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Weighing my options: EE & Physics

  1. Aug 24, 2012 #1
    After a year of engineering undergrad, I'm finally beginning to figure out what exactly I want to do. I'm a biological engineering major and have been debating switching to physics and/or engineering for about a semester now, and the time is a approaching to actually make a decision. I'm definitely planning on continuing on to grad school and would like to do either physics, applied physics, or EE. My goal is to work in an interdisciplinary field of physics and electrical engineering including electromagnetism, plasma physics, optics, reactor physics, or computational physics/engineering. At this point, the research going on in applied physics and EE sounds more interesting than pure physics.

    I have three main options as I see it:

    1. Major in physics
    -I'm excited about all of the core classes
    -Can take only the most interesting EE electives and don't have to worry about boring prereqs.
    -Can apply for grad programs in applied physics, physics, or EE.
    -Can take a few extra math classes.
    -Better preparation for physics grad school.
    -Less restricting in general.

    -Less employable should I choose not to go to grad school
    -My school's physics program is VERY small compared to engineering (very few electives)
    -Possibly less focused

    2. Major in EE
    -Job prospects
    -More focused curriculum
    -Can still do applied physics
    -Will have best preparation for EE grad school

    -Won't be prepared for most physics graduate programs
    -Many lower level classes are uninteresting to me
    -Not as many math electives

    3. EE/Physics double major - Let me say that this option will probably be best for me if I decide to stay in engineering for graduate school. I will not loose any EE electives, I will only gain the physics core courses. All of the physics electives will be replaced by EE electives so that I can finish in 4 years. Therefore, it is mainly designed for EE majors who want to go to grad school, giving them better preparation for quantum mechanics.

    -School has a 4 year program so it won't take any extra time, and therefore I feel like I should take advantage
    -I will be prepared for either EE or physics grad school (in theory)
    -MANY options after undergrad
    -Satisfaction in doing both

    -All physics electives are taken from EE. Less depth in physics than with single major
    -Very heavy course load for the next three years
    -Less time to do undergrad research
    -No math electives

    My logical and practical/conservative side is telling me to do EE... While my young and adventurous side is screaming physics :biggrin:

    Any input, advice, or personal experience would be great!
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 25, 2012 #2
    Physics majors don't really work in physics much after school ends. On the other hand, EE does and pays well. You could just major in EE and take some courses that interest you in physics.

    I myself wanted to be a mathematician but im happy doing EE with a few extra math courses.

    Just know that EE also has some theoretical abstraction not seen in physics but revolves around computing. That could be interesting.
  4. Aug 25, 2012 #3
    As former EE student and Physics graduate I think that EE/Physics double major is the best.

    Doing Physics only is no good unless you want to focus on medical physics or programming (I have heard accelerator physics is also good but you can work in this field after pure EE degree).

    EE major will give you in depth knowledge regarding certain subjects while Physics is good for foundation. Have in mind that (at least in my country) you can take additional undergrad courses during grad school/MSc if you need it so don't worry about it.

    If you want to go into research then you choose your electives according to it. If you do undergrad research for your thesis no one is going to kill you if you choose one or two Physics electives if you need it for your thesis.
  5. Aug 25, 2012 #4
    I haven't really considered doing EE undergrad and physics grad, but I've heard it's possible. I've also heard that this transition can be absolutely BRUTAL... Can you give me some more info about this? What has been the hardest part? What area of research are you focusing on? Did you get accepted into a PhD program or masters?
  6. Aug 25, 2012 #5
    Are you truly happy, or are you just telling me that in order to convince yourself that you made the right decision? :tongue:

    You don't think you will ever regret not doing math, or at least attempting to? I think it would be easier to transition from physics to engineering than from math to engineering though.
  7. Aug 25, 2012 #6
    Sorry for my english but by "physics graduate" I mean that I did graduate with physics degree not that I am graduate student ^^" But more or less because I changed my major from EE to Physics and considered graduate school I can tell you sth about this.

    It really depends on a subject. Many EE work in quantum computing field with physicists and mathematicians and they are doing ok. I did my research in material science so all I did was 2-3 additional courses but I am aware of the fact that my knowledge was pretty shallow.

    Interdiciplinary topics allow you to work in one field with people from different backgrounds, sometimes their job is different, sometimes it's the same but more or less transition in both ways is very hard.

    If you miss Physics you will not be able to figure out fundamentals and laws behind all this technologies but if you miss EE then you won't know what kind of technologies exist and how do they work in detail.

    That's why I think you should just go for double major. You can see whole picture, not part of it. What kind of electives are you going to miss in double major?

    Math is only a tool.

