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Yet another Physics vs Engineering dilemma (well-described, tho!)

  1. Aug 11, 2014 #1
    Hello Guys, it's my first post on this forum, so let's get straight to the point:

    Why do I create this thread
    - I need Your help. I don't have any relatives that could give me a valuable advice.
    - I haven't found answer to my dilema on the Forum.
    - I cannot figure out the answer even though I've spent quite a lot of time thinking about it.

    What's the problem?
    - I don't know what to study and I have to make finall decision till 1st October.
    - It seems to me, I have 2 options: Computer Science or Physics.

    Physics pros:
    - I've always been a more physics- than math-orientated. I've been winning Phs. competitions, and never math competitions (they didn't seem interasting).
    - I love Science and people that do Science.
    - I've always been eager to read a news about new physics discovery, but never bought a single magazine about computers
    - Interest in Physics is more natural to me - it always seemed interesting whereas I had to be first forced to learn coding and only then it started to look appealing.

    Physics cons:
    - I don't like experimental physics.
    - I'd very much like to work on something that has practical applications. So reading about String Theory is cool, but working on it - not so much.
    - Money. Yeah, I know it's not a good argument, but I'm a alpinist, I do windsurfing and all other kinds of crazy stuff. I just need few passions, and can't really pursue them without money
    - I'm not smart enough to make any great discovery. I can probably get to a good university and do a decent job, but nothing special, I guess.

    Computer Science pros:
    - I love coding. For me it feels like writing stories (which I love, too) - it's a creative job, it requiers you to think of a problem in a new ways and it can absorb my attention for long hours.
    - I'm very interasted in Machine Learning and Artificial Inteligence. I've done few MOOCs and it seems like a very interesting area of CS.
    - I have a strong need to do things, that have real applications (eg. programming self-flying helicopter seems much cooler than studying a top quark).
    - What's more, I feel that I would be happier doing something, that is useful to society. With CS I can create a cancer-predicting software and numerous other things. With physics? Not really, I guess.

    Computer Science cons:
    - I've never bought a single magazine about computers.
    - I'm not a computer geek who can argue for hours about why Unix is better than Windows. Honestly, I don't care about it. Computer is just a tool. And I chose Physics Forum to ask this question, not a CS forum :)
    - As I wrote earlier: physics competitions were always easier for me than mathematics competitions. Computer Science is very maths-heavy, isn't it?
    - So far Machine Learning, AI and simply coding are the only things that I find interasting in CS.

    Final Conclusion:
    - Maybe Computational Physics would be a good choice? But the problem is, I cannot really study it where I live (Eastern EU). I'll have a chance to leave University and go to UK at fourth or maybe third year. They will not let me study C.Phs. after 3 years of studying "normal" physics.
    - I don't know what I could do after Computational Physics. What kind of problems does it solve. Can it be used to create some usefull things?
    - I feel, that practical applications are more awesome than theoretical discoveries. But maybe it's just normal that I consider self-flying helicopter to be more awesome than studying top quarks only becouse I do not understand, what does it mean to study the top quark?
    - Where can I find examples of what I could do in the future, if I pursue (Computational) Physics?
    - Any other ideas, how can I make this choice?

    Thanks in advance.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 11, 2014 #2


    Staff: Mentor

    I think you answered your question by counting the number of times you said computer. You want to do applications oriented projects that means hardware and software today. You don't want to do experimental physics that means doing theoretical work which today means using the computer. Did I mention you're interested in computer simulation work which means computers again. Money? Computers are where there's more opportunity to make it.

    Most computer work requires algebra, and most computational work requires differential equations, linear algebra and calculus but this really depends on what you're trying to model and how you're trying to model it. For cutting edge stuff you'll need an MS Comp Sci or PhD in physics and would be working in a team of physicists and programmers.

    To learn more about computational physics look at the website www.compadre.org/osp
    For the open source physics framework used to teach computational physics with java.
  4. Aug 12, 2014 #3
    Most of my higher level physics classes went by the following formula:

    1. Learn theory, for example how a charge moves in a magnetic field in various configurations
    2. Solve the theory where possible. Solve the equation of motion where possible with math.
    3. Program a computer model modelling the charges.
    4. Play around with the computer model, add more things than you can (easily) solve by hand.
    Add more charges interacting, more complicated magnetic field

    I would say that you get alot of practical (Maybe single charges aren't that practical, but for ex the simple sea ice growth models we made must be counted as practical) programming experience, but you will lack alot of the database and dataclasses stuff they teach in a CS degree.

    But I rather think that the practical programming is much more interesting anyway.

    From this forum I get some impression that alot of the people here don't do much programming in their physics classes so it may vary, but every PHD I have spoken to have lot's of programming experience.
  5. Aug 12, 2014 #4
    If you are from eastern EU then you probably live around my area. I don't think computional physics is good choice. It's Physics degree + some Computer Science classes. I suggest:

    - Electrical Engineering (very programming-heavy but you do it on hardware so it's very practical)
    - Mechanical Engineering - Robotics/Mechatronics (again programming-heavy and very hands-on stuff)
    - Biomedical Engineering (only if you are very interested in biology and medicine)
    - Computer Science & Econometrics (only if you are interested in finance, I suggest doing it as second degree in addition to regular Computer Science)
    - Computer Science (if you like programming but don't like hands-on stuff, you can code games, web or mobile apps, it's most marketable degree here in eastern EU)
  6. Aug 12, 2014 #5


    Staff: Mentor

    So now you know: "Programming its everywhere you want to be"
  7. Aug 12, 2014 #6
    I’ll give you a bit about me so you know my experience and how it affects my perspective. I have a PhD in pen and paper high-energy theory, the only time I used computers in school was when I was writing papers. After graduating I spent some time teaching myself C and then got a job as a software developer. I’ve done a fair amount of programming for biotech research (some with cancer treatment ramifications), but mostly I’ve written code for business applications. Even the parts that were more mathematical, weren’t at the same level of math I did in physics. While it sounds cool, I haven’t done anything in AI or machine learning, so my perspective might be skewed relative to what you’re looking for. Side note: I did get a lot of (unsolicited) advice from family, but it was all bad.

    Also, I’m not in the Eastern EU, so I don’t know anything about the job market there. In addition, the software development culture may be different there.

    Like you I like science. As far as software, I like the problem solving aspect of software and I loved the challenge of learning to be an effective software developer in a short period of time. It sounds like you have much more intrinsic interest in computers than I ever did. I still read physics books and look at this site, but if I ever make a career shift from software then I’m done with programming books/websites for life.

    I actually think money is a pretty good argument. Unless you have a wealthy family or something you’ll need some money. I doubt many people are happy with the minimum amount of food and shelter it takes to survive. Money is far from everything, but below a certain level not having it is a real pain.

    I’m far from a computer geek, some programmers are, a lot aren’t. I wouldn’t worry about this. I guess it’s possible at some companies it might be part of the culture and you wouldn’t fit in, but I’ve never seen it, so I doubt it’s common (again, I don’t know about Eastern EU). I did study a lot of programming books, magazines and such when I was first starting out, but not much anymore.

    To me the bottom line is: as a general rule if considering studying physics or something else, then the something else is probably a good choice, unless the market for physicists has changed a lot since I left school. In the job market my self-taught programming skills are far more valuable than my much more extensive physics education. I get the impression you’d enjoy studying physics more, but once you enter the job market I’d imagine a computer science degree will be a lot more useful. That’s been my experience anyway.
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