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I really love physics, and I told my parents about my interest. They want me to become an engineer, but I hate engineering (too practical, too far from physics), and I don't enjoy fixing things. What should I do?

closed as off-topic by Wrzlprmft Apr 14 at 18:33

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    This has cultural implications, of course. Some places you just do what they want. Others you just do what you want. Which makes you happier in the long run depends partly on the culture and your relationships. – Buffy Apr 14 at 14:57
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    @HorváthÁrmin perhaps your parents have a better understanding of the term engineer... – Solar Mike Apr 14 at 16:23
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    I am closing this question because it has turned into engineering vs. physics (which is one of the reasons why we disallow shopping questions) and solving interpersonal issue with your parents (which is not this site’s area of expertise). If you can formulate a specific goal and provide more detail, a question about how to solve your dispute with your parents might fit on Interpersonal Skills. – Wrzlprmft Apr 14 at 18:36
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    @HorváthÁrmin out of curiosity, what do you think a physicist does? – A Simple Algorithm Apr 14 at 20:06
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    Horváth, I research, teach and I make measurements. Since 20 years. And, as I said in the answer below, I'm an engineer. You really have the wrong idea on what engineers and physicists do. – Massimo Ortolano Apr 14 at 21:20
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I hate engineering (too practical, too far from physics)

This in an unfortunately common misconception, which can bring nonsense answers like this one on Meta Physics SE, where it is said:

If I pose this question to an electrical engineer, I will likely get design rules, possibly in the form of immediately useful formulae. If I pose it to a physicist, I may learn something about the physics of electromagnetic fields near dielectric boundaries, diverging fields at conductor corners, and maybe even something about conformal mapping.

As an electronic engineer who specialized a long time ago in engineering electromagnetics, I can tell you that, yes, I've studied all of the theory above and much more than design rules. And I have also studied Langrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics, chaotic dynamical systems, quantum mechanics, quantum optics, statistical mechanics, relativity. Indeed, with an engineering flavour, which I have actually come to appreciate along the years.

Said another way, engineering can be as theoretical as you wish it to be.

I don't enjoy fixing things

Most engineers don't fix things.

What should I do?

Some thirty-odd years ago I was somehow in your exact situation: I wanted to study physics, but my parents wanted me to do engineering because they felt that there were more job opportunities.

I studied engineering, but I chose my curriculum to have a good blend of electronics and physics and, now, I cannot be happier than this about my education.

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    Just spot on, plus 1... – Solar Mike Apr 14 at 15:06
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    Fix things, not necessarily. Design things, yes, by definition of what an engineer is. But if you don't have a grasp of how to make it, you can't design it, so you do also have to know to make it in order to be a good engineer. I don't trust an engineer, of any discipline, who can't get out a screwdriver. – Graham Apr 14 at 17:59
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I come from an engineering family and chose to study physics as an undergrad, I ended up getting a graduate degree in mechanical engineering, and now primarily work as a software engineer. In hindsight, it likely would have made more sense to study computer science.

One of my big draws to physics was that it was theoretical, basal to everything else (mathematicians would dispute that), and that I felt like physicists were some sort of supernatural superior being. To this last point, I can now assure that they are not but that at least some of them think they are.

If you choose to study physics, plan on getting a PhD as you will struggle (relative to an engineer) to get a good professional job (I only got my first job out of college because of a CS minor).

This is (or should) be your decision to make. If you really want to study physics, do it! Just make sure you do it for the right reasons. I did not.

  • But engineering for me is too practical. I hate machinery etc. I HATE engineering. Engineering for me is too far from physics. – Horváth Ármin Apr 14 at 17:25
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    @HorváthÁrmin - perhaps your view of engineering is too narrow. My degrees are in engineering and I run a research group. – Jon Custer Apr 14 at 17:38
  • @Jon Custer Could you please prove to me,that you use physics? – Horváth Ármin Apr 14 at 17:42
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    How does one not use physics in engineering? Semiconductor/solid state physics, ion beam physics, nuclear reactions, relativistic electrons, quantum cryptography, and others are topics that my people do. Is that sufficient? – Jon Custer Apr 14 at 17:45
  • @HorváthÁrmin, a few more details about me. As an undergrad I did nanotube research in a physics lab. It was awful. A trained chimp could have done my job. I was doing what you seem to think engineers do. I am actually going to be starting a new job where I will still primarily do software engineering but will also do some materials science (that is, engineering). I will regularly need to think about how atoms interact with each other, use state diagrams, and apply theoretical materials science to real world problems. Does the physics job or engineer job sound better to you? ;) – chessofnerd Apr 14 at 21:28
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I'm going to share a bit of my own story which hopefully can give you a different perspective on physics and engineering and the fact that there is no strict dichotomy between the two. I think, from the little you wrote, that I used to have a very similar mentality to yours, and so perhaps it will be useful to you if I share how my mentality changed.

