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Physics vs Engineering

contradictcontradict Posts: 88Registered User Junior Member
edited April 2011 in Science Majors
Hello :)

I'm really confused about what I should do - Engineering or Physics. Honestly, I have no passion whatsoever for engineering - I was never one of those kids you'd see tinkering around with stuff, and wondering how things work. Physics on the other hand I adore. But I'm worried that (a) a physics degree might not be the most practical of options in terms of post college opportunities and (b) I haven't really ever had an engineering class in high school unlike physics, so I might not like it atm simply because I have no idea what it's really about.

What would you suggest? And how viable is a double major involving the two?
Post edited by contradict on

Replies to: Physics vs Engineering

  • ScientificmindScientificmind Posts: 305Registered User Member
    A double major might kill you. Either major's on their own are very rigorous, so I suggest you stay away from doing that. Now as for physics, are you interested in the thoeretical side of things or the applied side of things? Applied physics has better prospects in the job market than a reg. physics degree, as the applied version has real world applications. If you don't have a passion for engineering don't do it. If you're not satisfied in what you're studying and don't give a darn, you're most likely going to get bad grades. But if you do something you like, get good grades, and participate then things will work out. College is not a technical school. Do not go in with that mindset.
  • wdaveowdaveo Posts: 405Registered User Member
    Great question. Like OP, I would like to hear what the job prospects are for physics or applied physics.

    My son is a bit like OP...he is strong in math/science, but has never been a 'tinkerer'. He is VERY good at CAD/CAM, but terrible at hands-on type things (wood shop, for example.) We used to think Mechanical Engg would be a good choice but while visiting colleges, we noticed that in mechanical engg, you have to build a lot of things (models, robots, etc.)

    Now thinking about Computer Engg...but really have no idea what that is. Perhaps Applied Physics would be a good choice (with an MS in acoustical engg...which is something my son seems to be very interested in.)

    Any advise?
  • web2094web2094 Posts: 106Registered User Junior Member
    I don't agree that double majoring is a bad idea. Many students double major in Physics and Math or Computer Science. In some schools, an engineering minor is a possibility. At least a minor in computer science would open up more career options. There is always grad school.
  • LastThreeYearsLastThreeYears Posts: 480Registered User Member
    At my school, physics majors take more programming classes than engineering majors except for computer and electrical. With a few electives on signal processing, physics majors could be very useful in scientific software, finance, market research, precision instrumentation and control system design.

    Because there are only 10 required upper division classes (should be Quantum 1, Math Methods 1, E and M 1 and 2, Mechanics 1 and 2, Thermo 1 and 2, Electronics, Lab) there is plenty of room for electives.
  • LakeWashingtonLakeWashington Posts: 6,873Registered User Senior Member
    That's why I like the Physics major for kids whom aren't 100% sure that they want to be engineers or go for an advanced degree in science. There's plenty of room for free electives with a BA or BS in Physics.
  • pseudoghostpseudoghost Posts: 159Registered User Junior Member
    There are pros and cons to going with Physics.

    Pros:

    Physics is very general degree. You have a lot of options after you graduate.
    You wind up with a well-rounded education.
    Physicists easily transition to other fields because they have math intensive backgrounds.

    Cons:

    Almost no jobs for physics majors straight out of BS degrees. Consequently, most physics majors wind up in graduate school. Graduate school in Physics is a dead end. The degrees are worthless, and there are no positions available in academia or industry for the bright young stars.

    If you want a good job, you must get an advanced degree. I'd recommend an MS in engineering or computer science, applied mathematics is the worst of the bunch.
  • contradictcontradict Posts: 88Registered User Junior Member
    I was under the impression that a lot of the requirements for physics and engineering degrees overlapped, and therefore double majoring in the two would not be as rigorous as doing two completely different majors. Is this true? I understand that it'll be a lot harder than a single major, but is it totally impractical?

    If I do electives in more 'real world' courses whilst majoring is physics as some suggested, would that significantly increase job opportunities? I know that going into college looking at the outcome in terms of careers rather than the educational aspect isn't the best of attitudes, but I want to be practical - there's no point spending 4 years and a whole lot of $$ in college if I'm unemployable after.

    I really do love physics though (theoretical far more than applied) and I definitely want it to be a key part of my learning - but I'm open to the idea that it needn't be the ONLY part of my education.
  • contradictcontradict Posts: 88Registered User Junior Member
    @psuedoghost:

    Thanks for all that info :) But it makes me sad to hear that grad school in physics is a bad idea. One possible career path suggested to me was to get a PhD in physics...do you really think that's a completely dead end path?
  • ucbalumnusucbalumnus Posts: 36,803Registered User Senior Member
    The requirements overlap is mainly in freshman and sophomore level math and physics courses. Some of the junior and senior level courses are similar, but are not identical, in that the physics and engineering versions emphasize different things.
  • flemmydflemmyd Posts: 525Registered User Member
    I'm a physics major who WAS doing an applied physics concentration and have several friends who are doubling various engr (mostly mech) with either math or physics.

    some things I noticed:
    *all of us treated engr classes as GPA boosters relative to the difficulty of our physics/math classes. When my friends took classical mechanics (typically using Marion or Taylor), most of their structure/fluid classes became a piece of cake. Same goes for the EE majors who took E&M in the physics department (typically using Griffiths). This might just be my school, but try and ask people who actually double majored and can compare fluid mechanics to QM 2. I'm curious how this compares at other schools if other people can chime in. (my school is UC Irvine).

