slogging out a double major over five years is a personal decision. I wouldn't let other people's opinions about how difficult it could potentially be sway you. Assess the difficulty for yourself and then make an informed decision.
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