I am currently working on a Ph.D. in theoretical condensed matter physics. I, like you, used to hold disdain for the "applied sciences" like engineering, preferring the "purity" of theoretical physics, particularly because physics really does undergird all of the natural sciences. I thought that I would pursue quantum gravity research (how much more fundamental can you get than that?), and in my undergrad I did some research in that direction (insomuch as an undergrad is capable of doing any meaningful research in a field as advanced as quantum gravity, I primarily did some simple stuff with black holes and general relativity). After that I went to do my master's and I did research in Lattice QCD (i.e. quantum field theory). In my last year of my master's, I opted to take a course in low-temperature physics instead of general relativity since I already had experience with GR, and I have to say I absolutely do not regret it. I learned so many things about superconductivity and superfluidity and the actual details of how low-temperature physics is performed which I had never previously had experience with, and it was my first real introduction to the field of condensed matter physics.

This is the point where I had to make a decision, whether I wanted to pursue the "pure", mathematical physics which is known as High Energy Physics (HEP, i.e. Lattice QCD and String Theory primarily), or take a different tack. I sat down with a string theorist in my department, a young guy who was recently hired and incredibly smart. After a long discussion, he laid out for me the reality of being a physicist in HEP: very few full time, tenure track positions in an extremely competitive field of extremely talented aspiring physicists.

This is my first point that I think you should be aware of: being a "physicist" primarily means getting a tenure track position as a professor at a university. This means getting a Ph.D. (if you start college at 18, you're looking at 4 years for your bachelors + 6 years for a Ph.D.), then getting probably at least two postdoctoral positions (1-3 years each) before getting hired, if you can get a tenure track position. These are increasingly difficult to come by, with more students pursuing higher education than ever before and more universities reducing the number of tenure track professors on faculty. So know what you're in for. Depending on what you want to work on, it may be easier or harder to find a job as a professor. Granted, the Ph.D. will count for plenty if you seek an industry job instead, but if that's what you want then it may be better to get industry experience instead of further advanced education.

Finally, to catch up to the present, I am now working in theoretical condensed matter physics, and I'm having a blast. Condensed Matter as a field is far more closely tied to real experiment than HEP, my research is motivated by experimental findings, guided by potential experimental studies of the theory, and deeply in collaboration with actual experimentalists (who are also physicists!!). I find the work far more interesting and rewarding specifically because of the close connection to something tangible, whereas the work I did in LQCD was interesting but difficult to tie to something really meaningful or impactful. And best of all for me, I get all of that plus as a theorist I still use all the skills I learned in my work in Lattice QCD, quantum field theory is extremely relevant to condensed matter systems.

And lastly, I want to really stress this point: The boundary between engineering and physics is not distinct. One of my close friends is an experimental physicist who designs sensors for detecting B-mode photons from the Cosmic Microwave Background. Judged by what he actually does day-to-day, you might think he was an electrical engineer, and in some sense he is an engineer who is also a physicist. The circuits he designs (and often fabricates himself) involve superconducting Josephson Junctions and SQUIDS (superconducting quantum interference devices) and much more complex devices that require a deep understanding of quantum mechanics to utilize properly, but also require a deep understanding of electrical circuitry in order to maximize the sensitivity and signal-to-noise ratio of these sensors. Remember: behind every great physics experiment is a team of engineers who built it. Do you think theoretical physicists built the LHC that discovered the Higgs Boson? Someone has to build all the synchrotrons and telescopes and high energy colliders etc., and those people need to understand the physics to do their job right.

