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What are your thoughts about majoring in physics?

  1. Sep 9, 2013 #1
    I know little about what actually comprises a physics program, but I wanted to know what people had to say about this major. I would like to know general things like the difficultly relative to an engineering major, what kind of careers you can get into with it (I hear its rather broad) Is it a good career move or is engineering ultimately better?

    I am attracted to this major because of the idea that it may be more complex and it may have a broad career outlook. Also Elon Musk majored in it!

    So what I am really asking is what do you generally think about this major?

    Thank you!
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 9, 2013 #2
  4. Sep 11, 2013 #3
    As I am currently on the path of finding a major to officially declare myself (I am struggling with the exact same problem of physics v engineering), and I have asked a number of my professors about this.

    The general consensus is that majoring in a science is a lot like majoring in art. You have to really love it and be willing to make some short-term sacrifices for it. You'll almost certainly need some sort of graduate degree to get a job in the sciences. A lot of them said that minoring in engineering wouldn't be a bad idea if you're not trying to go the academic route.

    I'm not trying to make it seem like a bad thing at all, it's a good thing, science is a wonderful thing to major in, but I just want to put that disclaimer out there so you know what to expect. And if you want to be a scientist, physics is the best kind to be.

    My understanding is that if physicists aren't doing research or teaching at universities, they're working with engineers. Physics and engineering are wrapped very closely together. It's also quite possible you'll be working with a chemist or two. After a few years on the job, you'll probably be qualified for both. However, they are still rather different on a fundamental level. Scientists learn things, engineers make things. A geologist will discover an aquifer underground, an engineer will design the pump to get to it. A physicist will calculate how much thrust a rocket needs, an engineer will design the system to provide that thrust. Etc. So if you're struggling on a decision between the two, just ask yourself which seems more appealing: learning things, or making things.

    The physics program will involve a huge amount of math, first and foremost. Calculus, differential equations, linear algebra, quantitative methods, and statistics. If you can get AP or CLEP credit for math if you haven't started college yet, it is in your interest to attempt to do so. I think it may depend on the school, but you'll probably take at least a few chemistry classes as well.

    You'll also be taking a lot of classes that involve labs (duh). These can be very time consuming, so keep that in mind when it comes time to build your schedule.

    Since science often requires a graduate degree, you'll need to be very diligent about keeping your GPA up. Graduate programs can be quite competitive. To this end, I strongly recommend looking for a research job and getting to know your professors.

    If you really want to give yourself an edge, take a few engineering classes. It will give you a taste of what engineering is like in case you should still want to switch, and the overlap means you won't be wasting any credits. If you can get into a programming class, do so. A scientist will benefit strongly from computer programming skill.

    Engineering is in many regards the same way. Lots of math (although quantitative methods and statistics may not be required) and science classes. Probably just as much lab stuff. The classes are extremely difficult, but unlike a science major you can get away with a slightly lower GPA (but don't take that as an excuse to slack off: I mean a 3.0 to get yourself hired rather than a 3.8 to get into grad school and I'm not kidding when I say engineering is hard). There is a somewhat stronger vocational push: co-ops and internships everywhere.

    I hope that gives you a small overview of what both are like. The people I'd ask are your professors. They may be a little biased towards their own fields, but you'll get some experienced insight.
     
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