    You don't need to study language grammar in detail in order to be a good writer. Despite my thesis topic I wanted to go for grad school in theoretical subject so I took additional math courses (around 5 I guess) but double major math and physics would be a waste of time for me. Things may be different for Mathematical Physicists through but most (even theory guys) just simply don't need it.
    Last edited: Aug 25, 2012
  8. Aug 25, 2012 #7

    By doing the double major, I will be missing out on 4 physics and 1-3 math electives. On the other hand, I will have 1 extra EE elective with the double major than if I just did physics alone. The problem I am having is that my entire schedule will be packed full of lower level EE classes that I basically have no interest in at this point. Maybe I would end up liking the hands on group projects/reports but I really don't know.

    What undergrad EE classes would you say are essential for a good foundation? If I choose physics, I'm planning on taking circuits I & II (both with labs) and possibly Signals & Linear Systems as a foundation and then 3 other upper level EE electives.
  9. Aug 25, 2012 #8
    Question - do you have the option of doing an academic minor at your university? If you do, it would seem an optimal compromise to allow for a bit more breathing room and undergraduate research, after the inevitable "EE major with physics minor or physics major with EE minor" thread has run its course. :cool: I would suspect that you'd be a reasonable candidate for graduate admissions in any of the fields you listed with that mix, presuming your grades and the rest of your application are up to snuff.

    Also, more generally speaking in terms of advice (not just directed at you) - if you do interesting research, you will inevitably come across a problem for which your background has not prepared you to tackle. This is to be expected. You will then have the pleasure of figuring things out for yourself in that case without the benefit of formal coursework. This is part and parcel of life as a scientist or engineer.
  10. Aug 25, 2012 #9
    There are minors at my school but not for electrical engineering. Either route I take, I will be getting a minor in math, but if I do EE I will be able to double minor in math & physics easily. There are engineering minors at my school but they are very specialized and require a non engineering major to jump through several hoops. If I were to choose physics, I would rather just take some EE electives that would be interesting/beneficial and forget about doing the minor. My 4 year plan for physics allows me to take from 17-20 EE credits which is more than most minors I'd say.

    Here are the minors given in the engineering school:
    Minor in Engineering
    Minor in Computational Neuroscience
    Minor in Aerospace Engineering
    Minor in Energy Engineering
    Minor in Nuclear Engineering
    Minor in Medical and Health Physics
    Minor in Radioenvironmental Sciences
  11. Aug 25, 2012 #10
    It really depends on what do you want to specialize in and I am not as familar with EE degree as with Physics but you need Logic Systems and programming. It seems that you have cool "Emphasis Areas/Elective Tracks" in EE so I wouldn't go for Physics major only because youy will learn more advanced stuff in EE. If you want to determine what do you need from EE choose your Emphasis Area and see prereqs for those. Physics is more general degree and it will be easier for me to tell you what do you need from physics.

    Physics 2750, 2760: University Physics I & II
    Physics 3150: Introduction to Modern Physics
    Physics 4060: Advanced Physics Lab
    Physics 4100: Electricity and Magnetism I & II
    Physics 4120: Introduction to Thermodynamics
    Physics 4140: Mechanics
    Physics 4800: Intro to Quantum Mechanics I
    Physics 4810: Intro to Quantum Mechanics II*
    Math 1500, 1700, 2300: Calculus I, II, III
    Math 4100: Differential equations

    Those courses are more than enough when it comes to foundations in Physics and from what I can understand you need to take those if you want to have double major/dual degree.

    Those can be useful for certain Emphasis Areas:

    Physics 4400: Physics of Electronic Devices
    Physics 4110: Light and Modern Optics
    Physics 4600: Semiconductor Optics
    Physics 4650: Modern Condensed Matter Physics
    Physics 4850: Computational Methods in Physics

    That's it. Have in mind that you need to take Light and Modern Optics course if you want to specialise in Photonics.

    Anyway you don't need anything but those courses when it comes to Physics degree.
  12. Aug 26, 2012 #11
    Wow, I really appreciate your help! I can't believe you took the time to actually go through the course catalog like that :approve:

    Honestly, I would have to agree with you and say that the double major really does seem like the best option especially if I'm leaning more towards EE grad programs. I'm suppose to meet with the EE adviser to see what they say about the double major, but I've already created a 4 year plan that shows me taking about 5 math/physics/EE classes per semester (<17 hours/semester).

    I do have some questions regarding this though. There is a good chance that they will suggest that I spread the course load out and stay an extra (9th) semester to get both degrees. Do you think would be wise? Is 5 science/EE classes/semester too much? The most I've ever taken was 19 hours but the classes were much easier.
  13. Aug 26, 2012 #12
    I have no advice for you in general, but 5 science/engineering classes is hard.

