Young Person Decisions

  • Imagine you are sipping tea or coffee while discussing various issues with a broad and diverse network of students, colleagues, and friends brought together by the common bond of physics, graduate school, and the physics GRE.

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Joined: Mon Nov 23, 2015 8:29 am

Young Person Decisions

Post by Caterina » Mon Nov 23, 2015 8:46 am

Hello all,
I'm a first year BSc Physics student debating the common question of Physics vs Engineering - do I switch or do I stay?
I like physics, but I wouldn't say it is my One True Passion, because a lot of things appeal to me. Economic prosperity is a life goal for me, not the most important, not at all, but it's important enough so that I would feel comfortable accepting the differences between the two subjects for the sake of a stable future.
My university is not prestigious at all, so my university name won't advantage me in that respect (other forums seemed to think the school was more important than the subject, I'm not disagreeing, but it doesn't apply to me). It seems like physics graduates have two options, research or industry/banking. Since I'm not going to do research (if I can avoid a masters, I will), then which degree is more suited to my goals?
I don't know what I want to be 'when I grow up', so some have suggested physics as it's got a much broader career range. However, in which circumstance would a company hire a physicist over someone specialised in the job? When predicting trends, wouldn't they go for the statistics graduate? When designing high performance cars, wouldn't they choose the materials engineer or the automotive engineer?
I don't have a 'One True Calling/Passion', so "do what you love" isn't a helpful answer.

What is more valuable to a person like me?

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Re: Young Person Decisions

Post by TakeruK » Mon Nov 23, 2015 12:30 pm

This is a tough question! I think it's also especially tough for a person in their first year to answer because a first year BSc student typically does not have a ton of exposure to either! When I was a first year BSc student, I had no intention of going to graduate school and didn't even understand what scientists actually do. For example, I had no idea you get paid for grad school and what a research career would even be like. I'm not saying that you should go into research, but I am just normalizing that many people change their minds during their undergraduate degree.

I also do not think that the only things that Physics BSc holders can do are research or industry/banking. Well, "industry" is a very wide term that can cover a lot of things! To be honest though, I am not very well versed in non-academic options after a BSc because I have not looked into it very much. In my 3rd year of undergrad, I decided I wanted to apply to grad schools. But I know my undergraduate Physics program (UBC) offers an "career night" where they talk to new second year students about declaring a physics major and what career opportunities exist. I found the website where they have the information they presented:

My understanding is that a BSc in a field usually does not mean you will be hired to a be specialist in that field. If they wanted a physics expert, they would be hiring a Physics PhD, not a Physics BSc. However, the value your BSc will bring is that you are trained in critical thinking and quantitative analysis. Having a Physics BSc comes with a bonus that you are particularly good at quantitative analysis and that you have experience applying your knowledge to physics and that you have a good intuition and sense of the physical world. To use one of your examples, if a company wanted to analyze trends and they already have well designed statistical tools, they don't need a statistics graduate. A physics BSc can easily learn and understand these tools. A Physics BSc would be able to take a problem, break it down into its parts, examine the assumptions and decide which statistical tool is the right one for the job. With further training, they might even be able to come up with new protocols and tools as well. The company might hire a statistician for more complicated tasks and development (or maybe a company doesn't have the funds to hire such a person and would hire a Physics BSc instead).

I think one really important thing to remember is that your training doesn't end with your BSc. Companies hire university graduates because they are smart and they are good learners. Companies will expect you to be able to learn how they do things and develop additional skills and experience. So, when looking at career paths with a BSc, don't think of it as "What will I learn from school that will help me" because for example, learning quantum mechanics isn't going to help you become an Air Traffic Controller (one of the careers on the linked list). Instead, it's not about the content of the material you are learning, but the general skills you are developing.


Okay, that was mostly to clear up some potential misunderstandings about what you can do with a BSc. I encourage you to go to department open houses and talk to faculty members in both departments about career options. Also, undergraduate is the time to experiment and try different things. You don't need to have a "One True Calling" yet, because you're just in your first year. You might still find that later on.

But it sounds like you will have to make the decision of Physics vs Engineering really soon. Maybe before you can find the "one true calling". I guess that's the tough part. I am a Physics student so that's where my experience was (and I wrote a lot already above). Maybe someone else can chime in with an engineering background?

If not, my two quick thoughts are: 1) If you are certain that you don't want to do graduate school, I think a BASc (an engineering degree in Canada, not sure what it's called elsewhere) makes you a lot more employable than a BSc. And 2) if you really cannot decide, you could consider an Engineering Physics program. At UBC, the Engineering Physics and Physics programs are actually very similar---a lot of the Engineering Physics courses count towards Physics if you decide to switch later. However, the engineering physics program at UBC was much more intense than the physics program!! That said, a lot of Engineering Physics graduates went on to do things that a Physics BSc would traditionally do (e.g. grad school in Physics, jobs in Physics) etc. So, if this is a program that exists at your school and you are interested in it, you could give it a try.

Otherwise, I strongly recommend talking to people in both departments and then making a choice. It might feel like you are closing opportunities, but really, you have many more years of undergraduate work ahead to learn a lot more and find more experiences. Both programs can lead to prosperity and happiness later in life :)

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