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Versatility of a Physics vs. an Engineering degree

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Hello all. I'm currently majoring in mechanical engineering (halfway through my BS), but as I've gotten into my engineering courses, although I found the fundamentals interesting (just applied physics) I feel like they are a bit lackluster. I feel like the problems are very chug-and-plug and there isn't the intense thought that made me love physics (it was my favorite subject before I took a physics course).

Now that I have thought about changing my major for too long, and have even spoken to a counselor, my question is: how versatile is a physics degree as opposed to an engineering degree what sort of engineering jobs could I get with a physics major, and what sort of research could I do as an engineer?

I originally went with mechanical engineering because it seemed to be one of the more versatile engineering fields and because of my interests in cars, but I made the decision long ago, and I have many newer interests today (programming, signal processing, acoustics, materials). I have considered other engineering fields (electrical, computer, chemical) but I'm under the impression that with any engineering field I would end up being restricted to making a specific type of contribution to projects, and not be able to work on several different things. I wouldn't want to have the physics degree solely to work as an engineer, but I would like to have the option if I wanted. I want to create and invent things, but I also want to research new ideas.

Thank you.
 
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  • #2
G01
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I can only speak out of the experience of others, as I decided to go onto grad school.

I have several friends with physics bachelor's degrees who all got jobs with engineering firms (defense contractors, mostly). Every one of them was hired right out of college, and they're salaries were equal to that of their electrical engineering counterparts. (I know this, because some of the E-E counterparts are other friends of mine!)

Granted, this is one set of experiences, and not a statistically significant set or results. A lot of people will tell you that engineering B.S. degrees are better for getting industry jobs, but that is only because they are programs are built for industry. Instead, a physics degree is more of what you make of it. My friends all had decent GPAs and got internships while in college where they learned how to work with optics, do Comsol simulations, program with LabVIEW and MATLAB, etc.

If you have a plan, you can make a physics degree extremely attractive to industry employers. It all depends on how you sell it and the marketable skills you pick up along the way.
 
  • #3
Thanks, G01. I never really considered a physics degree before I started college, but then a professor's suggestion made me think about why I didn't. What deterred me then was not only job security, but I really had very little clue what physicists did, besides mostly teach. I really like the stuff, but I do want to be able to give it practical use. I think the engineering courses I've taken so far will still be useful. Thanks again.
 
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Researching new ideas will probably require a graduate degree. The majority of new technologies in industry are developed in research centers or small specialized companies. Engineers (not working in R&D) generally take the new technology and apply it to existing products or tweak products for new applications etc. There are no jobs in industry that I'm aware of where a physics undergrad will qualify but someone with an engineering degree won't.

It's possible to get perfectly fine jobs with physics BS, or jobs identical to those that engineering undergrads are hired into, but it's harder and can't always be done. A lot of places do strictly require an engineering degree.

If I were you I'd keep my options open and try to get an internship. Your contacts and work experience may be more relevant than your major if the choice is physics or ME. You can always study physics on the side while taking your ME courses too - that's what I did.
 
  • #5
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I originally went with mechanical engineering because it seemed to be one of the more versatile engineering fields and because of my interests in cars, but I made the decision long ago, and I have many newer interests today (programming, signal processing, acoustics, materials). I have considered other engineering fields (electrical, computer, chemical) but I'm under the impression that with any engineering field I would end up being restricted to making a specific type of contribution to projects, and not be able to work on several different things.
Your work experience will be much more relevant. Once you have your foot in the door somewhere, you may never even need to tell anyone where you went to school or what your degree was in. Assuming the company you work for does a range of things, how your career progresses will depend on the skills you've demonstrated, your performance, your interests, and company need. Your choice of major is not likely to impact your career very much after your initial hiring unless you meet a particularly prejudiced manager.
 
  • #6
Thanks, kote. Yes, I am planning on pursuing a graduate degree as well. So what you are saying is that the degree wouldn't matter so much after the first hire? Would this mean for instance, that as a mechanical I would be able to do things that normally electrical engineers do if I demonstrated knowledge of the field?
 
  • #7
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Thanks, kote. Yes, I am planning on pursuing a graduate degree as well. So what you are saying is that the degree wouldn't matter so much after the first hire? Would this mean for instance, that as a mechanical I would be able to do things that normally electrical engineers do if I demonstrated knowledge of the field?
If you are working for a company making robotics, for example, you could very well find yourself doing some programming as an ME if you're able, or doing whatever else is required. Once you're actually doing something as a part of your job, it wouldn't be very hard to convince a manager that you're qualified to do it full time. If the EE manager has an open position and you've been successfully doing EE work on his projects, he's not going to turn you down for some new EE grad with no experience.

It's definitely not a sure thing, and some companies will strictly do one type of engineering or another. Different companies have different cultures as well. But the flavor of engineering you majored in will only show up on your resume, and once you're hired, it's very rare for anyone to go back and pull out your resume. It's simply not relevant compared to your performance and skills demonstrated on the job.

If you do get a graduate degree and are working in R&D, it's a different story. Switching after you've already gotten so specialized can be like starting over, and that's a lot harder to do. There are a lot of things you can do with an engineering or physics PhD, but you won't likely go from PhD level ME research to PhD level EE research.

All of this also applies for physics vs. engineering by the way. Once you're in the door, no one will ask.
 
  • #8
Thanks, kote. That's really helping me make the decision. I still have a lot of thinking to do, but I feel that I have some insecurities that I can drop now. Thanks, everyone.
 

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