    The most I did was 4 + research, and they were even classes that I liked: stat mech, quantum, intro computational chemistry and polymer science. It turned out that I was doing homework for hours every day, staying in the lab to 3AM multiple days of the week to program, eating into my research time, giving me gray hair and ruined my social life.

    It will be very challenging getting research done in that situation, or even passing the classes.
  14. Aug 26, 2012 #13
    I'll keep that in mind when making my decision... I honestly didn't even think about how significantly that would cut into my research. That's definitely a +1 for the solo physics major. Appreciate the input.
  15. Aug 26, 2012 #14
    You are welcomed ^^ It didn't took too much time so don't worry about it.

    To tell you the truth I have no idea because in Europe we have different system. We usually have around 8-10 classes per semester which means we spend 30-40h weekly on our universities. If we want we do research during summer and also when we write our thesis (then our courseload is very small).

    I did 2 years in 1 year once but it's no good and I don't recommend it.

    In Europe we enter universities at the age of 18-19 and we usually go for Master degree (BSc is not very prestigious) which means 5 years of studying so we enter the workforce around 23-24 (many of us around 25-26 or even later because we do double degrees or study medicine). So don't worry about that you need to finish your BSc when you are 21. Take your time. Studying 4,5 or 5 years is ok.
  16. Aug 26, 2012 #15
    Another thing good about the solo physics major is that it lets you explore your options a bit more.

    What if you find out later you dislike EE? Then you're already locked in and the cost of switching is very high.

    If you dislike physics its easier to get the core classes over with and switch to something else for a minor/double major/just fulfilling grad school requirements in the other field.
  17. Aug 26, 2012 #16

    I'm happy so far. Although mathematics is fun, it's more of a hobby. I've also even considered being a physics major while in highschool but I never really liked mechanics in general (kind of boring). But the whole idea behind how the circuits of a computer is just amazing. I'm also curious as to the application of mathematics in this field. I also enjoy programming though I find more interest in the physical hardware.

    I don't think I'll regret it since I'm likely going to have taken all introductory math courses by mid sophomore that I'm interested in: pde, abstract algebra, analysis 1 and maybe a few others. I'm a freshman at the moment taking linear algebra and complex functions&calculus.
  18. Aug 26, 2012 #17
    But what if he find later that he doesn't want to go to grad school? Then he is screwed because he won't be able to land a good job with BSc only.

    BSc in Physics provides you general education - it means you know little about broad topic. It's good as additional degree because it allows you to land more interesting job in industry with BSc and helps you during grad school. But for career reasons it's as useful as english literature degree. Physicists can be called specialist on MSc or PhD level so most job like Medical Physicists or Quants (those are typical jobs for physicists) require experience or PhD or both. With BSc only you have no marketable skills unless you will work on them by yourself (usually programming). But if you want to be a programmer then CS is much better choice.

    EE on the other hand gives you a professional education with marketable skills - it means you know much more but about narrow topic. That's why it's good combo with Physics. Physics gives you foundations while EE provides you with advanced knowledge that allows you to land a job in industry - because you are specialist even on BSc level. And if you want to do research as your career EE is the way to go because chance of doing research as physicist (when you complete your PhD/postdoc route) is next to none unless it's very engineering-heavy field.

    Ps. Most of my peers after getting BSc in Physics went for a Master in: MechE, EE, Materials, ChemE, Applied Math, CS, Management. Guys who went for Master in Physics were those one who wanted to be Medical Physicists, highschool teachers or have skills which allows them to land programming job anytime. If we could do double degree/major most of us would do it.
    Last edited: Aug 26, 2012
  19. Aug 26, 2012 #18
    But if he's going into EE for the career reasons... why doesn't he just stay in bioengineering or switch to something closer to his original major or go to medicine? yeah see there's where his interests come in.

    If I was going to do a major just for career, I'd go into accounting. Accounting has the most guaranteed job and has a very high salary cap if you get into an investment bank or become a manager at a major accounting firm. Or what about statistics? Statisticians are always in demand and can make ludicrous money at investment banks or as actuaries.

    Whats the point of doing anything but accounting and statistics if the goal was a high salary job?
  20. Aug 26, 2012 #19
    Why not engineering physics in EE? Try to see if u can get a BS in Ee and a minor in Physics. hat seems like the best path that will allow you to do what you desire in grad school.
  21. Aug 26, 2012 #20
    Interesting point. I agree that physics probably isn't the best choice for just a BS but I'm set on going to graduate school. I've been working in a research lab for almost a year now, and I know that it is something that I definitely want to continue with into grad school. Basically at this point, I feel that my options are either physics BS or a double in physics/EE. I really don't want to give up physics even if that means that I'm locking myself into graduate school.

