What are the typical differences between doing a math phd and an engineering phd on the same research topic?

Take, for example, fluid dynamics.

Does working on a phd thesis on a problem in fluid dynamics, in an engineering program make the problem "more applied" than working on the same problem in the math program? Do engineering phd programs do any work on theory at all? Or is it strictly applications?

  • 4
    One thing I know for sure, you'll have it a lot easier with the job search if your degree is in engineering, even if it's the same subject.
    – user21264
    Apr 7, 2018 at 8:13
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    @Magic That obviously depends on what sort of job you apply for. Apr 7, 2018 at 9:55
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    @TobiasKildetoft Not true. There are more engineering jobs in academia, too. Plus, in industry, it's tough to get a job with a math degree, unless it's something very applied, and even then the priority is given to engineers.
    – user21264
    Apr 7, 2018 at 10:12
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    @Magicsowon The employment statistics for math PhDs are quite good, and anecdotally, I don't know anyone with a math PhD who couldn't find some job with benefits doing something quantitative. Though I agree an engineering PhD probably gives more options overall.
    – user37208
    Apr 7, 2018 at 13:46

1 Answer 1


There is a wide spectrum of possibilities in doing research in either mathematics or engineering. There are definitely people doing research under the auspices of an engineering department that is nearly as mathematically rigorous as in a pure math program.

The only exception to this is that pure mathematics programs do not look highly upon a fully applications-driven project under its auspices: there needs to be some sort of additional theory or analysis development.

But it's certainly possible to do a very highly mathematical project in an engineer department. My own thesis work amounted to algorithm development and analysis, with very limited application demonstrations. While I didn't have formal proofs the way you might in a pure math thesis, the project wouldn't really look like an "engineering" project—and certainly wasn't published in engineering journals!

So, in short, the main distinction I'd make is that one might expect to see more formal proofs and analysis, but no real distinctions in the kinds of problems that are tackled.

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    On the flip side, it's entirely possible to have formal proofs in an applied engineering project if you're working on, say, code verification. Theorem provers are really useful tools.
    – JAB
    Apr 8, 2018 at 15:41
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    Absolutely. It's just that it tends not to work in reverse.
    – aeismail
    Apr 8, 2018 at 16:28

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