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Q & A: Wanting to get paid? Thinking physics?

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Most recent answer: 10/22/2007
I have a double major in philosophy and English and work as a technical editor. I’m currently taking night classes in math, with great success, and plan to go back to college for a B.S. degree in physics. One of my goals is to learn how the world works, mathematically and conceptually; however, another goal is to prepare myself for a well-paying career in the sciences. I’m worried that if I major in physics, I’ll regret following my heart at the expense of earning a more "marketable" and "applicable" degree, such as a B.S. in Electrical or Mechanical Engineering. I’ve seen some job ads that require a degree in "physics/E.E.," but many just say "E.E." What do you think? Will a B.S. in physics carry enough weight (and educate me enough) for me to get a job in the field of engineering if I so choose?
- David Graham (age 30)
Sacramento, CA, USA
David -

I like to believe that you can make anything out of your life that you want, so long as you're willing to work hard for it. In your case, it sounds to me like your biggest difficulty in finding any job is going to be overqualification, if anything. In the end, though, I think your chances of finding a good job in engineering based solely on a physics degree are going to depend mostly on three things:

(1) What area of engineering you're looking to be involved with. For example, a degree in physics will put you in better stead if you are looking for a job in applied mechanics than in computer science.

(2) Where you choose to focus your physics education. For example, if you decide to place your emphasis on theoretical particle physics, you probably won't have as much success in finding a directly related career in industry as if you choose to focus on an area like fluid mechanics, however the mathematical and reasoning skills you develop in either case will be very useful for almost any career you choose.

(3) How much patience you have during your job search.

All in all, though, I think it's most important for you to consider what exactly you want to do and how you plan to accomplish it. Once you know what area of engineering you want to focus on, you can determine what skills are going to be important. So long as you ensure that you develop those skills (and make sure your potential employers know you have done so!), it won't matter as much what is written on the piece of paper that is your degree.

Think of physics as the foundation upon which you will build the specific career you are interested in.


(published on 10/22/2007)

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