    Also, I don't necessarily agree that what EE's learn is more advanced. That is the main reason why I want to do physics - because it will allow me to learn the fundamentals of nature at the DEEPEST level of understanding and to become a problem solver. Engineering is more focused on learning about technology. Although EE certainly involves problem solving, most of the engineering classes I've taken so far are simply about plugging numbers into formulas and learning how to use various computer programs. There doesn't seem to be as much deep understanding of the topics. Although, this is something that might be marketable straight out of college, it isn't necessarily what I'm seeking to learn. If I won't have time for research and/or my GPA suffers from the double major, then I will most likely choose physics.

    And as far as EE being more specialized... That's why I'm jumping ship with bioengineering in the first place! Everyone kept telling me to stay away from bioengineering as an undergrad because it's way to specialized, but I ignored them. I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do, but now I'm having second thoughts and the breadth and versatility of the physics degree is exactly what I'm looking for at this point. In graduate school I could end up in a physics, applied math, engineering, chemistry, biology, geology, etc department and that is very exciting to know that I wouldn't be locked into a certain field of study.

    I had been considering EE over bioengineering simply because I could do anything with the EE degree that I would want to do with the BioE degree and about a million more things! But yes, I also see where you're coming from.

    Honestly, if my school offered engineering physics then I wouldn't have even started this thread because I'd already have chosen it! The EE major with physics minor is still an option but to do the double major would only take 2 or 3 more courses than the minor so it's almost a waste to NOT do the double major at that point.

    I appreciate everyone's input. I feel like I'm starting to figure out what I actually WANT to do rather than what I think I should do.
  22. Aug 27, 2012 #21
    As someone just about to finish their Engineering Physics bachelors I can give you a bit of advice:

    If you want to do grad school, physics or EE (especially physics), I highly recommend you major solely in physics. Going from an EE bachelors to physics grad school will be very tough.

    If you want to work after your bachelors, then do EE. EE trains you with skills and knowledge directly applicable to jobs offered after university.

    I would advise you to either major solely in physics, or double major. Personally I would say to major solely in physics, and attempt to take a few EE electives in interesting/useful topics if possible. If not, then double major may be better. The amount of courses you take each semester is completely dependent on your ability, and the difficulty of the school/courses. Throughout my entire undergrad I have taken 6 courses a semester, where one of these every semester is a design/adv. lab course. So 5 courses a semester sounds reasonable to me.

    Worst comes to worse, you get simply a physics degree, then do a master's in EE or Applied Physics, and you will probably be set for a career.

    Also, focus your physics degree on more experimental type courses. Unless you want to do theory (which it sounds like you don't), you only require the bare necessities of math. Anything beyond that is just cake, and it is probably worth taking electives in EE or other physics courses instead. You will learn the math when you need it. (necessities as in: calc, algebra (basic), odes, pdes, and maybe complex (basic)).

    Lastly, try to finish your degree in the normal amount of time. Extra semesters are not worth it imo. Particularly if you plan on going to grad school, there's no need in extending your super long education any longer.
  23. Aug 27, 2012 #22
    I didn't say you should give up on Physics. What I'm saying that if you want to do research after PhD you need to focus on applied topics like Photonics and grad school in EE is good option (don't worry - at PhD level there is no place for "pluging numbers" mindset) which means that you need either EE major or many EE courses.

    Because engineering at BSc sucks and that's why I changed it to Physics. But it doesn't mean that engineering = pluging numbers. Like I said it's very different when it comes to PhD level. And if you want to work in a applied field you need to have knowledge about technology - how can you imagine to improve one or add sth new to it if you know only Maxwell's Equations?

    If I wanted to to go for EE grad school or Physics grad school in a very EE heavy field I would need to take many additional courses. Don't expect Physics to be a magic key which allows you to become expert in any field.

    Then you need to take many EE courses anyway.

    Have in mind that you'll need to work hard in order to catch up with people who majored in those subjects.

    Do you have a certain are that you want to specialize in?

    It's true. It's also true for all astrophysics courses.
  24. Aug 27, 2012 #23
    I would do EE if I were you. Physics is a great degree but EE's have a better shot at getting a job in their field. Plus EE's learn a lot of things about physics and more specifically the math used in higher level physics. Fourier analysis, vector calculus, and PDE's are all at the heart of physics, quantum and E&M. Mechanics is the only part you really miss out in but if you take a couple classes or read some books on it, you can pick it up quickly.

    I did a physics/math undergrad degree and did work "in" physics when I graduated but it was never "doing physics," I was mainly a software guy within a computational physics company. They would have me in some meetings where they actually talked about the math/physics but I was never the one creating that stuff because they had many PhD's and specialists on staff for that.
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