So perhaps as a middle ground, check out programs that have dual engineering-physics degrees (many universities offer this now), that way you can experience both. See if you can do some work with some professors in condensed matter physics, and I would definitely check out doing experimental work, even if you think you won't like it. I have a friend who transitioned into experimental work after doing computational physics and he feels like he has found his true calling and passion. Don't discount things that you haven't tried yet. If you are just starting a Bachelor's degree, you have plenty of time to try different things and find what you really enjoy. If you enjoy engineering (again, a huge field which can't be boiled down to "fixing things") then you can pursue a job in that straight out of undergrad (my engineering friends suggest getting a master's for the extra pay bump though, some universities have one year engineering master's programs). If you find you enjoy physics, you can put two years into a master's degree and then get a job (I know many people who did this) or if you are extremely passionate then you can pursue a Ph.D. In the end, even you devote all those years to a Ph.D., although you will not be earning income like you would if you had gone straight into a job, you will still be able to find a nice job afterwards if you don't decide to be a professor. So in the end, try everything, don't limit yourself, see what there is to see and find what you enjoy. I assume you are just starting a Bachelor's, in which case you have plenty of time to figure out what you ultimately want to do. And again I highly recommend looking into some sort of dual physics-engineering degree, and most universities allow you to be "exploratory" in the beginning anyway, so you can try some physics and engineering classes and see if you like them.

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There are nowadays many engineering study courses, where the bachelor degree is more or less a set of physics courses (e.g. nanostructure engineering, quantum sensing,... to name some from german universities). A real specialization of the students can happen then in the master courses, if the students chooses strong enginnering/economics-oriented courses, which a physics student is unlikely to want and be able to choose.

Also, you can explain to your parents that the difference from a later job perspective point of view is small if you wait until the bachelor degree, if they don't want you to become exacly an engineer for developing hydrogen-driven cars from the first semester on. Of course, an engineer is normally much more specialized than an physicist and has often a higher job-security and salary when entering the job market after graduation, but long-term this mantra doesn't hold true anymore because we are now in the age of exponential technological progress where the ability to self-teach new things will become the new mantra, life-long learning. And a physicist is often much better educated for this due to broader and more fundamental science study courses. At least in academia you can spot many PhD physicists being a professor at an engineering institute.

But, if not many of the old-fashioned engineering jobs (electrical/machine) are overtaken by machines/machine-learning/industry 4.0 processes in some years/decades is an open question. You can have a long discussion with your parents to analyse their risk vs. return of invest in financing you and this is of course a legitimate question/concern they have, when attending an university costs them ten's to hundred's of thousands living cost and study fees for you.

My argument would be that only after the bachelor degree the decisision can and is to be made if you like more engineering/physics and if you would be a better engineer/physicist. You only become personally and financially successful in your job if you like it. Honestly, I think even you cannot know this now for sure as an initial interest in fundamental questions/physics can turn around during your studies in the direction of applied physics due to bad/very competitive job perspectives in fundamental phyiscs you weren't aware of or loosing totally interest in e.g. particle physics/astrophysics which happened for many of my colleagues who studied with me and work now in programming/finance.

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Do some more theoretical or mathematical engineering. But still do the engineering. It gives you job/industry options but you can also do research. Even the academic salaries and competition are more reasonable in engineering, because they have to compete with industry.

Else we will see a thread from you a few years from now talking about postdoc hell. Father knows best.

  • There's no such thing as theoretical engineering. Only different forms of fixing machines. – Horváth Ármin Apr 14 at 18:04
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    @HorváthÁrmin That is extremely untrue. Consider, for instance, control theory, or information theory, or operations research. These are more maths focused than physics, but there's plenty of basic physics research going on in most engg. departments as well - fluids in ME/ChE, semiconductors and classical emag in EE, lots of solid state stuff in material science, lots of nuke stuff, fundamental study of QMech in Quantum information etc etc. Take a more informed, less narrow view of things, and be pragmatic towards your situation instead of only being frustrated with it. – stochasticboy321 Apr 14 at 18:21
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    @Horváth Ármin Look, it might be difficult to digest this, but it really seems like you have no idea what engineering is. Instead, you have prejudices, and you've come here asking for confirmation of your prejudices, one of which seems to be that engineers are repair technicians. – AndrejaKo Apr 14 at 18:21
  • Because no could prove to me,that engineers indeed use physics! – Horváth Ármin Apr 14 at 18:26
  • @HorváthÁrmin What whould that proof look like? What would it take to convince you? – wwarriner May 29 at 18:01
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This situation is kind of what I experienced the year I was about to enter the university, and your words strike a chord in my heart. I used to hold opinions very similar to what you expressed regarding physics and engineering. However, I believe you are somehow mistaken. The short answers is that your picture of what engineering and physics are about, is at best exaggerated and depends on fields.

