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What do engineers, physicists and mathematicians really do?

  1. May 21, 2015 #1
    I'm torn between these three degrees and honestly it's hard to know what these degree will actually get you into. For those of you who work in these fields: what do you ACTUALLY do on a day-to-day basis? What's a list of things you do on the job during a typical day?

    The reason I ask is that a lot of (great) images come to mind when you think of these careers. I picture someone writing equations on a blackboard to solve problems, or doing cool experiments to get data. Some of what I've read online says that in reality, a lot of these jobs are just like anything else: mostly paperwork, conferences, and sitting at a computer all day. This certainly doesn't fit the picture I get in my head when I think "scientist". Are physics, engineering, and math jobs really like this? Does any job actually exist where you're paid to sit down and think of solutions to math/science problems?

    Just for reference, I'm currently in grade 12 and plan on getting either a masters or phd in whichever of these fields I choose.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 21, 2015 #2


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    These things do happen in physics, but what you must realise is that it is not a major part of the job. Black/white boards are used mainly for discussions with others or for teaching. If you are doing things by hand it would probably be more common to write on paper, but the computer is also an invaluable tool for both computation and simulations. When it comes to experiments, standing in a lab is not the typical thing needed to do them, at least not in high-energy physics. Collaborations work for a very long time to produce a working experiment that can give you data. A large part of it is programming software for the experiment itself and for data analysis.

    This being said, all jobs come with downsides, administration, etc. Also, who told you going to conferences is not fun? ;)
  4. May 21, 2015 #3


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    How do you think a skyscraper gets built? A sports stadium? A car? An airplane? The computer you are using to surf the web?

    At some point, the mathematician, the physicist, and an engineer had a hand in creating the devices, the vehicles, and structures you take for granted in your everyday life.

    A lot of modern life depends on paperwork, but not everything is paperwork. People don't mind so much when they receive a piece of paper which says "Pay to the order of ..."
    Some engineers sit in offices all day; others are out in the field, surveying the site where a new building will be built.

    The video which you stream on your computer could be made available to you because physicists and mathematicians were able to figure out how to send large amounts of data in a short amount of time without losing so much of the data in the process that you couldn't receive a movie or picture which made sense.
  5. May 21, 2015 #4
    I do / did mainly the following things on a daily basis in different jobs no matter if this was when working on my PhD (applied physics), then as 'staff scientist' in industry, or now as a 'consulting engineer':

    - Designing an experimental setup, picking vendors and products for building it, and instructing technical staff or contractors when building it.
    - Maintain experimental setups - fixing issues with sensors, pumps, electrical wiring etc. - if this was not standard off-the-shelf equipment but specifically designed for that experiment by myself.
    - Develop software to automate the experimental setup and/or to analyze the data gathered.
    - Quality management, check for reproducible results and experimental conditions, make sure no errors had occured, organization, processes, documentation.
    - Write up the results for presentation to different audiences. Back then it was was research papers and conferences, today it is presenting engineering solutions to potential clients. (I believe marketing, outreach, and presentation to lay audiences become more and more important in any science / tech job)
    - Administration of some sort - project management, project controlling, planning, forecasting, reporting - as needed by: funding governmental agency, an employer (a corporation) or today for my own small business.
    - Discussing issues with colleagues (the creative part is often teamwork), meetings with clients / bosses / collaborators from other organizations.
  6. May 22, 2015 #5
    Well let's take a problem which involves all three and see where they differ. The problem is simulating a protein in a cell membrane.

    Engineers:Electrical engineers/computer engineers built all of the devices and have optimized them over the decades (the CPU, GPU, hard drives, memory etc).
    Physicists: The theory and many of the algorithms used to simulate the protein are invented by physicists. Of course they run the simulations.
    Mathematicians: Applied mathematicians will sometimes work on algorithms and tools used by physicists, such as Markov models. The question is, once I'm trying to compute something from the model, how do I do it? Oftentimes physicists figure this out, but occasionally mathematicians will get interested in coming up with new ways to compute things and will figure out something the physicists did not. Other times they will generalize what the physicist has done and try to make rigorous, formal arguments which the physicists do not read.
  7. May 22, 2015 #6
    Thanks for the replies, it's a really tough choice but I'll have to make a decision soon. I'm tending to lean towards engineering because it seems to be the most employable from what this guy (and a lot of others) have said:
    Anyone ever see his videos before or know if he's a reliable source? He seems pretty down to earth and realistic.
  8. May 23, 2015 #7


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    Well it's not so simple as math, physics and engineering as separate fields. There is a lot of blending and blurring of lines. Much of physics and engineering is mathematically intensive. Some folks to pure math or theoretical physics, while others do applied math, applied physics and engineering (which is more or less applied physics). Individuals may do theoretical work or experimental work, or both, and often there is a team of mathematicians, physicists and engineers working on understanding and/or developing some physical system that accomplishes some useful work.

    All three fields are broad and have numerous sub-disciplines.

    Example of the research -
    http://computing.ornl.gov/cse/ [Broken]


    Last edited by a moderator: May 7, 2017
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