    *The reason I dropped the applied physics major was because almost everything in an engr class, I felt like I could learn be picking up a book. Especially, after taking some hard physics classes, the engr classes became a type of "plug and chug" type classes. I saw a lot of the points the professors/book were trying to make fairly easily and didnt have to work too hard.

    *I'm not really sure what you mean by "taking some engr courses as a physics major". The problem is if you play that game, you'll almost always lose to an engr major. If you take fluids 1 & 2, the engr majors are taking that plus fluids 3 plus doing a senior design project in fluids.

    *looking at the data from the AIP http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/emp2010.pdf (fig 3) it seems that 1/3 of all physics majors with B.S.s end in engr. the non-STEM (another 1/3) fields seem to be banking/finance.

    *if you can do math (and to most non-science people, physics and math degree's are interchangeable), you can find someone to pay to do to math.

    *Most people (myself included) find math and physics hard to learn on our own. Topics like business and economics I've found easier to pick up a book and read. I know I can always go back to school for an MBA or something or just pick up a book on finance. Can't say the same about physics/math.

    *if you want a career path thats more well defined, be an engr. Part of the fun of being a physics major is that a lot of paths are open.

    *your ability to get a job is based on your ability to convince someone to give you that job. If you don't think you can go through a physics program and then convince someone at Boeing to hire you, you won't get that job.

    *I've seen people with physics PhDs working doing some really different engr jobs. One person I know did his physics PhD in low temperature physics. He ended up working on missile defense systems for Boeing. At some point, schools don't train people to do *this specific job* and so companies just have to hire people who are smart and can figure it out. See "quants, finance".

    I hope this was helpful.
  • pseudoghostpseudoghost Posts: 159Registered User Junior Member
    You can get a pretty good idea of what other people's opinions on graduate school for Physics is just by Googling: PhD Physics bad idea. Some of the people are very negative, others are more optimistic, but the key statistic is this: The US graduates 2 X (yes, that's a times) as many PhD's every year in Physics as there are open faculty positions every year... So don't plan on getting a job in academia.

    You'll probably be able to find a job in industry by getting the PhD, but probably not much better than what you would be able to get with a MS and a few years of experience. When you consider the opportunity cost of a PhD in Physics, you find that you basically set yourself back $1 million over the course of your life by getting a PhD.

    Now, you shouldn't completely validate your college experience by your salary or potential earnings, but it is something to think about.
  • wofbharatjwofbharatj Posts: 305Registered User Member
    Don't PhD's get stipends while they earn it? If so, it's better to think of a PhD as a form of a low-pay job. But while you do it, you are getting ahead. I'm not saying that a PhD is always the best idea, academia is nearly impossible since so many go for a PhD in Physics. My point is that having a PhD definitely qualifies you over many other candidates.

    A masters in some form of applied science would do just fine, but if you want to take the opportunity to try and get a job in academia, why not? It's not as risky as, say getting a PhD in Biology. A PhD in Physics is still applicable to private industry if you don't get a job in academia.
  • flemmydflemmyd Posts: 525Registered User Member
    You can get a pretty good idea of what other people's opinions on graduate school for Physics is just by Googling: PhD Physics bad idea. Some of the people are very negative, others are more optimistic, but the key statistic is this: The US graduates 2 X (yes, that's a times) as many PhD's every year in Physics as there are open faculty positions every year... So don't plan on getting a job in academia.
    the numbers for academics are FAR FAR WORSE. The stat is roughly 1 in 10 for those who actually get a PhD and 1 in 4 if you come from a top school. In some fields, the number of openings can be counted on one hand.
    You'll probably be able to find a job in industry by getting the PhD, but probably not much better than what you would be able to get with a MS and a few years of experience. When you consider the opportunity cost of a PhD in Physics, you find that you basically set yourself back $1 million over the course of your life by getting a PhD.
    if you want to chase paper, go chase paper. Especially when you compare everything to an MBA or industry job, you will lose money doing a PhD.
    But something I've noticed about people who get PhDs: they aren't paper chasers. If you gave them 70K a year and let them do something really interesting, they'll be happier then making 200k a year doing something they hate.
    I haven't seen any physics PhDs flipping burgers or begging on the street, so I feel safe in saying you won't starve to death.
    Don't PhD's get stipends while they earn it? If so, it's better to think of a PhD as a form of a low-pay job. But while you do it, you are getting ahead. I'm not saying that a PhD is always the best idea, academia is nearly impossible since so many go for a PhD in Physics. My point is that having a PhD definitely qualifies you over many other candidates.
    Yes PhD students get paid. You won't be eating sushi every night, but you will make ends meet.
    A masters in some form of applied science would do just fine, but if you want to take the opportunity to try and get a job in academia, why not? It's not as risky as, say getting a PhD in Biology. A PhD in Physics is still applicable to private industry if you don't get a job in academia.
    If you want a job in academia, you'll need a PhD. Even at junior colleges, where you can teach with just a masters, there are plenty of PhDs working temp jobs.
    And a masters degree in science is worthless. At most schools, the masters degree is a consolation prize for people who couldn't make it through the PhD program. If you want to work in science, you need to prove you can do independent research (aka PhD). The difference between a BS and MS is just coursework. In the science field, that doesn't mean much.
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