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Schools What is best for me, applied physics or pure physics?

  1. May 3, 2017 #1
    I'm currently finishing up my second year in college and I'm expected to graduate on time (in two years) and I'm majoring in pure physics. I don't really fully understand the difference between applied physics and pure physics because anytime I look into it online there's 10 different answers and opinions. So my question to you all is, which is best for me, in your educated opinion, for someone who wants to be doing research for companies all day? I do plan on going on for a masters and PhD when the time comes and from what I've heard, it's best to be in pure physics if I plan on that, but what about after my education? What would be the best degree for me to graduate from my masters courses with?
  2. jcsd
  3. May 4, 2017 #2
    At a given school, the difference usually comes down to required courses. Could you make a list of which courses are required for each degree at your school, and we could explain the practical differences?
  4. May 5, 2017 #3
    Two issues to consider.

    (1) As Dr. Courtney indicated, one issue is the set of required courses. If you have identified your target career, then it's a matter of comparing the sets of required courses and seeing which set best maps into your target career. For example, I got my PhD in physics many moons ago. Going into grad school, I knew that I wanted to specialize in solid-state physics and then work in industrial R&D, not academia. At my grad school, however, required core grad courses for a physics PhD included topics such as high-energy physics. I had no interest in it, it bored the hell out of me, yet it sucked up a lot of time since I had no intuitive feel for it.

    If you haven't identified your target career, though, you obviously can't go through this exercise.

    (2) Then there's the matter of perception of prestige. Some physicists consider an applied physics degree to be a lesser degree than a pure physics degree: that, if a university offers both a pure physics degree and an applied physics degree, then getting accepted into the pure physics dept is harder. Whether this is in fact true (and may vary with the university), I don't know. On the other hand, when it comes to competing for a job slot, I think a candidate with a PhD in applied physics from Harvard will beat out a candidate with a PhD in pure physics from Okefenokee Swamp U. So, there's also the issue of the specific university as well as the degree.
  5. May 6, 2017 #4
    I compared them and the only differences are I have to take matrix algebra and a more in depth course in quantum and a couple other physics courses. Though it seems my degree, pure physics, is more of a well rounded type of degree in physics which I don't know if I would benefit from.

    Thanks for the insight, definitely gave me some insight and something to consider when applying for grad schools.
  6. May 7, 2017 #5
    It seems the pure physics path will likely prepare you better for most MS and PhD programs, as well as for the Physics GRE and whatever qualifying exams your graduate program may have.
  7. May 7, 2017 #6
    If you want to do applied physics research for a company, you generally want to get a PhD in engineering over applied physics or pure physics, because HR will give you fewer problems and you will be paid more (at least initially).

    There are ways to get a PhD in engineering with a physics background.
  8. May 7, 2017 #7
    Thanks for your advice doctor!

    Hmm that's interesting. Thanks for the advice!
  9. May 7, 2017 #8
    I don't believe this is true in general. Depends on the specific field and the specific company.
  10. May 7, 2017 #9


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    I think the distinctions between applied physics and physics at least for the schools I know of are mostly in coursework and probably teaching and funding. I say this because I know of a lot of physics students working in applied physics labs and vice versa. I think physics would give you more flexibility at many places since research wise you pretty much have access to the same professors as in applied physics in addition to the people in the physics department. It depends on the institution, but a lot of people who get their PhDs in physics may have worked with someone in a different but related department like materials science, electrical engineering, chemistry etc.
  11. May 9, 2017 #10
    I don't have the facts on hand, just anecdotes from people with EE PhD's in solid state device physics. They were always paid more, and it was explicitly due to the fact that they could get high paying jobs that a physics PhD could not.

    You are correct that there are definitely exceptions.
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