The Physics- Engineering Debate

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The Physics- Engineering Debate


Sean Bentley, Director, Society of Physics Students and Sigma Pi Sigma

The author in transition… wearing his engineering honor society shirt while working in an ultrafast optics lab during his PhD training.

Thanks largely to popular media, there is a misconception that physicists never consider anything of practical concern. Meanwhile, engineers (while badly represented by the media in their own right) are credited with making our day-to-day lives better. Along with this is the mistaken view that if you study physics your only employable options are a PhD or high school teaching, whereas the fast road to a lucrative career is a degree in engineering.

When selecting a major, I heard similar things, even from those whom we expect to trust for advice, such as high school guidance counselors. Thus as someone who wanted to work at NASA as soon as possible, I started my degree in electrical engineering. After a few semesters of pragmatic courses and an internship at my hometown utility company, I knew I was more drawn to the fundamental questions than developing a product, process, or network. I took as much quantum, solid state, electromagnetics, and optics as I could. As I was still under the illusion that a physics degree was not the route to a career, I continued on my original path, but happily added a physics minor. The hook then became fully set, and I completed my PhD and became a physics professor.

But what of the advice I was given? Over the years, I have interacted with a large number of people like me who migrated from engineering into physics, and an even larger group who started in physics and now work in engineering. The line between these fields is much more blurry than many would have you believe. I’ve heard it said that everything starts as physics, and if it is useful it is claimed by engineering. While this is an oversimplification, there is some truth here. All engineering is based on fundamentals often developed in physics. Science truly does drive innovation.

While some research may not seem to have any immediately obvious applications, many physicists are working on problems that could well be applicable to engineering within years if not less. The tools developed by engineers in turn allow physicists to probe more deeply and accurately. At the edge of high-tech, scientists and engineers often work side by side and can be hard to distinguish. As for employment possibilities, our own Career Pathways data shows that many students go directly from a bachelors in physics into the workforce, and often find jobs in engineering.

Whether you want to work in pure physics research, engineering, or something completely unrelated, rest assured that studying physics will teach you to think creatively and solve complex problems—two of the most needed skills for many jobs, and ultimately for navigating life. //

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