You are right to remark that engineering is impossible were it not for our knowledge of physics. The microwave engineering is based on Maxwell equations. The circuit theory is built on Kirchhoff laws of current and voltage. The semiconductor device fabrication depends on semiconductor physics. And the list need not go on, and you can supply yourself.

But conversely, physics research is also impossible without resolving practical concerns, and without fixing things, to quote your phrase. You may think you want to learn the purest things only, and the most basic law of nature, but they only make up a small portion of the vast knowledge of physical science. The study of EM waves does not finish the moment Maxwell equations are written down. The models of EM wave in the outdoors, in the sea, or in the rain, are different. And that provides model of communication channel, and help you receiving signal with better quality when you browse Stack Exchange.

Similarly, chemistry does not stop with Schrödinger's Equation. Beyond Lithium, the wave function of electron has no closed form. They are approximated by molecular orbital, and even that is resorted to numerical simulation. By simulation we mean programming and debugging, another example of practical matters.

Take the magnificent example of the photo of black hole M87 shot recently by the event horizon telescope. Now you may think that to be the pinnacle of the purest physical science: We know something new about the universe, not being utilitarian, not doing engineering, not involving any boring, dirty work. But it is not. The research team has to deal with circuits of the telescope, signal processing of the noise, complexity of the algorithm used, not to mention working within the restriction of budget. All of these are engineering.

Your picture of physics and engineering are not mutually exclusive, but are largely overlapping and inseparable. The deeper you learn, the harder to divide the fields by simple terms. Perhaps it is best to call them only by the one old noun, science. Science is the study of the real world, and that need not only theory, but also practice. As theory and practice work in tandem, human knowledge makes progess, however small, however time consuming and laborously.

Now there are surely consequences of finance and of family relationships if you study physics anyway, for which there is very little we people on S.E. can do. We are in no position to "recommend" which department you had better enroll in. We can only provide you a wider perspective of what physics and engineering are like, and you must trade off the two options by yourself.

Nevertheless, I have some words to remind you. If you are determined to study physics, having supposedly conquered difficulties as above, you are likely still have to learn, and do "engineering" in the end. Or if you, unfortunately, relent and end up getting the engineering degree, you might not be as far from the "physics" as you now think. No matter what you study, learn the subjects thoroughly, make friends in that area, and constantly reassess the present view of yours. In the end, if you keep working diligently, keep being honest to your heart, and keep revising your picture, you will most certainly find the career suitable to you, regardless where you have started. You may think of the path integral as an analogy: You take any reasonable path, and end up in the predetermined finish point, which you shall not know (nor we) by now, but here, I do wish you all the best luck.

  • Thank you! But still,I see engineering as terribly boring,and I can't be relaxed,knowing that a boring path waits for me. Applying physics is not really doing physics at all,in my opinion. Machines and all that,is what I see as something,that crashes my motivation. – Horváth Ármin Apr 14 at 18:14
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    @HorváthÁrmin all of the most famous physicists who discovered the foundational equations like Maxwell, Newton, Faraday, Kelvin, etc. also "applied" their work and did experiments themselves. The distinction between theory and application is artificial, you should not strive to be one or the other but to both have theoretical and practical knowledge. You should look into experimental physics work or condensed matter physics. If a theoretical physicist doesn't understand how to test or apply their theory then it's a rather useless theory. – Kai Apr 14 at 18:32
  • Still,I haven't seen a good proof which shows me that an engineer actually uses physics. People want me to believe it,but are not presenting proofs. – Horváth Ármin Apr 14 at 19:47
  • "I can't be relaxed,knowing that a boring path waits for me" Then make it not boring by working on projects and doing research that excites you. – wwarriner May 29 at 18:02

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